By Deepa Bharath, OC Register:
YORBA LINDA – The rich, deep and soothing notes that flowed out of Roger Williams’ Steinway piano filled the chandelier-lit replica of the Nixon Library’s East Room Monday afternoon as those who loved and admired “Mr. Piano” honored his life and memories.
Williams, who has played for nine U.S. Presidents, died Oct. 8 at his Encino home at age 87 of complications from pancreatic cancer.
Friends, family members, fans and members of his own band who gathered at a public service for Williams spoke of him not only as a larger-than-life musician and entertainer, but as a humble, sweet-natured human being who showed them how to be a noble human being.
The words “mentor” and “friend” were often repeated as memories were shared at the service, which was attended by about 300 people.
Glenn Ballantyne, who worked with Williams as a songwriter, said going with his mother as a 7-year-old boy to hear Williams in concert changed his life and inspired him to become a pianist by overcoming his attention deficit disorder.
“I’m one of millions who has been inspired and motivated by his music,” Ballantyne said. “Roger Williams saved my life.”
The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral where Roger Williams played for more than 35 years, called Williams “a gift of God.”
“I’ll never forget the music that came from his 10 fingers,” he said. “Roger was a true, sincere, humble person who believed in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.”
During the service, a video showed Williams playing “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” one of Martin Luther’s best known hymns, to the packed pews of the Crystal Cathedral. Those at the service rose to their feet with a standing ovation after the piece concluded on screen.
Williams’ daughter, Alice Jung, said her father began his career at his father’s church.
“My father loved his music and that was his passion and we as his family knew it,” she said.
Williams’ band members accompanied his piano recording – a medley that ended with his biggest hit “Autumn Leaves,” which is also the largest selling piano recording of all time.
Ed Finn, who had played the guitar for Williams for the last 16 years, said he admired his boss’ genuineness as a person.
“He was a bonafide old school star,” Finn said. “There are so many memories. The road trips, the sound checks, the rehearsals at his home. He was not just a great piano player, he was the epitome of cool.”
Drummer Jimmy Carnelli choked back tears as he said Williams was a “second dad” to him after his own father passed away.
“He taught us how to reach for perfection, which was his way,” he said. “The times we spent together at rehearsals, that was our time with Roger.”
Among those who attended were Williams’ loyal fans. Alyce Bledsoe of Brea said she tried to catch a concert whenever he played locally.
“I just liked everything about his music,” she said. “My favorite is ‘Autumn Leaves’ and that’s always going to be his trademark.”
Marc Riley, a former orchestra conductor at the Crystal Cathedral, talked about how Williams took him under his wing.
“He showed me how not to get emotional while putting my emotions into the music,” he said.
Tom Tipton, who met Williams at the Crystal Cathedral 33 years ago, said he has seen Williams make a strong and positive connection with people. He recalled the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival Parade in 2010 where Williams was the Grand Marshal and hundreds flocked simply to say “hello” to him.
“What a special time,” said Tipton. “What a special guy.”
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Photo and caption courtesy of Ana Venegas, OC Register: A photograph of Roger Williams sits down the hall from the East Room at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum on Monday. A memorial payed tribute to Williams who played piano for nine presidents.