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Roger Williams in New Orleans

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11:25 p.m. March 27

A few weeks ago I drove through a fierce snowstorm to the western suburbs of Chicago to talk to piano player Roger Williams. Some things just need to be done.
Life is short, which is why you take long shots.
You know Roger even if you don't know Roger. His dramatic piano is heard in dull elevators, dentist offices and shopping malls. He put the braggadio in the arpeggio. Williams has been named the best-selling pianist in history by Billboard magazine. He has released 115 albums and his best-selling hits include "Born Free," "Autumn Leaves" and "The Impossible Dream."
It was the impossible dream to convince people I was interested in this soundtrack of our lives. You would've thought I was pitching a story on Andy Williams. Or Barry Williams.
Now a spry 82 years old, Roger Williams did not disappoint.
Especially when I asked what happens when he hears his music along the American landscape...

...."You never know," said Williams, who was sitting alongside the legendary Henry Z. Steinway (the last member of the historic piano making family) at the opening of the Chicago Piano Superstore in Downers Grove. "When 'Temptation' was a hit I played with the New Orleans Symphony."
In 1960 Williams had an instrumental smash with Perry Como's 1945 recording of "Temptation." Williams recalled, "We went to the French Quarter and I hear 'Temptation' coming out of one of the strip joints. Then I had an excuse to go in. And here was this girl dancing to my song. The waitress said, 'That's Roger Williams up there.' Every girl took the name of someone they liked. So she was 'Roger Williams the Stripper'."
Mr. Steinway listened and offered a chesty laugh.
He is 91 years old.
Williams the pianist continued, "So she came over and I told her I was playing with the symphony the next afternoon and if she wasn't working she could come to the show. So she said, 'I'll bring my boyfriend.' It was a Sunday afternoon show. So I played the concert and she came backstage after the show . Someone asked, 'Would you sign Roger's left boob?---the stripper Roger. So I signed her left breast. I've got a picture of her in my house and every time I go by, I say, 'Hey Rog, how ya' doin'?"
Mr. Steinway wore a red bow tie and creased gray suit. He appeared more proper than a first communion but he chuckled and told Williams, "That is a wonderful story."
I drove Mr. Steinway kind of nuts asking him questions about his family legacy (he admitted to being a lousy piano player) so he got up and excused himself.
Williams then told me he knows 20,000 different songs.
"I will play whatever people ask for," he said. "And I know most of the songs. I don't know all the rap things, but my favorite song is whatever they request." I told Williams my favorite song of his was "Born Free." He smiled and said, "Hey, you're older than I think. That goes back at least 25 years ("Born Free" was a crossover pop hit in 1966).
Williams was born as Louis Weertz in Omaha, Neb.
He began playing Steinway piano at the age of three in Des Moines, Ia. "My Dad was a former boxer who won a championship in a non-title fight," he recalled. "And my mother was a violin teacher. So I had a pair of gloves on since I can remember. I was a boxing champion in the Navy during World War II."
Eye-hand coordination is as important in playing the piano as it is in boxing.
"A left to the body is practically the same as a left to the piano," Williams said. "And I always had the fastest hands in the Navy. But I didn't have the knockout punch. I could dance with them for 10 rounds."
After giving up boxing Williams went on to perform for eight United States presidents, beginning with Harry Truman. On Oct. 1, 2004 Williams and President Jimmy Carter turned turned 80 years old. To commemorate their shared birthday, Williams performed a 13 and a half hour concert for President Carter and wife Roslyn at the Carter Library in Atlanta, Ga.
"I played for Reagan because he and I started out at the same radio station (WHO) in Des Moines," Williams said. "I was a 12-year old pianist and he was 'Dutch Reagan,' the great sportscaster. One of the last times I performed for Reagan he just come back from meeting (Russian leader Mikhail) Gorbachev." This would have been the 1986 summit in Iceland when President Reagan refused to back down to Gorbachev's request to compromise on the Strategic Defense Initative (SDI).
Williams said, "Reagan was under a lot of pressure to be conciliatory with the Russians. He wouldn't go to their demands and the summit collapsed. He said, 'Roger, I'm always trying to stump you. Can you play the theme song from (his television show) 'Death Valley Days?' I said, 'Mr. President, I don't know that song.' He said, 'I'm only kidding, play 'The Impossible Dream,' which I did. Then he said how the words to that song embodied everything he dreamt for this beautiful country." Williams offered a satisfied smile, almost as if he was sweeping his left hand along the keys of his life. Despite the bad weather it had been a beautiful night. The best stories are those that break preconceived notions.



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1 Comment

So many stories have the potential to be great if they're told by someone who knows how to tell them and why they're important. Roger and Henry and Dave talking about a New Orleans stripper with a left boob she hasn't washed since Roger signed it. That's a story. Henry chuckles and realizes his reputation has been kept in tact for 91 years, until Hoekstra asks the question that elicits the boob story. Roger keeps talking, Dave keeps writing, Henry keeps listening. 2 of the 3 claim to be innocent. Dave wears guilt like a ball gown. The world is a wonderful place if you read the stories perceived through the eyes and ears of Dave Hoekstra. Roger hasn't learned all the rap songs yet. What? He could live long enough to put out a rap CD one of these days. Roger and Henry are not only members of the Greatest Generation, they are leaders for multi-genrations. Great story Mr. H.

Thanks Kevin,
Your friend, Dave:

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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