On Music: Happy 89th Birthday, John Williams!

Illustration by Drew Struzan

John Towner Williams

“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.”

Hi, there, Dear Reader! It’s early afternoon here in New Hometown, Florida on Monday, February 8, 2021. Currently, the temperature is 75˚F (24˚C) under cloudy skies; with the wind blowing from the east at 8 MPH (13 KM/H) and humidity at 69%, the feels-like temperature is 75˚F (24˚C). The rest of the day will see partly sunny skies and the high will be 76˚F (25˚F). The forecast for tonight calls for partly cloudy skies. The low will be 65˚F (18˚C).

Today is the 89th birthday of my favorite composer of all time, John Towner Williams, who was born on February 8, 1932 in Flushing, Queens. A resident of the Los Angeles area since he was a teenager, Maestro Williams studied music composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian composer, pianist, and writer who composed film scores in Hollywood after immigrating to the U.S. in 1939.

In 1951, when he was 19, Williams was drafted into the U.S. Air Force, where – after basic training in Texas – he was a member of the U.S. Air Force Band, where he conducted, wrote arrangements, and played the piano and brass instruments. He was honorably discharged in 1955, and the young “Johnny” headed east and enrolled in Julliard and, later, the Eastman School of Music.

After graduation, the future five-time Academy Award-winner moved back to L.A. and started his long and illustrious career in film music, working as an orchestrator for such notable composers as Alfred Newman (whose iconic 20th Century Fox Fanfare would be reorchestrated and re-recorded by Williams for George Lucas’s Star Wars in 1977) Bernard Herrmann, and Frank Waxman. As a studio pianist, he performed on scores by prominent composers such as Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, and Henry Mancini. And – credited as Johnny Williams – he wrote themes for the pilot episode of Gilligan’s Island and other TV shows, including Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, and The Land of the Giants.

Of course, although Williams has composed “serious” classical music, including a violin concerto and other works, he is best known as a composer of film scores. He earned his first on-screen credit (for Because They’re Young) in 1960 and was first nominated for a Best Original Score Oscar in 1967 for Valley of the Dolls, and earned his first statuette in 1971 for his adaptation of the music from the musical Fiddler on the Roof for Norman Jewison’s film version.

From then on, Williams’ reputation as a master of film scoring grew, and since the 1970s he has worked with many of Hollywood’s best-known filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Oliver Stone, Chris Columbus, John Frankenheimer, and Richard Donner. He has composed music for several franchises, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter, and is still active in his late 80s, although health issues and the COVID-19 pandemic have made travel to London and other cities around the globe a rare event. (Williams, who recorded the first six Star Wars scores with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted a Los Angeles-based ensemble in the recording sessions for the Sequel Trilogy films in the Skywalker Saga.)  Maestro Williams is, with 52 Academy Award nominations, the second-most nominated person in Hollywood history – the first being Walt Disney, who had 59 (and 22 wins). He has also won numerous Grammy, BAFTA, and Golden Globe Awards over his long and illustrious career.

In addition to his work in film, Maestro Williams was the conductor and music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980 to 1993 and is currently the Pops’ Laureate Conductor. He also has a long-standing creative relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, the latter being the ensemble that performed many of his greatest scores, including Star Wars, Dracula, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Happy 89th birthday, Maestro!

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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