A Roundabout Appreciation Of Roger Williams

When I graduated from high school in 1971, my sister gave me an Alvarez acoustic guitar to replace the old second-hand instrument I’d been messing around with. And not long after that, I bought a songbook called 50 Sensational Songs for Guitar. I don’t know if the songs were truly sensational, but the book – for which I paid $2.50; this was 1971 – had a good collection of songs from many styles.

There was some traditional pop (“Misty” and “Sentimental Journey”), some Top 40 pop (“Dizzy” and “Sugar, Sugar”), some Broadway (“Applause” and “Hello, Dolly”), some Jimmy Webb tunes (“Wichita Lineman,” “Didn’t We” and more), some Burt Bacharach/Hal David stuff (“Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and more) and a lot of other stuff including four Beatles’ tunes, two of which now seem to be very odd choices: “Old Brown Shoe” and “Octopus’s Garden.”

(As I look at the book now, I realize that three of the Beatles’ tunes in the book were written by George Harrison and “Octopus’s Garden” was, of course, written by Ringo Starr. No tunes by Lennon and McCartney. I’d never noticed that before.)

I don’t know that I ever played any of the tunes in the songbook on guitar. I did play my guitar a lot in those days, sitting on the little bank on the north side of our house in the spring and summer evenings, practicing my own songs as I let my hands learn what they needed to do. But I found a use for the songbook anyway.

During my first two years of college, I took five quarters of music theory, every class St. Cloud State offered in the subject. And through those courses, I realized that I could use 50 Sensational Songs for Guitar, which offered melody lines and guitar chord charts, as a fakebook, making up my own arrangements of those songs. Among the songs that I learned to play that way was a tune that had originally been titled “Les Feuillies Mortes.”

I knew the song as “Autumn Leaves,” although I can’t specifically say how I knew it. I was just aware that I’d heard the song many times as a pop standard. I certainly didn’t recall the song from 1955, when it was a No. 1 hit for pianist Roger Williams.

“Autumn Leaves” was the first of thirty chart hits or near-hits hit for Williams, who passed on last week at the age of eighty-seven. (And I should note that my version of “Autumn Leaves” hews to the melody: I have never attempted those fantastic runs Williams plays, nor will I ever do so.) I see this morning in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles that Kapp Records re-released Williams’ version of “Autumn Leaves” in 1965, which is when I might have heard the tune; if that’s the case, I was one of the few, as the record peaked at No. 92. Many of Williams’ other single releases did better, but quite a few parked themselves in the lower portions of the chart. Nevertheless, Williams had singles in or near the Billboard Hot 100 every year but one (1964) from 1955 through 1969, with one more coming in 1972.

Williams’ second-biggest hit came when his cover of John Barry’s movie theme “Born Free” went to No. 7 (No. 5 on the chart now called Adult Contemporary) in December 1966. That’s probably the Williams record I recall the most, and I know I would have heard it – and liked it – on any of the radio stations I happened to hear at the time.

Even though he was on or near the charts during the 1960s, Williams’ better years had been the late 1950s, when he placed several records in the Top 40: “Wanting You” went to No. 38 in 1955; “La Mer (Beyond the Sea)” went to No. 37 in 1956; “Almost Paradise” went to No. 15 and “Till” went to No. 22 in 1957; and “Near You” went to No. 10 in 1958. After that, beyond “Born Free,” the closest Williams got to the Top 40 was in early 1962, when his cover of “Maria” from West Side Story went to No. 48.

My favorite Roger Williams piece, however, comes from 1980, when he teamed up with John Barry to record Barry’s “Theme from Somewhere In Time,” which closes the soundtrack album (and, I think, plays under the closing credits) of one of my favorite films. The track also showed up on Williams’ 1986 album, also titled Somewhere In Time. The record isn’t listed in Top Pop Singles; if it made any chart, it would’ve been the Adult Contemporary.

I know I’ve shared “Theme from Somewhere In Time” before, but it’s good enough to share again, and it provides an appropriate way to say farewell to Roger Williams.

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One Response to “A Roundabout Appreciation Of Roger Williams”

  1. porky says:

    I worked at a PBS affiliate for years and Roger was always on. In the course of editing those shows I was able to view most of them and he was an engaging performer. Drew me right in.

    And if you’ve been to used record sales/thrift shops the man sold a TON of records.

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