Pianist Roger Williams touched people through his music

By DEEPA BHARATH / Orange County Register
10/08/2011 7:39 PM

GARDEN GROVE – Pianist Roger Williams, who played for nine U.S. presidents starting with Harry Truman and whose song "Autumn Leaves" was the largest selling piano recording of all time, died Saturday morning at his Encino home of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 87.

Williams was no stranger to Orange County. A close friend of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral, Williams played at Schuller's church services nearly 35 years before he left over a disagreement with one of Schuller's daughters.

Williams was born Louis Wertz in Omaha, Neb. His father was a Lutheran minister in Iowa and Williams grew up to the sound of the church organ. He started playing the piano when he was 3.

"As I remember it," he told the Register during a recent interview at his Encino home, "I just walked up to the piano, sat down and started playing melodies."

He played 13 instruments by the time he was 12. His father was also a boxer and so was Williams.

"I beat all the guys, but I did not have that knock-out punch," he said.

Williams moved to Los Angeles when his father started a church here. During World War II, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he almost lost three of his fingers while loading a gun on the deck of a submarine.

"I was shoving a shell into the breech when it came down and smashed three fingers," he said.

Williams says he had to fight hard to save those fingers. Although he didn't box after he left the Navy, he never lost his fighting spirit.

"You've got to keep struggling, you've got to keep fighting," he said, even as he was fighting pancreatic cancer and undergoing chemotherapy.

"When you stop fighting, you stop living."

That incident in the Navy, he says, was a turning point, which showed him what he was meant to do with his life. He went on to get a Masters degree in music from the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied jazz and began his career as a concert pianist.

He was discovered by David Kapp of Kapp Records, who had him change his name to Roger Williams, after the founder of Rhode Island.

During his illustrious career, which spanned more than six decades, Williams had 21 gold and platinum albums and was the first pianist to get a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was a Steinway artist who appeared at all major events for the piano-maker, including its 150th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall.

On Williams' 80th birthday, Steinway made a limited edition gold piano, which still stands at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. The piano with a gold metallic finish reflects Williams' signature and bears the lyrics and signature notes from the first verse of "Autumn Leaves," the only piano recording to ever reach Number One on the Billboard singles chart. The $285,000 piano toured with Williams.

Williams was the Grand Marshal of the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival Parade in 2008.

Tom Tipton, a former singer at the Crystal Cathedral and Williams' close friend, called him "the most humane, considerate human being on the face of the earth."

"His greatest joy was to touch the lives of people with his music," he said.

He usually did not accompany anyone as a pianist, but did so as Tipton sang "Amazing Grace" at the Crystal Cathedral on his 70th birthday.

"He never played for anyone, but he played for me," Tipton said. "That was, is and will always be special to me."

As a musician, Williams understood the mechanics of the keyboard like no one else, Tipton said.

"His music lifted people and took them to places where they haven't been and cannot go," he said. "He would fly to the moon and take them with him. That was the power of his music."

A versatile artist, Williams ranged from playing "Oh Louisiana" to Mozart, Bach, and Brahms and return to Ray Charles, Tipton said.

Don Neuen, former choir director at the Crystal Cathedral, called Williams "a person of truth, integrity and love."

"He brought light and life to millions of people – young and old – throughout his entire career," he said. "Roger loved people. I will miss him terribly."

Jacque Heebner, Williams' personal secretary for the past five years, said Williams had several serious health problems over the last two years, but never lost his fighting spirit and sense of humor.

Heebner, an Iowa native, knew Williams for 77 years. He played the piano at her baptism. She had been his live-in assistant since he became ill. She heard him play for the last time early in the morning Thursday, Heebner said.

"I asked him to play 'Born Free' and 'God Bless America' and he played it so beautifully," she said, choking up. "The thing that made his music special was he sang every song he played. He had a smile in his voice."

Williams is expected to be buried in a mausoleum at the Crystal Cathedral Memorial Gardens. His room has a lighted stained glass panel with a man in a white suit playing the piano.

Funeral services are pending.

Williams is survived by his daughters Laura Fisher and Alice Jung and five grandchildren.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7909 or dbharath@ocregister.com

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