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Famed Pianist Roger Williams Remembered

  • Doug Levine

Famed pianist Roger Williams died recently in Los Angeles, California after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 87.



Williams’ piano solos were heard just about everywhere, from elevators and doctors’ offices, to prestigious concert halls and the White House. He was nicknamed the “Pianist to the Presidents,” having performed for nine U.S. leaders, beginning with Harry S. Truman who requested classical pieces by Bach and Ravel.

Williams was born Louis Wertz in Omaha, Nebraska. Moving with his family to Des Moines, Iowa, he began playing piano in his father’s church at age three. He majored in piano at Drake University, and after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he moved to New York to study at Julliard with jazz great Teddy Wilson.

While in New York, Williams agreed to accompany a singer in the nationally-televised talent show “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” When the singer failed to show, he performed a solo piano arrangement of “I Got Rhythm” and won the contest. He was signed to Kapp Records and soon shot to stardom with his 1955 recording of “Autumn Leaves.”

Williams’ version of “Autumn Leaves” was a Number One hit for four weeks and remains the only piano instrumental to reach the top position on Billboard’s pop chart. The magazine named him the top-selling piano recording artist of all time.

Although he was trained in blues, classical and jazz music, Williams was best-known for his interpretations of pop standards. Other hits included “Beyond The Sea,” “Almost Paradise” and “Till,” as well as the Top 10 singles “Near You” and “Born Free.”

Williams was the first pianist to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Last February, at age 86, he appeared in a tribute concert for the late Ronald Reagan.

A champion of music education, Williams once said, “It’s important for children to be exposed to the classics before they grow up and miss the opportunity to acquire an appreciation of it.”

Pianist Roger Williams died at his home in California on October 8.

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