Probably no one ever sees the middle name unless they’re looking up biographical information, but it’s good to know. John Williams is a very common name, one he shares with other musicians. John Williams is also the name of an Australian classical guitarist. There is another American conductor named John McLauglin Williams. No longer with us are a Chicago blues guitarist and a notable jazz drummer both named Johnny Williams.
The drummer is our John Williams’ father. In 1932, he was playing drums in the CBS Radio Orchestra. When fellow orchestra member Raymond Scott formed the Raymond Scott Quintette, Williams achieved stardom as the group’s drummer.
Among other activities besides working for CBS and Scott, the elder Williams also played in the orchestra for Your Hit Parade. When that show moved its headquarters from New York to Los Angeles in 1948, the Williams family, including 16-year-old John, moved with it. The elder Williams also drummed in studio orchestras for several Hollywood films.
A brief biography of John Williams
After finishing high school, the younger Williams studied music at UCLA. After a stint in the Air Force, he returned to New York where he studied at Juilliard and, as Johnny Williams, supported himself as a jazz pianist.
In 1956, he returned to Los Angeles to take a position as studio pianist with Twentieth Century Fox. Before long, he began to compose music for TV shows, including Gilligan’s Island, and low-budget films. He worked with such A list composers as Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, and Alfred Newman. He achieved their exalted status when his score for The Valley of the Dolls received an Oscar nomination in 1967.
From that day to this, Williams has kept busy scoring high budget, high profile movies. Not infrequently, he has worked on multiple projects at once. He has composed music for about 90 films, as well as an impressive amount of concert music.
John Williams’ music
Movie music imposes strict discipline on a composer. It is strictly accompaniment. It must fit the action and timing of the film. The composer must conceive it to be heard along with sound effects and dialogue.
Movie music could therefore easily become a matter of mere craftsmanship with no artistic aspirations. The best movie music manages to rise above its subordinate role; it can stand on its own in concert arrangements. Much of Williams music has certainly done that. It regularly appears on orchestral concerts, especially but not always during the summer season.
He has also won numerous awards, including five Oscars:
- Best Original Song Score and/or Adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof, 1972
- Best Original Score, Jaws, 1975
- Best Original Score, Star Wars, 1977
- Best Original Score, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982
- Best Original Score, Schindler’s List, 1994
Other notable scores include additional Star Wars films, Home Alone, Superman Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and three Indiana Jones movies. In all, his movie scores have been nominated for 40 Oscars, sometimes more than one in a single year, most recently for 2011 for both Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.
He has also won 5 Golden Globes, 10 BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Music)–War Horse won both of those awards in 2011–13 Grammys, 16 BMI Film and TV Awards, and too many more kinds to list.
Like Nino Rota and other film composers before him, Williams has also written concert music: concertos for flute, violin, tuba, clarinet, cello, bassoon, trumpet, and horn; 21 fanfares; 6 symphonic works; as well as various vocal works and other pieces.
Probably his most frequently heard pieces are his Olympic Fanfare and Theme, (1984), and The Mission, better known as the theme of NBC Nightly News.