An Appreciation of John Williams

Today we toot a horn on behalf of composer John Williams (b. 1932).

There’s a tendency to mischaracterize Williams’ signficance in terms of “firsts”, suggesting his art as a harbinger of future cultural directions. “The First Orchestral Movie Composer with Name Recognition and Rock Star Status” kind of thing. Which A) isn’t quite true, and B) implies a second, a third, and so forth, to follow. I would that were so but fear quite the opposite. By the way, I am a movie geek of just the right age to be Williams’ precise fan base. I am roughly the age of the kids in Super Eight and Stranger Things. My friends and I had all of his soundtrack records. As a kid, I’d much sooner have played one of his scores than the stuff that was on the other kids’ turntables at the time, stuff like Michael Jackson and Kool & the Gang. So I’ll not gainsay that Williams attained a high water mark of popularity for artists in his field. But it also must be acknowledged that orchestral music is not now more popular than it has ever been, nor is it likely to be any time soon. Williams is often compared to composers like Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Well, those guys used to be considered POPULAR artists, not some rarified, elite ones, and the same with Rossini, Verdi, Gilbert and Sullivan, Mozart, Strauss, etc. Those guys enjoyed much more widespread appreciation among ordinary people in their day, per capita, if it can be believed. And that attitude seeped towards modern times. In Pretend It’s a City, Fran Lebowitz speaks of being a kid in New Jersey and watching a TV show hosted by Leonard Bernstein that presented concerts for young people. ORCHESTRAL concerts. And, hilariously, the organization that Williams used to front, the Boston Pops, was once just that: POPS. Popular art for regular people. Today, I find it kind of a hilarious misnomer. The average American now finds you an intolerable intellectual bore if you can speak beyond grunts. But this also goes to why I value him, and why I hope (but don’t happen to know) that he has inspired and seeded many up and comers to pick up the baton after he finally lays his down. There well may be some (and certainly I have many composer friends and acquaintances whose work I love, value, and respect), but my question has more to do with the cultivation and receptiveness of the audience.

Williams has both music and show business in his bones. His father, also John Williams (called “Johnny”), was a drummer and percussionist with the CBS Radio Orchestra and The Raymond Scott Quintet. The latter outfit (actually a sextette), also featured Bunny Berrigan, and was a unique ensemble that played “descriptive” jazz with a comic aspect that was later adapted for animated cartoons and paved the way for bands like that of Spike Jones. With this band, Johnny the Elder appeared in movies like Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) with Eddie Cantor, Tony Martin and Gypsy Rose Lee; Happy Landing (1938) with Sonja Henie, Ethel Merman, Don Ameche, and Cesar Romero; and the 1938 remake of Sally, Irene and Mary with Alice Faye, Tony Martin, and Fred Allen. He also played on Kate Smith’s radio show, and with bandleaders like Vincent Lopez, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey.

Both of Williams parents were New Englanders; Johnny the Younger was born in Flushing, Queens, though he spent some of his teenage years in Los Angeles. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War (assigned, thankfully, to play in bands), and was later trained at Julliard, playing piano in jazz clubs during his time in New York. In 1956 he married the delightful singer and actress Barbara Ruick, also from a show business family. Back in Los Angeles by the late ’50s, Williams initially worked as a session musician and orchestrator for soundtrack composers. He worked under some of the greats, guys like Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, and Elmer Bernstein. I certainly hope you know some or all of those names! It’s one of the reasons I want to stress that Williams’ popularity differed in degree, not in kind, from that of his predecessors. But clearly these early years were crucial to Williams’ education — he absorbed the music of these guys, and would come to emulate them.

One fun bit of trivia from his years of apprenticeship — that’s Williams playing the piano riff on Mancini’s 1959 Peter Gunn Theme. Another fun bit of trivia: in his early years he was usually credited as Johnny Williams to differentiate himself from the actor John Williams, perhaps best known from his close association with Alfred Hitchcock.

