Roger Williams burst upon the music scene in 1955 when he recorded Autumn Leaves, the only piano instrumental recording to reach #1 on the Billboard singles charts. His version, with more than 2 million sold became an American classic and still stands as the greatest selling piano recording of all time.
Known as “Mr. Piano”, Roger Williams went on to receive 21 Gold and Platinum albums. He was the first pianist to receive a “Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame”, and was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
A “Steinway Artist”, Williams was the first pianist to receive the “Steinway Lifetime Achievement Award”. Williams was also the only pianist that Steinway & Sons honored by designing a series of pianos named after him, known as the “Roger Williams Limited Edition Gold Piano”.
As a featured artist in Steinway and Son’s 150th Anniversary at Carnegie Hall, Williams was introduced by Paul Schaffer who said, “his sweeping, sparkling arpeggios, fluid technique, and velvety smooth arrangements made him, according to Billboard Magazine, the greatest selling pianist in history”.
For four decades, Williams’ hits charted Billboard, including Born Free, Impossible Dream, Maria, Lara’s Theme, Till, Near You, Almost Paradise, Two Different Worlds, Nadia’s Theme, and Somewhere in Time. Over his career, Williams recorded over 100 albums, with 38 hit albums and 22 hit singles.
Included in his successes were the recordings Roger Williams Plays Your All-Time Favorites, as well as The Legendary Roger Williams a two-part CD, which became one of the biggest selling items for Reader’s Digest. They described Williams as, “undeniably one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century. His illustrious career in music is unparalleled.”
Roger Williams developed a blend of music inspired by the classics of Chopin, Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and contemporary composers. Music historian, Joseph Lanza, has recognized Williams for cultivating “a flair for making dramatic sweeps from classical to jazz to country to soft rock-and-roll” establishing him as “the greatest popular pianist in history”.
Roger Williams was born Louis Weertz on October 1, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska. The son of a music teacher, Williams began playing the piano when he was three years old, played 13 instruments by 12, and could play anything by ear. His father, a Lutheran minister and former professional boxer, taught Williams to box because he felt a preacher’s son who was also a musician would be taunted by his peers. As a teen, Williams played at a restaurant for $6 a night and all the spaghetti he could eat. He also had a radio show alongside young “Dutch” Ronald Reagan, and in the summers, he worked as a lumberjack in Minnesota.
Williams joined the Navy during WWII and was voted by his peers their “Man of Warsman“, one of Williams’ proudest achievements. There he also acquired a degree in engineering and a boxing award, but after breaking his nose several times, returned to music. He was a graduate of Idaho State University, Drake University, and Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson.
Williams’ first big break arrived when he won two popular radio performing contests, “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” and “Chance of a Lifetime”. Many nightclub bookings followed. In 1954, he signed a recording contract with David Kapp who insisted he take the stage name, Roger Williams (a name derived from the founder of Rhode Island). With only a weekend to prepare, Williams composed an arrangement of Autumn Leaves to record. The first recording attempt was over the three minute ‘radio limit’. Kapp asked Williams to play the thirds a little faster, so his second recording hit the mark at 2:59 minutes. Autumn Leaves was #1 for four weeks and in the top 40 for over 6 months.
Williams performed with nearly every major symphony orchestra and at every major venue, including Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the White House. The latter earned him the title “Pianist to the Presidents“, having played for nine chief executives, from Truman to Bush. Williams’ last White House performance was a concert for Laura Bush and the wives of all our foreign ambassadors.
Doctorates and honors came in volumes and Williams’ accomplishments have been read into the Congressional Record and included in various Presidential Diaries. His public television specials raised millions of dollars for PBS and for KOCE-TV, who filmed at the Nixon Library and officially re-named him and the show, “Pianist to the Presidents”.
Beginning on his 75th birthday, Williams began annual Piano Marathons, where he would play continually for 14 hours his improvised medleys of the songs requested from his audiences. Williams could play over 10,000 melodies by ear and loved to please his audience by knowing their favorite songs. His marathon venues included the Ronald Reagan Library, Richard Nixon Library, The Jimmy Carter Library (where Williams and Former President Jimmy Carter celebrated together their mutual 80th birthdays), Steinway Halls in New York and Scottsdale, and his last in 2010 at the Musical Instrument Museum. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger honored Williams with the “Champion of Youth Award” for promoting the return of music education to the schools at his marathons.
In February 2011, Williams performed at the Ronald Reagan Centennial Concert at The Reagan Library. Williams said he was “playing better than ever”, but later that month he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While on chemotherapy, he performed his last concert in Palm Desert, California. During his illness, Williams released two new recordings, Roger Williams, The Man They Call ‘Mr.Piano’ and Roger Williams Golden Inspirational Hymns. On October 8, 2011, a week after his 87th birthday, and only seven months after his diagnosis, Roger Williams succumbed to his illness.
Despite his passing, Roger Williams’ legacy will carry on forever through the timeless, beautiful music he left us. Roger Williams was truly “Mr. Piano” and without a doubt, a treasured American music legend.