Pianist Roger Williams' sweeping, sparkling arpeggios, showy technique, and gentle easy listening arrangements made him one of the most popular pop instrumentalists of the late '50s and '60s. Like many other easy listening musicians, he blurred the boundaries between pop, jazz, and classical, creating a smooth, relaxing hybrid. Between 1955 and 1972, he had 38 hit albums and 22 hit singles, including the number one hit "Autumn Leaves."
Williams (born Louis Weertz) began playing piano as a child, but he was lured into boxing while he was a high-school student. After suffering several injuries -- including breaking his nose a number of times -- he decided to turn his full attention to music, enrolling as a piano major at Drake University. As a student, he began playing hybrids of jazz, classical, and pop. A school official heard him playing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" in one of the university's practice rooms and expelled the young musician.
Following his expulsion, Williams joined the Navy, where he earned a B.A. in engineering. When his tenure in the Navy was finished, he went back to Drake and re-enrolled in the university. After a couple of years, he moved to Juilliard, where he studied under jazz pianists Lennie Tristano and Teddy Wilson.
Williams' first big break arrived when he was scheduled to provide accompaniment for a Juilliard vocalist on Arthur Godfrey & Talent Scouts 1946-50. The vocalist didn't appear at the show, leaving the pianist to play a solo spot. Dave Kapp, the head of Kapp Records, heard Williams on the show and was impressed. Kapp signed the pianist to a contract and changed his name from Louis Weertz to Roger Williams; the name derived from the founder of Rhode Island.
After releasing a few singles, Williams had his first hit with the arpeggio-laden "Autumn Leaves" in 1955. The single reached number one on the U.S. charts and began a streak of 22 hit singles that ran through 1969; he had two other Top Ten hits, "Near You" in 1958 and "Born Free" in 1966. Williams was equally successful on the album charts, racking up a total of 38 hit records between 1956 and 1972, including the Top Ten albums Songs of the Fabulous Fifties (1957), Till (1958), Maria (1962), and Born Free (1966).
Williams' audience faded away in the early '70s, but he continued to record into the '80s. He remained one of the most popular pianists of the postwar era. He was the first pianist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he played for every President of the United States between Harry Truman and Bill Clinton. Roger Williams died of complications from pancreatic cancer on October 8, 2011 in Los Angeles; he was 87 years old. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine