Roger Williams, the virtuoso pianist who topped the Billboard pop chart in the 1950s and played for nine U.S. presidents during a long career, died Saturday. He was 87.
Williams died at his home in Los Angeles of complications from pancreatic cancer, according to his former publicist, Rob Wilcox.
Known as an electrifying stage performer and an adept improviser, Williams effortlessly switched between musical styles.
“Roger was one of the greatest pianists in the world and could play anything to classical music to jazz. He was one of the greatest personalities I’ve ever known,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a longtime friend of Williams and himself a musician. “He could touch any audience, from teenagers to senior citizens.”
Williams’ 1955 hit “Autumn Leaves” was the only piano instrumental to reach No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts. It remains the best-selling piano record of all time, with more than 2 million sold.
Nicknamed the “pianist to the presidents,” Williams played for every commander in chief from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush. He was good friends with Jimmy Carter, with whom he shared a birthday. When the two turned 80, Williams played a 12-hour marathon at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, with the former president in attendance.
Born Louis Wertz in Nebraska, Williams started playing piano at age 3. As a teenager, he was given a 15-minute radio show on KRNT-AM, which was broadcast live from a Des Moines department store. Later he hosted a program on WHO-AM, where he met the station’s young sports announcer, Ronald “Dutch” Reagan. They started a friendship that lasted over 60 years.
Williams followed up “Autumn Leaves” with a string of hits including “Born Free,” “The Impossible Dream,” “Theme From Somewhere In Time,” and “Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago.”
In March, Williams announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A few days later he played his last concert, in Palm Desert, Calif.