Interview: ROGER WILLIAMS - The Man With the Golden Piano

    icon Jan 11, 2007
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As with all great artists who become legends within their lifetime, it is not unusual for the massive body of their work to become the fodder of trivia.  So here's a trivia question for you:  Who is the greatest selling pianist in the history of recorded music?  

If you answer Liberace, Gershwin, Bernstein, Elton John, Victor Borge, or Chick Corea, you will be wrong.

Named the greatest selling pianist in history by Billboard Magazine, Roger Williams has an astonishing 18 Gold & Platinum albums to his credit.  At the age of 82, he still jogs 3-miles a day 5 days a week when he isn't touring or doing benefits for children's organizations, which he exhibits a strong passion for.

Recently he performed for 14-and-a-half hours straight in Las Vegas for a marathon shedding light on the importance of music education in schools.

When Williams first burst onto the pop music scene in 1955, he recorded one of the classic piano ballads of all time - Autumn Leaves; and when that song became the only piano instrumental to ever have reached Number One on the Billboard single charts (his version still stands as the greatest selling piano recording of all time) more memorable music still followed.

Back in 1966 when I was all of 11-years old, my parents took me to The Temple Theatre to see a film called Born Free.  That song became William's second most memorable composition, and with its majestic glissandos of expression, also inspired this author to want to start taking piano lessons.

But I digress. Perhaps you recall other memorable melodies in the Williams' lexicon - The Impossible Dream, Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago, or more recently, Somewhere in Time. 

In 2004 Roger released his 116th album on Universal, The Best of Roger Williams, 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection.   Now, 40-years after the release of Born Free, as the fortunes of fate would have it, Williams is returning to the splendor of a freshly restored Temple Theatre on Saturday, January 20th, at 8:00 PM. Only unlike 1966, this time around his remarkable phrasing will be heard not on celluloid, but in the flesh.

A graduate of I.S.U. Drake University and the Julliard School of Music, Williams first played the piano when he was only three years of age. Apart from performing every major venue in the world, including Carnegie Hall and The Hollywood Bowl. He has performed at The White House for eight chief executives, earning him the title of 'Pianist to the Presidents.' 

As if such a resume were not enough, hold on to your seats, because there is more. His recent television specials for PBS brought in more than a million dollars in viewer contributions and he is also the first pianist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Better yet, he is also the first (and so far only) artist to receive a solid Gold Steinway piano, which Steinway ships while he's on the road (and, Williams' tells me, will be here in Saginaw) for the Steinway Lifetime Achievement Award.  Obviously, he was also the featured pianist for Steinway's 150th Anniversary Celebration.

Designed in an art deco style, lyrics to the first verse of Autumn Leaves decorates the piano's perimeter, with falling autumn leaves appearing between each line of the verse.

Exhausted from reading the litany of accomplishments that have both decorated & defined his life, little did I realize what a wise hipster and graciously mirthful soul Roger Williams would turn out to be.

In this instance, it is best to let the words, rather than the music, explain itself.

The Piano & the Pen

Martin: Mr. Williams, I must tell you what a thrill it is to talk with you. Back when I was in the 5th Grade my parents took me to see the film version of 'Born Free' at the Temple Theatre, where you'll be performing, and that inspired me to learn the piano, which I've been playing for all of my life.

Williams:  Oh, well (laughter) it's a good thing you didn't pursue it more vigorously than you did, because I've got enough competition. In fact, Herbie Hancock and I were talking about that just the other day - all the unheard talent out there

Martin: Your press agent told me that you have over 10,000 songs dedicated to memory, so how do you remember that many songs? 

Williams: Let's just say that I have an instinctual ear for remembering music. If I hear a song once, usually I can nail it the first time around.  Unfortunately, I do not have that same instinct when it comes to golf.

Plus, and this may sound strange, I think my gift for memory developed from an experiment I tried many years ago.  I went through this period where after a really strong show I would make extensive notes each day of what I ate before that show, did I have sex, what did I eat, thinking the next time I wanted to play a great concert, I would do the same thing and follow that 'recipe'. Mainly, it comes down to my core philosophy, which is 'Force Yourself'. If I wrote a book, that's what it would be titled.

Martin: Apparently you also started playing when you were 3-years old. Do you remember how you first got interested in music?

Williams:  (Editor's Note: At this juncture, I can hear Williams tinkling on the piano from his California home, and realize he's on a speakerphone).  
Well, I've always been nebulous about all religious beliefs, which does not mean I don't believe in God, but around the age of three I started picking out melodies with one finger on the piano, much to the disbelief of all those around me.

I was given a gift, if you will; or a blessing and a curse, depending on your point of view.

