Command performances by musicians, whether for royalty or presidents, have always fascinated me. Obviously, centuries ago they were performed because of a ruler’s actual command for the artist to appear and entertain, but I have a feeling that it didn’t take long for the performers to understand and appreciate the prestige and fame that could come their way from appearing in front of a king or emperor. (Assuming they survived the show. I guess you could say that early Christians facing the lions were giving a command performance too.)
Although I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Washington hosted the occasional chamber music group, in the early days American presidents usually went out for their entertainment. But succeeding presidents began to like the idea of in-house music, and I’d guess that by the time of Lincoln’s experience at Ford’s Theater the wisdom of bringing the performers to the president became apparent.
As the practice became more common, presidents also became appreciative of the political value of inviting musical artists into the White House. After all, how could the American public dislike a president who would welcome beloved musicians into his own home? (Even if it was only temporarily his home.)
But even though presidents are never far away from political motivations, their choices of entertainers are also often based on their own preferences, and electing a new president every four or eight years means that we’ve had a lot of different musical tastes in the White House. However, there are some entertainers who have appeared in front of numerous presidents, partially because of their longevity (the performers – not the presidents), but also because of their talent and appeal.
Roger Williams was one of those, and starting with his appearance before Harry Truman, the celebrated pianist reeled off a string that continued through Bill Clinton, a total of ten occupants of the White House. He was (and is) one of America’s most popular entertainers, and his brand of smooth, relaxing music was perfect for those occasions.
Williams, who was born Louis Weertz, had an extensive musical education that included prestigious Julliard, but his childhood was not that of the typical prodigy. Ironically, his first interest was boxing, but he found that he just wasn’t very good and that fact was reinforced by having his nose broken a number of times.
Deciding to devote himself to music, he began a career that started in the late 1940’s with Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts program, which led to a recording contract. Roger’s combining of pop standards, light classical and jazz proved to be audience-pleasing, and he began to sell some records. But when he recorded “Autumn Leaves,” he struck gold. It shot to number one and ended up being the biggest selling piano recording of all time. It also began a streak of dozens of hits for the pianist, including “Near You” and “Born Free.”
For decades, Roger was one of the most prolific and best-selling recording artists around, and he enjoyed world-wide fame, even receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. Now in his 80’s, he’s still occasionally performing while enjoying his legacy as one of the most popular pianists of all time. You can check out “Mr. Piano’s” activities on his website.