The Untold Truth Of John Williams

One of the most famous film composers of our time, John Williams has developed a prolific career writing the most recognizable themes, accompanying the movie screen with the most dazzling film scores. After Williams met director Steven Spielberg over a blind lunch date in 1972, the duo developed one of the most powerful director-composer relationships ever, as per The Columbus Dispatch. Like Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, or Sam Mendes and Thomas Newman, both Spielberg and Williams have developed a distinct combination of visuals and sound where it’s impossible to not bring up both their names together. Williams has even been able to establish himself outside of the director-composer collaboration, composing for many other notable directors, writing music for television shows, and conducting various legendary orchestras.

According to Britannica, Williams has been nominated for over 50 Academy Awards and won five — for his adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof in 1971, for Jaws in 1975, for Star Wars in 1977, for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982, and for Schindler’s List in 1993. The legendary composer has also won three Emmy Awards, 20 Grammy Awards, been the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, and awarded a Kennedy Center Honor. Williams’ long road to success wasn’t always in film. He spent many years playing in jazz bands, studying music at world class institutions, and obsessively practicing on his piano.

John Williams obsessed over playing piano at a young age

According to the LA Times, Williams started taking piano lessons at 7 and would practice consistently. It became an obsession, and family members would often find him sleeping near his piano. Williams’ younger brother, Don Williams, described John’s musical discipline, saying, “He was at the piano all day. My mother would send me out there: ‘Tell John dinner’s ready.’ I’d go out. ‘Hey, John, dinner’s ready!’ ‘OK, I’ll be there in a minute.’ Fifteen minutes later, my mom would send me back out there. He just loved to work. That’s always the way he’s been. Can’t be away from his piano — doesn’t want to be away from the piano. Why should he?

Williams was also constantly surrounded by music — his father, Johnny Williams, a professional percussionist for the Raymond Scott Quintette and a sessions musician in Hollywood, would have musicians over at the house all the time. Some of his father’s friends included film composer George Duning (From Here to Eternity), Perry Botkin Sr. (Bing Crosby‘s guitarist), and pianist Claude Thornhill, who would play music and talk about music in detail while the young Williams was around, as per the LA Times. Williams would even arrange music for his high school jazz band and would later play solo at the Coconut Grove.

John Williams was there when Bernard Herrmann worked on some of his best scores

According to The New Yorker, John Williams’ father, Johnny Williams, eventually played for famed composer Bernard Herrmann who wrote scores for films such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver. The young Williams would sometimes join his father during rehearsals and was at the scoring stage for Vertigo, as per The LA Times. Williams spoke about his father’s connection with Herrmann, saying, “Benny liked the way my father played the timpani. ‘Old Man Williams isn’t afraid to break the head,’ he’d say. Benny was a famously irascible character, but in later years he was always very encouraging to me. One time he got irritated was when I arranged ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ ‘Write your own music,’ he said.”

Like Williams, Herrmann had developed a director-composer relationship with Alfred Hitchcock. Years later, Williams would end up conducting renditions of some of Herrmann’s famous scores from Hitchcock movies such as Vertigo and North by Northwest for a special tribute performance. Williams would also get the chance to work with Hitchcock as composer for the film Family Plot, which was also Hitchcock’s last film (via Filmtracks).

John Williams conducted and arranged for military bands

In an interview with Col. Larry H. Lang, commander and conductor of The Air Force Band, John Williams spoke about his time in the military and how it influenced his career as a composer in Hollywood. Williams served as a pianist and brass player and did arranging and writing as a secondary duty. Williams attended basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, in 1952 and was stationed at both Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona and Pepperrell AFB in St. Johns, Newfoundland. While in Newfoundland, Williams was able to do a short film score for Atlantic Films using the Air Force band.

Williams believes his Air Force experience helped him prepare for his work as a film composer in Hollywood, saying, “As far as band was concerned, I had a tremendous education in the Air Force.” Williams also mentioned that his military service, as well as seeing how people were impacted by the horrors of World War II, influenced how he composed the music for Saving Private Ryan.

