Roger Williams: Pianist whose'Autumn Leaves' topped the charts

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The Independent Online

Roger Williams was one of the world's best-sellingpianists. Less flamboyant than Liberace, he topped the US pop charts with "Autumn Leaves" in 1955 and recorded over 100albums. He was often derided as an Easy Listening pianist but he took his work seriously and always studied the lyric of a song so that he could determine how to play it. He would joke that he had taken elevator music to new heights.

Roger Williams was born Louis Jacob Weertz in Omaha, Nebraska in 1924, the only child of Frederick and Dorothea Weertz, but the family soon moved to Des Moines, Iowa. His father was a Lutheran minister and his mother a music teacher. He was a musical child, being able to play several songs on the piano or harmonica by the time he was five. His father had been a boxer and encouraged him to box but after he broke his nose he thought he would stick with music. He could play several instruments by his teens and he conducted his school orchestra.

He was in the US navy during the later years of the Second World War and then returned to Des Moines, where he completed a degree in engineering. In 1950, he acquired a master's degree in music from Drake University in Des Moines. He moved to New York and studied at Juilliard, where he was mentored by the jazz pianist Teddy Wilson.

He agreed to accompany a singer on the national TV show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts in 1952, and when the singer failed to arrive he played a piano solo and won. He won $1,000 on another TV show, Chance Of A Lifetime, hosted by Dennis James.

In 1954, David Kapp, the founder of Kapp Records, signed Williams but wanted him to move away from jazz. He told him to change his name, choosing Roger Williams, who had been the founder of Rhode Island. He made an album, The Boy Next Door, and then recorded "Autumn Leaves".

Joseph Kosma's "Les Feuilles Mortes" was very popular in France in 1950. The supreme lyricist, Johnny Mercer, added English words, so it became "Autumn Leaves". Williams liked the reference to falling leaves drifting by the window and he replicated it on the piano with descending arpeggios. His single sold two million copies and an album of the same name did well.

This led to several more hit singles including "Almost Paradise" (written by Buddy Holly's producer, Norman Petty), "Till" and "Near You", but it was with albums that Williams really scored. He made several LPs with titles like Roger Williams Plays All-Time Favourites and he would choose the most melodic chart songs or film songs for themed albums. In 1966, he had a surprise hit single in the US when his version of John Barry's theme for Born Free made the Top 10. Nowadays his work is mostly heard on compilations for Reader's Digest.

His live albums revealed a good sense of humour. Although not as flamboyant as Liberace, he made an album, The Solid Gold Steinway (1964), and in 2000, he played a 12-hour piano marathon at Steinway Hall in New York. In recent years, his famous piano has been loaned to museums. Williams was a regular touring attraction and had residencies at the MGM Grand and Tropicana in Las Vegas. He played at the White House for nine Presidents, becoming personal friends with Jimmy Carter.

Spencer Leigh

Louis Jacob Weertz (Roger Williams), pianist: born Omaha, Nebraska 1 October 1924; married and widowed twice (three children); died Los Angeles 8October 2011.