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Artist Spotlight: John Williams

Unlike many contemporary composers, John Williams is a household name, even among families who aren't classic music buffs. To date, his award stats seem inconceivable, even to the most aspiring of professional composers. They include 25 Grammy Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, five Academy Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards (and more to come, we would imagine).

A well-published John Williams quote (filmtracks.com) states, "So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves, so it's gratifying to have something you have done linger in people's memories." Based on that statement, this famous musician, composer, conductor, and music producer must be one gratified human being.

John (Johnny) Williams II: The Basics

We can't post an Artist Spotlight without capturing some of the basic biographical details. But, as we know, there is so much more to any human than birth dates and accolades. Therefore, the second section of this post focuses on facts you may not know about one of the 20th/21st centuries' most famous and well-loved composers. 

The Early Years

John (Johnny during his younger years) Towner Williams II was born on February 8, 1932, making him almost 90 years wise today. He was born in Queens, New York, to parents Esther (née Towner, hence his middle name) and Johnny Williams. His father was a talented jazz percussionist who played with the Raymond Scott Quintet. Later on, after the family's move to Los Angeles in 1948, his father worked as a recording artist and a studio musician for both radio and films.

Williams's mother was originally from Maine and grew up in a family that owned a department store. Her father was also a carpenter and cabinet maker. As a result, John Williams, the composer, felt his life exemplifies both the musicianship and the strong work ethic that defined his formative years and family culture.

As is the way of many professional composers, Williams quickly became poly-instrumental. He began playing the piano at age six. By the time he left grade school, Williams was proficient on the bassoon, cello, clarinet, trombone, and trumpet. Eventually, Johnny-now-John attended UCLA, where he studied composition. 

Williams' later years

In 1951, John Williams got drafted into the military, where he served in the U.S. Air Force Band as a pianist, brass player, and conductor. Upon his release from the service in 1955, he was accepted into Julliard. At first, Williams planned to become a concert pianist but eventually turned his sights to composition. He continued his composition studies at the Eastman School of Music and, upon graduation, Williams began working as an orchestrator in film studios. 

That initial post-graduate job led to Williams's career as a world-renowned film score composer. However, it's impossible to narrow down his "best-known works" because the entire list is recognizable, including:

  • Jaws (1975)
  • Superman - The Movie (1978)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) 
  • E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 
  • Jurassic Park (1993)
  • Schindler's List (1994)
  • Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  • The first three Harry Potter films (2001, 2002, and 2004)
  • All of the Star Wars films

(Wikipedia's complete list of compositions by John Williams)

We could go on, but you get the point. He also served as music director and laureate conductor of one of the country's treasured musical institutions, the Boston Pops Orchestra.

In our post, Insights From the World's Best Film Score Composers, we quoted John Williams saying, "I think the biggest single mission perhaps of the filmmakers and myself is to try to seek universalisms in the story, in the music, and in the emotions." (Source: Gramaphone). His laudable career exemplifies John Williams's ability to do just that.

10 Fun Facts 

Now, as promised, we'd like to break away from the basic details and leave you with ten fun facts you might not have known about John Williams. 

  1. He's been nominated for 52 Academy Awards, making him the second-most nominated person after Walt Disney.
  2. You can hear some of his early professional piano playing in the movies "Some Like it Hot (1959)" and "To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)."
  3. Williams "allowed" Steven Spielberg to play clarinet, which he'd learned to play in high school in the band street scene. The dailyjaws.com website quotes Williams saying that Spielberg "added the right amateur quality to the piece" (sorry, Steven). 
  4. He paid his way through graduate music school, working as a nightclub jazz pianist and a bandleader called "Little Johnny Love."
  5. In an interview with businessinsider.com, Williams admitted that he's never seen a single "finished" version of the Star Wars Films.
  6. Technology is not his thing. Williams composes his scores at a desk with a pencil and paper, with his adjacent Steinway piano as a companion. John Williams has this to say about technology, "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." (Grunge)
  7. John Williams's son, Joseph, was the lead singer of the band Toto, most famous for their songs, "Africa" and "Rosanna."
  8. While best known for his film scores, a composer is a composer through and through. Williams has also composed concert hall performances that include two symphonies and various concertos for horn, cello, clarinet, flute, violin, and bassoon. Watch Yo-Yo Ma performing Williams's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. [<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/lGpu8IJX5MM" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>]
  9. The iconic first three notes of the Jaws theme song (which Spielberg thought were a joke at first) have become the most famous musical introduction in history after the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  10. Two of his first Academy nominations were for movies you've probably never heard of: Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Good-Bye, Mr. Chips (1969).

At a sharp and still-composing 89 years old, John Williams is a musician, composer, producer, and conductor who deserves every bit of the respect and accolades he's received. We look forward to what this soon-to-be nonagenarian composes next.