Updated: January 15, 2020
JOHN WILLIAMS (MUSIC COMPOSER)
"A Tribute to John Williams - Music Composer"
As one of the best known, awarded, and financially successful composers in
US history, John Williams is as easy to recall as John Philip Sousa, Aaron
Copland or Leonard Bernstein, illustrating why he is "America's composer"
time again. With a massive list of awards that includes over 41 Oscar
nominations (five wins), twenty-odd Gold and Platinum Records, and a slew of
Emmy (two wins), Golden Globe (three wins), Grammy (18 wins), National Board
of Review (including a Career Achievement Award), Saturn (six wins), and
BAFTA (seven wins) citations, along with honorary doctorate degrees numbering
in the teens, Williams is undoubtedly one of the most respected composers for
He's led countless national and international orchestras, most notably as the
nineteenth conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980-1993, helming three
Pops tours of the US and Japan during his tenure. He currently serves as the
Pop's Conductor Laureate. Also to his credit is a parallel career as an author
of serious, and some not-so-serious, concert works - performed by the likes of
Mstislav Rostropovich, André Previn, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham,
Leonard Slatkin, James Ingram, Dale Clevenger, and Joshua Bell. Of particular
interests are his Essay for Strings, a jazzy Prelude & Fugue, the multimedia
presentation American Journey (aka The Unfinished Journey (1999)), a Sinfonietta
for Winds, a song cycle featuring poems by Rita Dove, concerti for flute, violin,
clarinet, trumpet, tuba, cello, bassoon and horn, fanfares for the 1984, 1988 and
1996 Summer Olympics, the 2002 Winter Olympics, and a song co-written with Alan &
Marilyn Bergman for the Special Olympics! But such a list probably warrants a more
Born in Long Island, New York on February 8, 1932, John Towner Williams discovered
music almost immediately, due in no small measure to being the son of a percussionist
for CBS Radio and the Raymond Scott Quintet. After moving to Los Angeles in 1948, the
young pianist and leader of his own jazz band started experimenting with arranging
tunes; at age 15, he determined he was going to become a concert pianist; at 19, he
premiered his first original composition, a piano sonata.
He attended both UCLA and the Los Angeles City College, studying orchestration under
MGM musical associate Robert van Eps and being privately tutored by composer Mario
Castelnuovo-Tedesco, until conducting for the first time during three years with the
U.S. Air Force. His return to the states brought him to Julliard, where renowned piano
pedagogue Madame Rosina Lhevinne helped Williams hone his performance skills. He played
in jazz clubs to pay his way; still, she encouraged him to focus on composing. So it
was back to L.A., with the future maestro ready to break into the Hollywood scene.
Williams found work with the Hollywood studios as a piano player, eventually accompanying
such fare such as the TV series "Peter Gunn" (1958), South Pacific (1958), Some Like It Hot
(1959), The Apartment (1960), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), as well as forming a
surprising friendship with Bernard Herrmann. At age 24, 'Johnny Williams' became a staff
arranger at Columbia and then at 20th Century-Fox, orchestrating for Alfred Newman and
Lionel Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, and other Golden Age notables. In the field of
popular music, he performed and arranged for the likes of Vic Damone, Doris Day, and Mahalia
Jackson... all while courting actress/singer Barbara Ruick, who became his wife until her
death in 1974. John & Barbara had three children; their daughter is now a doctor, and their
two sons, Joseph and Mark, are rock musicians.
The orchestrating gigs led to serious composing jobs for television, notably "Alcoa Premiere"
(1961), "Checkmate" (1960), "Gilligan's Island" (1964), "Lost in Space" (1965), "Land of the
Giants" (1968), and his Emmy-winning scores for Heidi (1968) (TV) and Jane Eyre (1970). Daddy-O
(1959) and Because They're Young (1960) brought his original music to the big theatres, but he
was soon typecast doing comedies. His efforts in the genre helped guarantee his work on
William Wyler's How to Steal a Million (1966), however, a major picture that immediately led to
larger projects. Of course, his arrangements continued to garner attention, and he won his first
Oscar for adapting Fiddler on the Roof (1971).
During the '70s, he was King of Disaster Scores with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake
(1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974). His psychological score for Images (1972/I) remains one
of the most innovative works in soundtrack history. But his Americana - particularly The Reivers
(1969) - is what caught the ear of director Steven Spielberg, then preparing for his first feature,
The Sugarland Express (1974). When Spielberg reunited with Williams on Jaws (1975), they established
themselves as a blockbuster team, the composer gained his first Academy Award for Original Score,
and Spielberg promptly recommended Williams to a friend, George Lucas. In 1977, John Williams
re-popularized the epic cinema sound of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, and other composers
from the Hollywood Golden Age: Star Wars (1977) became the best selling score-only soundtrack of
all time, and spawned countless musical imitators. For the next five years, though the music in
Hollywood changed, John Williams wrote big, brassy scores for big, brassy films - The Fury (1978),
Superman (1978), 1941 (1979), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) ... An experiment during this period,
Heartbeeps (1981), flopped. There was a long-term change of pace, nonetheless, as Williams fell in
love with an interior designer and married once more.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) brought about his third Oscar, and The River (1984), Empire of the
Sun (1987), The Accidental Tourist (1988), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) added variety to the
1980s, as he returned to television with work on Amazing Stories and themes for NBC, including NBC
Nightly News. The '80s also brought the only exceptions to the composer's collaboration with Steven
Spielberg - others scored both Spielberg's segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and The
Color Purple (1985).
Intending to retire, the composer's output became sporadic during the 1990s, particularly after the
exciting Jurassic Park (1993) and the masterful, Oscar-winning Schindler's List (1993). This
lighter workload, coupled with a number of hilarious references on "The Simpsons" (1989) actually
seemed to renew interest in his music. Two Home Alone films (1990, 1992), JFK (1991), Nixon
(1995), Sleepers (1996), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Angela's Ashes
(1999), and a return to familiar territory with Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
(1999) recalled his creative diversity of the '70s.
In this millennium, the artist shows no interest in slowing down. His relationships with Spielberg
and Lucas continue in Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001), the remaining Star Wars prequels (2002,
2005), Minority Report (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and a promised fourth Indiana Jones film.
There is a more focused effort on concert works, as well, including a theme for the new Walt
Disney Concert Hall and a rumored light opera. But one certain highlight is his musical magic for
the world of Harry Potter (2001, 2002, 2004, etc.), which he also arranged into a concert suite
geared toward teaching children about the symphony orchestra. His music remains on the whistling
lips of people around the globe, in the concert halls, on the promenades, in album collections,
sports arenas, and parades, and, this writer hopes, touching some place in ourselves. So keep those
ears ready wherever you go, 'cause you will likely hear a bit of John Williams on your way.