Roger Williams was "pianist to the presidents" from Eisenhower to Bush II, but, if you weren't at a White House gala, his lush orchestral gloop wasn't to everybody's taste. Nevertheless, he had a bunch of boffo easy-listening hits from "Beyond The Sea" to "Dr Zhivago", and he turned up often enough at SteynOnline for me to appreciate the role he played in the success of more than a few big songs - in this summer's John Barry special, for example, it was Roger Williams' recording of "Born Free" that made the movie theme a pop hit in America. If you have a copy of my book A Song For The Season, you'll know he had a key role in making "Autumn Leaves" not only his first major recording but also an American pop standard. It was a French poem with a tune by an emigrĂ© Hungarian until Lou Weertz came along:
That October, Roger Williams' version got to Number One and became one of the biggest-selling instrumental hits of all time, not bad for a fellow who only a couple of years earlier had been a lounge pianist at the Madison Hotel. One afternoon Dave Kapp of Kapp Records walked in, heard the background tinkling, and offered to sign the pianist on condition he change his name from Lou Weertz to "Roger Williams", the founder of Rhode Island, and thus, to Kapp's way of thinking, a name with broad appeal: Take a French surrealist poet, a Hungarian Jew, and a Nebraskan passing himself off as a New England settler, and you've got one coast-to-coast all-American hit.
Roger Williams played "Autumn Leaves" for the next 55 years before hearing "old winter's song". He died on October 8th at the age of 87. Rest in peace.