There was a benign place of refuge for music-lovers of the late 1950s from the clash and wail of rock and roll—popular music.
Perry Como, Mitch Miller, Patti Page. Not exactly something which fit the mould of car-radio rock like Jerry Lee Lewis or Buddy Holly. And for those who wanted something even more tranquil, there was always the instrumental sound of Mantovani, the Jackie Gleason Orchestra—and Roger Williams.
Williams died today of pancreatic cancer at age 87. See his New York Times obit.
There was a time you couldn’t get away from him. He churned out 10 albums in 15 months as Kapp Records’ meal-ticket by October 1957 and had sold a million. That doesn’t include sales of 45s. And he never stopped. Over the years, he seems to have covered music in every genre with his relaxed and inoffensive sound. He appeared on ‘Ed Sullivan’ and other TV shows with straight-forward performances minus glittery costumes or a tendency to mix Chopin with ’76 Trombones.’ No Liberace he.
Williams was a perfect match for radio stations that turned to the easy listening format in the 1960s, with not-quite-high-brow, sentimental tunes for candlelight and wine that were far more elevated than elevator music. But he also studied with Teddy Wilson and had a bachelor’s in engineering.
My instrumental musical tastes run closer to Roger Roger than Roger Williams, but there’s no disputing he was a hardy annual with a strong and steady fan base.
As I’m apt to do, I’ve dug around for an old newspaper column from early in Williams’ fame. Bob Thomas has spent decades as an Associated Press columnist, writing first about movies and radio, and then TV. Thomas seems to have interviewed everyone and I wish a collection of his interviews was available. Here’s his little nugget that took up part of his column of November 18, 1957, a week after an appearance on the Sullivan show.
NEW YORK (AP)— Hollywood in Manhattan—
Roger Williams, sensation of the record and concert field, can look back to the time when he literally lived on peanuts in Los Angeles.
“It was during the war,” says the handsome, 31-year-old pianist. “I left Iowa for California, partly because of asthma and partly to study under a concert teacher. I got a job playing piano at night at a Lacienega restaurant for $50 a week. But I had to buy a car to get there, pay for my lessons and rent for a room in Inglewood.
“I could count on one square meal every week from a friend who had me to dinner on Sundays. In between, things were pretty lean. Some days I’d get by on peanuts alone. Lots of nutrition in peanuts.”
Meals are no longer a concern for Roger. His record of “Autumn Leaves” sold 2,600,000, and three of his albums were recently on the best-seller list. His concerts, which he plays longhair as well as pop numbers, are sell-outs. He’s a steady guest star on the TV variety shows.
He wears success well. Born in Omaha, he grew up in Des Moines, where his father was minister of the largest United Lutheran Church in the United States. Roger’s life has been a peculiar balance — between playing the organ in his father’s church and starring on the boxing team, taking a degree in engineering and devoting his life to music.
Up Hard Way
Married and the father of two girls, Roger practices 8 to 10 hours a day in a room-within-a-room in the basement of his New York home. He came up the hard way, via bars, night clubs and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.
How did his father feel about his playing in drinking joints? Roger asked him once. His father's reply:
“You take care of them on Saturday night, and I’ll take care of them on Sunday.”
If you could look out my living room window, you would see something that’s a fitting reminder of Roger Williams’ talent. On the ground below are autumn leaves.