John Williams’ first major known work as a composer (to me anyway) is the theme and closing music to the TV show Lost in Space (1965-68). It already contains many of the qualities we prize him for — an ability to concretize phenomenal concepts through sound (in this case, space travel), and an ability to use music to generate emotion and a sense of adventure. Lost in Space was an Irwin Allen production, and Allen hired Williams on many subsequent projects, including the shows The Time Tunnel (1966-67) and Land of the Giants (1968-70) and the landmark disaster movies The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Towering Inferno (1974). The other major 70s disaster film Earthquake (1974) was not an Irwin Allen production, but Williams did the music for that, as well. As I’ve written, these were favorite movies of mine as a kid, as was the 1972 western The Cowboys, for which Williams also wrote a memorable score, with a rousing theme song, atmospheric employment of harmonicas, and a chilling, nutso leitmotif for villain Bruce Dern. So I was already well steeped in Williams’ music as quite a young kid, though his name was not yet well known.

Other of Williams’s early stuff I came to appreciate later included the Oscar nominated scores for Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969), his Oscar winning score for Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and his nominated work for Robert Altman in Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973). In 1976 he scored Alfred Hitchcock’s last film Family Plot; an irony, given that he didn’t much like that film and because that same year Hitch’s former collaborator Bernard Herrmann composed his final two scores (for Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockesque Obsession, and Martin Scorese’s Taxi Driver). Those are cool scores, but there’d have been something nice about Hitchcock’s last film being Hermmann’s last film also. Oh, well.

And then of course there’s Williams’ first film with the director he was to be most associated with, Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974). That’s an okay score, very ’70s sounding, with bouncy, country music elements, kind of conventional for its time. It was his next film with Spielberg that put Williams on the map. His 1975 soundtrack for Jaws made his name a household word. The indelible main theme has a lot in common with Bernard Herrmann’s for Pyscho — a very simple cluster of menacing notes orchestrated for strings, so elemental and primitive that it flipped a switch in all who heard it, and it became cultural shorthand for violent death. It became a musical catchphrase. People would hum it jokingly to indicate bad things on the horizon. This must be every movie composer’s dream. It was definitely Spielberg’s — he hired Williams to score almost of his subsequent movies.

After this, Williams essentially became the Babe Ruth of movie composers. Many of the films he scored were so popular they became franchises with umpteen sequels, which Williams also scored. These included Star Wars (1977-present), Superman (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981-present), Jurassic Park (1990-present), Home Alone (1990), and Harry Potter (2001-present). A couple of my favorites to play as a kid, however, were not among the endlessly franchised ones: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), which kicked off with that quiet suspenseful tease and sudden BOO! moment, and naturally featured that five note alien theme; and the now-forgotten comedy 1941 (1979), which incorporated the big band sound with which his father was associated. As I’ve mentioned before, I also had the 45 RPM single of the hot-jazz inspired Star Wars “Cantina Theme”, with those crazy wailing, bending clarinets and muted trumpets. I also loved the theme music to the Speilberg-produced series Amazing Stories (1985).

I confess that I am partial to Williams’ less subtle work, the stuff that is in the tradition of the old time stage music that accompanied the melodrama, was played over silent pictures and B movies, and so forth, the stuff that gets the blood racing and makes you whistle the tunes on the way home from the theatre. A lot of his later work for Spielberg and others doesn’t do that for me. For instance I know he was nominated for Oscars for his musical soundtracks to The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, both 2011, but I can’t remember a damn thing about them. It could of course be that I am no longer 12 years old. Or perhaps it is that I am too MUCH the pubescent! (I don’t want to sell my self short. I subsequently spent years acquainting myself with the landmarks of classical music, But I haven’t for example, listened to any of Williams’ original concertos or symphonies or other works, such as — wait for it — Fanfare for Michael Dukakis (1988). There are some subjects that not even orchestral theme music can elevate.