Posts Tagged ‘Roger Williams’

A Roundabout Appreciation Of Roger Williams

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

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.

John Barry, 1933-2011

Monday, January 31st, 2011

I heard this morning the sad news that one of my favorite musicians – one who influenced my listening probably as much as anyone ever did – had passed on.

John Barry, composer of soundtracks for eleven of the James Bond movies and so many more films over the years, crossed over yesterday, January 30, in New York at the age of seventy-seven.

It was my fascination with James Bond in 1964 that led me to Barry’s work and then to my long-time interest in soundtracks. Those of my age or older will recall that Bondmania had about a three or four year run. It began, from what I recall, in the early 1960s with – among other things – the admission by then-President John F. Kennedy that he enjoyed Ian Fleming’s novels about James Bond, secret agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Add the first Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962, with Sean Connery as Bond and Ursula Andress rising from the sea as Honeychile Rider, the first of the Bond girls on the screen, and the secret agent – blessed with gorgeous women, superb driving skills, an increasingly elaborate set of weapons and gadgets, and just the right double entendre at the right time – became an American sensation.

Barry didn’t score Dr. No – Monty Norman did – but Barry picked up the series with the second film, From Russia With Love, and when the third Bond film, Goldfinger, came out in 1964, the increasing fascination around me pulled me in. I turned eleven in 1964 and was too young, my parents judged, to see the movies or read Fleming’s books. But I could listen to the music. So I got the soundtrack to Goldfinger from our record club, and I sat by the stereo in the living room, listening and trying to create images and storylines that would match the sounds I heard, kind of the reverse of what Barry was doing as he created music to match the images and story of the film.

Of all the tracks on that first soundtrack, the instrumental version of the main theme remains my favorite:

By the time the fourth Bond film, Thunderball, came out in 1965, my parents had granted me permission to read Fleming’s books, and I went to see the new movie with my pal and fellow 007 enthusiast Brad. We followed that up with a double-feature of Dr. No and From Russia With Love, re-released as the nation’s attention to 007 increased. Somewhere along the line, we also saw a re-release of Goldfinger, allowing me finally to match the music with the scenes in the movie. And, of course, I bought the soundtrack to Thunderball, which included a new version of the “007” theme, first written for From Russia With Love.

Bondmania faded for the nation and for me, and although I saw some of the ensuing movies, many of which Barry scored, I bought no more Bond soundtracks after that. I did pick up Barry’s work for the film Born Free, and for many years, I noted when his name was in the credits of films I saw. But rock music and its relatives began to take more and more of my attention and my cash, and I bought few soundtracks by anyone for a few years. My early interest in Barry’s work had, however, cultivated the habit of paying close attention to the soundtrack any time I went to the movies, and during the 1980s I began to collect soundtracks again.

Fast forward a few years: During my graduate school days, I saw the film Somewhere In Time and noted that Barry had written the lush, romantic soundtrack for it, with pianist Roger Williams joining in for a turn at the main theme. I bought the LP and have since found myself watching the movie anytime I run into it on the cable channels. I mean, time travel, the luminous Jane Seymour and John Barry’s music – what more could one want?

The list of Barry’s work at All-Music Guide is amazingly long, with the earliest dated score being his work for Beat Girl in 1960 and the most recent being his score for The Dove in 2009. He earned Grammy awards for his work on Midnight Cowboy, The Cotton Club, Out Of Africa and Dances With Wolves and won five Academy Awards, earning Oscars for his scores for Born Free, The Lion In Winter, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves and for the song “Born Free.”

As I write and think, I come to the conclusion that Barry probably had as much influence on me and my music listening as did anyone. Since the advent of the Internet, I’ve found my way to more and more of his soundtracks, work I enjoy hearing that I did not always know about when the films came out. Combine that with the attention I still pay to soundtracks and scores as I watch movies, and the effect of Barry’s work on me is huge.

I dabbled with writing some movie-type music when I was in college, at about the same time I dabbled in writing some short films. Not much came of either, except first, an awareness of the power of precise language in a script, and second – and more to the point here – a greater awareness of the difficulty of matching the mood of a scene with music. John Barry was a master at that latter task, and he deserves the lasting gratitude of anyone who loves movies or music.