As a jazz pianist–in other words as a decrepit hipster wallowing in a musical genre that few people care about anymore–I should find it easy to mock the ‘easy listening’ pianists of the 1950s and 60s as total squares who sold-out for big money, playing unbelievably sappy and simple arpeggio-ridden arrangements of pop songs of the day, usually backed by strings, horns, voices etc. But this past weekend, for reasons unknown to even myself, I became entranced with the work of the leaders of this now forgotten but once wildly popular style. Liberace, of course, was the king of kings though his absurd showmanship–the gold candlesticks, weird outfits etc.–eclipsed his piano technique (which was, in fact, formidable). Next in line in terms of fame and success was Roger Williams. In 1955 Williams recorded ‘Autumn Leaves’, the only piano instrumental to reach #1 on Billboard’s Popular Music Chart. It sold over two million copies and was awarded a gold record. (In 1966 he had another Top Ten hit with the song ‘Born Free’ from the eponymous film’s soundtrack). Williams life was a kind of reverse version of the story of Clifford Odets ‘Golden Boy’, in which a talented young violinist gives up his cherished instrument to become a championship boxer, breaking his immigrant father’s heart. Williams (whose real name was–of course–Louis Jacob Weertz) actually trained as a boxer (apparently at his father’s insistance) but couldn’t keep away from the keyboard and, after some study at Juliliard, ultimately found his way into a gig in New York City at the Madison Hotel (Madison Ave. and 59th street–long gone now). One night David Kapp, the founder of Kapp Records, heard him and was so impressed that he signed young Weertz, giving him a professional name “that would stand up anywhere–Roger Williams”, after the founder of Rhode Island.
‘Autumn Leaves’ shot him to stardom–Billboard magazine ranks him as the top-selling piano recording artist in history, with 21 gold and platinum albums to his credit. As I said at the top of this post, its easy to mock this sort of piano playing but not so easy to emulate it. I tried quite a bit this weekend and not only are Williams runs and arpeggios very challenging but the general aura–the intentional stiffness–of his approach is hard to keep up. It’s important to keep a straight face and above all not to swing, not to give way to inventive chord substitutions and free improvisation. The whole point of Williams–and other ‘pianolite’ artists–is to give the audience a predictable outcome with lavish flourishes. It’s music meant to be played just as it sounds–no surprises–and as such it can be quite meditative and lush if you give yourself over to it. Below are two clips of Williams at his best. The first is at the beginning of his career on Ed Sullivan playing ‘Autumn Leaves’. The second is Williams in Las Vegas in 2009, age 85, playing Gershwins ‘Embraceable You’. I don’t care what you say (and I can already feel groans of disapproval coming my way) but I like it. I like it without any wise-guy attitude or hipster sneering. It’s hard to do and relaxing in its own Turkey on White Bread with Mayo kind of way. In fact that’s what I’m having for lunch…all week, dammit!