But over the years I've realized how lucky I have been in life.  And luck is hard to explain.  Why just the other day I received this most beautiful note from Chick Corea, so I also consider myself lucky to have such talented friends.

Martin: Well, when you conceive or pick out these melodies, does it come to you emotionally, or do you spend much time thinking about it?

Williams:  Take the song you mentioned, Born Free.  The inspiration for that came when I did a performance at the Toledo Outdoor Dome, which was right next to the Zoo.  During the performance, these lions started roaring, so I though if I could mimic that sound, it would be a great way to start a song.  Mainly, to answer your question, it depends on how I try to make the piano sound.

Martin:  So tell me the story behind this Gold Steinway, you really take it on the road with you? What does it weigh?

Williams:  I have no idea, because it also has a cast iron plate. Every time I go somewhere it's boxed and transported; but once I remember doing a show where the truck got stuck in a snowstorm, so Steinway had to send a second truck at $5,000 to transport it.

Martin: You've also performed for eight sitting U.S. Presidents, which must be really something. Which one's impressed you the most?

Williams:  Two years ago I saluted my 80th birthday with President Jimmy Carter, who was born on the same day as me. I played 13-and-a-half hours with Carter by my side at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. That was very special.  Though I wished they had cut a hole in the bench I was sitting at!

I also had a fondness for President Ford. He phoned me not too long before his recent passing.  Actually, I remember performing in the White House for Nixon the night he announced that he wanted to make Gerry Ford his Vice-Presidential nominee to take over for Agnew.  Of course, Ford pardoned Nixon, which cooked his goose for good. But I always respected him because if he had not pardoned him, Watergate would have consumed this country for ten more years at least.

Martin: Are there any contemporary artists or pianists you feel are carrying on the tradition of performance that you helped pioneer?

Williams: Oh, there are so many. But what I'm really noticing is how many Orientals are surfacing as top-notch pianists.  I believe this is because their parents make them practice and their family units are very strong. It goes back to my motto, 'Force Yourself'. You can't preach about music, you have to play it. Now if you go to Iran you'll find parents teaching their kids to blow stuff up; but mainly, you can't follow any set rules. You have to figure your own way.

Some kids in the United States grow up and it's all about dope. They say their friends take it and they get high and create. Personally, I've never done dope. I'm not interested. But I remember Art Tatum, a relatively nameless pianist, who would start at 7 PM and play until 5 AM and consumed 27 beers and played better with each one. So again, you have to figure your own way.

I also remember Charlie Parker who was the most beautiful musician, simply remarkable. But he was hurt as a kid, so did dope to mask his pain; and I always think how sad it is that dope reduced his genius by taking him away from us so young.

But this reminds me of another saying I have, 'Take what you want out of life, but be willing to pay for it.'

Martin: So what is the most challenging thing about engendering a career of any longevity in the music business?

Williams: Forcing yourself.

Martin: Obviously, at the age of 82, you must be in relatively good health, performing all these marathon 14-hour sessions and touring constantly. Do you exercise a lot?

Williams: I jog three hours a day five days a week and hate vegetables.  But here I am at 82, my own worst critic, and it's scary to me. But I'll keep going as long as I can keep it going. Jack LaLane is 93 years old and came up with this vegetable juicer.  I bought one years ago and have followed his prescription.

Martin: Are there any performances or instances over the years that truly stand out in your mind in terms of career pinnacles that have been most gratifying for you personally?

Williams: I'll give you two. 

Recently I did seven concerts for The World of Tomorrow, which is Dr. Schuler's church and one of the most stunning cathedrals in the world. I did seven Christmas concerts there to raise money, and it was gratifying to help support the work they do for children around the world.

The boy scouts have a motto, 'Be Prepared'. When I performed Autumn Leaves it became the biggest selling piano song of all time. 

Years ago when I was in New York City, there was this young female singer by the name of Jane Morgan. They had three songs ready for her session, and I played Autumn Leaves on one of the tracks for her to sing.  It came out in 3-minutes and 6 seconds. Back then a D.J. would never play a song over 2:59. So we cut it again and 'wham', we hit the mark.

So again, if you hear it, be prepared. That's another good philosophy for life.


Roger Williams performs in concert as part of the 'Mainstage Series' at The Temple Theatre on Saturday, January 20th at 8 PM. Reserved seating is $22.00, $32.00, or $38.00 and available now at or by phoning 877-754-SHOW, or at the Temple Box Office.

Williams will also participate in the Temple's CLAP for Kids program - a four-part series Creating Love, Appreciation, and Patronage among children for the performing arts. On Friday, January 19th at 12:30 pm, Williams will share a rare glimpse of his career with students at the Temple. Cost is only $4.00 per student, which includes a study guide and classroom visit from an educational specialist. Parents are encouraged to contact their children's schools to request participation.

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