Born in New York in 1932, with his father as a jazz drummer, he naturally began piano lessons. He eventually studied other instruments such as clarinet, trumpet and trombone. In 1948, the family moved to Los Angeles. He attended UCLA and studied composition. He joined the Air Force, studied piano at Juilliard and composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, whom Jerry Goldsmith had also studied with. His early career began as Johnny T. Williams, arranging band music, and playing on jazz albums. He recorded with his own orchestra and began conducting as well.
Williams’ Hollywood career began as a studio session musician (as his father did). He can be heard on such film scores as The Sweet Smell of Success (Elmer Bernstein, 1957), Peter Gunn (Henry Mancini, 1958) and To Kill A Mockingbird (Elmer Bernstein, 1962). It was during these early Hollywood days he became worked as an orchestrator for names like Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, and Dimitri Tiomkin. His orchestrating led to TV composing; working on shows like M Squad, Bachelor Father, Checkmate and Lost in Space (in which he also composed the theme). Around this same time, Williams began composing for films – starting with 1958’s Daddy-O. His films around this period contain many lighthearted fare, like Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), How to Steal a Million (1966), and Fitzwilly (1967).
Williams first collaborated with director Mark Rydell for The Reivers (1969). It certainly seems by this point that the Johnny Williams had matured into his own identity and musical style that is still seen today. The Reivers was his first Academy Award nomination (for an original score). Through his adaptation and arranging, he was Oscar nominated for Valley of the Dolls (1967), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) and eventually winning his first Oscar for the adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof (1971).
The 1970s is when John Williams first came into prominence, as his top level scores show. Continuing with Mark Rydell, he scored the John Wayne western The Cowboys (1972) and Cinderella Liberty (1973). One of his most experimental atonal scores was for Robert Altman’s Images (1972). The early 70s was also when Williams became known for his epic disaster scores, notably The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974).
1974 marks the first year collaborating with Steven Spielberg, who sought out Williams after hearing his score for The Reivers. Their first film together was The Sugarland Express (1974). They would reunite for the outstanding thriller Jaws (1975). The film lead Williams to his first Oscar for an original score. His score to Family Plot (1976) was Alfred Hitchcock’s last feature film. It was his work with Steven Spielberg that led him to George Lucas, who asked him to score Star Wars (1977). The score, like the film, harkens back to the grandiose days of serials and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The masterful score won Williams another Oscar. (The score was also voted the #1 film score on the AFI list). The same year, Spielberg’s script to Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the score in a most interesting way. The five note motif is used as part of the story before becoming part of the orchestral score. Another one of his most popular works came from Superman (1978). The often-copied march is one of the most recognizable themes in his repertoire. The last score to round out the 1970s was Spielberg’s slapstick WWII film 1941. Let’s just all agree that the score is the best part of the film.
The 1980s began with a return to the Star Wars universe with The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Musically, we get some of John Williams’ finest thematic material – namely Han Solo and the Princess, Yoda’s Theme and the popular Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme). It was also 1980 that he began his tenure as music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra (which he would hold until 1995). Following his successes with Spielberg and Lucas, comes the next large franchise of his career – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). For the beautifully crafted score to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), he won another Oscar. This film certainly wouldn’t have had the impact had it not been for Williams’ work. He followed with more sequels, each adding new thematic material in Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). It was also in 1984 that he was asked to write the fanfare for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, a theme which is still used to this day.
It is notable to mention the one Spielberg feature film that Williams didn’t compose for – The Color Purple (1985). He continued with more scores, with a different flavor to each, like The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Empire of the Sun (1987), and the moving score to The Accidental Tourist (1988). He scored three films in 1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Always and his first collaboration with director Oliver Stone – Born on the Fourth of July.
The 1990s began with a few quiet scores like Presumed Innocent (1990). As he had done before, he replaced a composer and scored Home Alone (1990) for director Chris Columbus. The early 90s contains some more memorable scores including Hook (1991), JFK (1991), the Irish inspired Far and Away (1992), and the Home Alone sequel. 1993 certainly is a milestone for the Williams/Spielberg collaboration. We got the majesty of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the achingly haunting score to Schindler’s List – which would win Williams his 5th Academy Award.
Other notable scores from the 90s include:
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) featuring exotic instruments and orchestral techniques
Seven Years In Tibet (1997) featuring Yo Yo Ma’s moving cello solos
Saving Private Ryan (1998) featuring not much music, but an extremely effective choir
And of course we come to 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Williams and Lucas reunite for the prequel trilogy, bringing the epic scope with cues like Duel of the Fates.
As the 2000s began, Williams certainly showed no sign of stopping. In 2001, he composed some strong material in the futuristic A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Williams showed another side of him with a semi-electronic and minimalist score, but with the Spielberg/Williams heart. And Williams composed the beginning to the Harry Potter franchise with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (The first two films directed by his past collaborator Chris Columbus). His themes for the film have already become recognizable parts of the brand and each film to follow. 2002 saw him doing the theme to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and four large film scores: the next Star Wars installment Attack of the Clones, the frantic Minority Report, the second Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and the jazz-inspired Catch Me If You Can. After a year off, Williams returned with Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, certainly one of my favorite of his recent works. He also scored The Terminal, with a blend of jazz and a masterful clarinet solo. 2004 was also when he received the Kennedy Center Honor. 2005 saw another gigantic year with the last Star Wars film - Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, the gorgeous score to Memoirs of a Geisha (another personal favorite), and Munich. Both Memoirs and Munich were nominated for the Oscar, with a disappointing loss.
It wasn’t until 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that Williams returned to the big screen. In 2009, his piece Air and Simple Gifts was performed for Barack Obama’s Presidential inauguration. After another break on the screen, Williams returned to cinemas with both The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and War Horse (2011), both featuring the classic Williams techniques, but continuing to be inventive. Both scores were nominated for the 2012 Academy Awards. His moving score to Spielberg's Lincoln (2012) was recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and featured solo performances. The score was nominated for several awards, including the Academy Award.
As written in other posts, Williams has been a model of the composer-who-does-it-all. His conducting with the Boston Pops brought some more classic film scores to a wider audience, his concert works includes concertos for just about every instrument, and his commission vary from the aforementioned Presidential Inauguration to the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall (Soundings, 2003), to the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Fanfare, 1986). He has composed music for the 1984, 1988, 1996 and 2002 Olympic Games. His theme for the NBC news originally from 1985 still is used today. DreamWorks films still feature the theme he wrote in 1997. He has performed piano in several film scores, in addition to conducting almost all his film scores. He has also conducted some of the world’s best orchestras with his own work and work of other film composers.
It is not hard to convince anyone that Williams is the quintessential American film composer. His fanfares have inspired us for decades and his film work has inspired film composers like Alexandre Desplat, Michael Giacchino, and too many others to list. His collaboration with Steven Spielberg is also a prime example of how film making works.
As Steven Spielberg said at the Kennedy Center Honors, “John Williams is a national treasure and as American as apple pie.”