John Williams' versatility keeps his collaborations with Steven Spielberg exciting

When Steven Spielberg and John Williams met for the first time in 1972, both were at very different points in their careers. Williams had worked in the business for nearly 20 years, while Spielberg was a 25-year-old TV director preparing for his first film, as per The Columbus Dispatch. “Steven took me to a very fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills for lunch, in the days of these martini lunches,” Williams said. “It was like going with a teenager who had never ordered wine before and didn’t quite know what to do with the silver. He was so young — a little older than my children but not a whole lot — and seemed to know more about my music than I did.”

One of the specialties of Williams’ composing is his ability to create music that adapts to any setting, whether it be in space, or under water, and to provide themes for a versatile list of the silver screen’s most popular characters, from E.T. to Indiana Jones. Spielberg described what his collaborations are like with Williams and how they’ve kept their work exciting for so many years as a director-composer duo, saying, “John is much more of a chameleon as a composer … He reinvents himself with every picture. The score to Tintin could not be more dissimilar to his score to War Horse. They fit the characterizations of the different movies.”

John Williams still composes all his scores with pencil and paper

It takes great talent and lots of time spent studying musical theory for most composers to be able to put together a score for 50 to 100 different musicians to read from, play together, and sound amazing. As with most things, the process of scoring has developed with the aid of computers, which helps make such a process easier for many composers. During an interview with BMI, John Williams revealed he still composes all his scores the old-fashioned way, using pencil, paper, and his piano.

“I still use the piano, I still use a pencil and paper,” said Williams. “I have not evolved to the point where I use computers and synthesizers. First of all, they didn’t exist when I was studying music and luckily, mercifully, I have been so busy in the interim years that I haven’t had time to go back and retool. And so my evolution, in very practical terms, i.e. piano and pencil and paper, has not changed at all.”

John Williams confessed he's never watched the Star Wars movies

While John Williams has written Oscar-winning scores to some of the biggest movies of all times, it’s not likely he’s seen very many of them. In fact, the maestro has admitted to The Mirror via Business Insider that he’s never seen any of the Star Wars movies he’s scored the music to, saying, “I have not looked at the ‘Star Wars’ films and that’s absolutely true. When I’m finished with a film, I’ve been living with it, we’ve been dubbing it, recording to it, and so on. You walk out of the studio and, ‘Ah, it’s finished.’ Now I don’t have an impulse to go to the theater and look at it. Maybe some people find that weird — or listen to recordings of my music — very, very rarely.”

Williams knows just how much his fans love his music to the Star Wars series, saying, “It’s probably the most popular music that I’ve done.” And for those who love his music, not just for Star Wars movies but for his entire catalogue, you’ll be to truly dive into his works and understand them on a whole new level given his recent contribution to Juilliard.

John Williams gave all his works to Juilliard

John Williams attended Juilliard and studied piano with Juilliard faculty member Rosina Lhévinne before moving on to score music for major motion pictures. Many years later, after winning Academy Awards and Grammy Awards and adding significant contributions to film, Williams decided to give his complete library of concert music and film music scores, as well as his sketchbooks, to Juilliard. 

Juilliard President Joseph W. Polisi said, “We are deeply grateful to John for his extraordinary generosity in bequeathing Juilliard his extensive library of both concert and film scores. John has been a wonderful friend and colleague for many years. His artistry, creativity, and endless imagination make him one of the most admired and respected musicians of our time. His gift will be a unique resource for all of our musicians at the school, particularly composition students who can study first-hand John’s breadth and versatility as a composer.”

Scholars, students, and fans of Williams will now be able to study the maestro’s catalogue of works, and hopefully more will be inspired and influenced to help keep the world of film scoring relevant. Williams spoke of Juilliard in great acclaim, saying, “Since my earliest days as a fledgling piano student, I have looked up to the Juilliard School as the Mecca for the study of music in our country and beyond. It’s therefore a privilege for me to donate my sketches, papers, and scores to Juilliard, to be made available to those students particularly interested in the intimate processes of film scoring.”

Steven Spielberg thought John Williams was kidding when he first played him the Jaws theme

When Jaws terrorized theater audiences in 1975, the theme from the film became synonymous with sharks and has been stuck in our heads ever since. During an interview, Jaws director Steven Spielberg details the first time John Williams played him the theme, saying, “At first I began to laugh. He had a great sense of humor. I thought he was putting me on. And he said, ‘No! That’s the theme to Jaws!’ And I said, ‘Play it again.’ And he played it again … and it suddenly seemed right. And John found a signature for the entire movie.”

In an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, Williams spoke more about how he came up with the idea for the simplicity of the music in the movie, saying, “I fiddled around with the idea of creating something that was very .?.?. brainless, like the shark — all instinct, meaning something could be very repetitious, very visceral, and grab you in your gut, not in your brain.”

John Williams wrote music for iconic shows in the 60s

During his early jazz days, John Williams was known as “Little Johnny Love” Williams, before being called Johnny Williams, which is what his father went by. When known as Johnny, the composer wrote music for shows such as Gilligan’s Island, Lost In Space, Land of the Giants, and The Time Tunnel

Williams told NPR what helped him make his decision to get into scoring while at Juilliard, saying, “I played pretty well. I did hear players like John Browning and Van Cliburn around the place, who were also students of Rosina’s, and I thought to myself, ‘If that’s the competition, I think I’d better be a composer!’ “

After Williams moved to Los Angeles, he played piano on movie and television soundtracks, and not long after, started getting jobs arranging music and then composing for television scores. “We had 12 shows a week at Universal that had to be recorded, which meant there were 12 three-hour sessions with an orchestra of some kind on the stage every week,” Williams says. “So I filled one or two of those as a composer and conducted my own work also for seven years. So that was, I suppose, a graduate program in, if nothing else, how to get things done.”

John Williams played piano for famous film composers before his big break

According to Britannica, before John Williams began scoring soundtracks for famous films, the legendary maestro was actually a studio pianist on the scores to movies Some Like It Hot in 1959 and 1960’s The Apartment, both composed by Adolph Deutsch, and To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, composed by Elmer Bernstein. 

Williams also developed a friendship with Deutsch, which not only helped him advance his career as a composer but also helped him almost get a role in a movie. According to American Music Preservation, Deutsch had actually suggested Williams for the role of the restaurant pianist in The Apartment. Williams also ended up doing some orchestrating for the movie, too. “I’d known Deutsch from playing on other films like Some Like It Hot and Funny Face,” Williams told Derek Elley in a 1978 interview via Film Score Monthly. “He said to me, ‘Look, can you orchestrate three or four sequences from this section of The Apartment?’ And I said, ‘Sure. Of course. Let me have the sketches.'”

John Williams had a long history that led to Thomas Newman filling in for him as composer

John Williams has scored every film Steven Spielberg has directed, except for The Color Purple, Bridge of Spies, and Ready Player One. When it came time to score Bridge of Spies, Williams was sick and unable to do the music. That’s when Spielberg looked to film composer Thomas Newman to take over. In an interview with NPR, Newman talked about how he and Williams shared a history before he stepped in to score Bridge of Spies. Thomas Newman’s dad, Alfred Newman, was the head of the music department at Fox for 20 years and one of the pioneers of film scoring. He later gave Williams some of his first big breaks.

Thomas said how he’d hang out at the studio, just like Williams did when he was a kid while his father played music for Hollywood films, saying, “I’d go and sit on ratty green couches, I remember, down at Fox at the stage that my dad did a lot of work on, and watch John conduct these huge movies.” Williams even let Newman do some orchestrating, saying, “He threw me a bone. I mean, he would not put it that way. But he let me orchestrate a cue from Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader dies,” Newman says, then laughs. “It was an amazing thing to do.”

Years later, Thomas took over for Williams as the composer of Bridge of Spies. “I guess there was no saying I could ever step in and do what John does. But to step in and try to do what I do was kind of what Steven had asked of me — and kind of what I knew I would have to do, just because … what else was I gonna do?” Newman says. “Because it’d be really hard to be John Williams.”

John Williams didn't think he was good enough to write the music for Schindler's List

After watching the first cut of Schindler’s List without the music, John Williams said, “Like, I don’t bawl, but I really, I was choked up. And I said, ‘Steven, I just have to leave the room.’ And I went outside and walked around, collect myself, and back in to start the meeting. And this is just about verbatim: I said, ‘Steven, this is a great film and you really need a better composer than I am for this film. And he said, ‘I know. But they’re all dead!’ So, I went on to become the live composer” (via CBS News).

Williams would go on to win an Academy Award for the film, and the score was voted the nation’s favorite film music by Classic FM, as per NME. Upon his Classic FM placement, Williams said, “It was a privilege to be involved in the making of this film, and it’s very gratifying to know that so many people around the world continue to embrace it after nearly 30 years.”

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