The first biography of John Williams—Strings Attached: The Life & Music of John Williams, written by William Starling—came out in 2012. It’s a remarkable book, not only for its insights into the Australia-born virtuoso, but also because the opening chapters present thoroughly researched background information on the guitarist’s English father, Len Williams, who taught John from the beginning and also helped many other classical guitarists in the post–World War II era. When the family moved back to London in 1952, Len, who was fine guitarist himself, opened the Spanish Guitar Centre near Leicester Square, in the heart of London.
Andrés Segovia first heard young John play at the age of 11 and arranged to study with him during the summers at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy. It was there that Williams met the Venezuelan virtuoso Alirio Díaz and developed his intense love of Venezuelan music.
While Segovia’s famous quote, printed in the program for Williams’ first Wigmore Hall recital, on November 6, 1958—“God has laid a finger on his brow, and it will not be long before his name becomes a byword in England and abroad…”—has remained with him, and plagued him throughout his career, his father’s response to that quote, which appears in the biography, gives some idea of Williams’ very grounded upbringing. Len Williams was with friends at a pub after the concert, when he said: “Touch his brow? You’d get far more response by kicking his f—ing arse!”
No wonder John Williams is one of the most unpretentious and open-minded musicians around.
Despite his oft-stated preference for avoiding anniversaries and celebrations, I met up with Williams in London in the run-up to his 75th birthday (April 24). Not coincidentally, Sony has released a 58-CD and DVD box set of his recordings with CBS and Sony Classical, meticulously produced by Robert Russ. It’s an outstanding collection of recordings that show the breadth and depth of this unique musician, whose collaborations in the music world have always stretched beyond the boundaries of classical music and also far beyond national borders. As we discussed his five-decade recording career, I realized how he had been enmeshed in London life throughout that time, not just in terms of his musical collaborations, but also in the history and politics of the people who came there from all over the world—some even in exile.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: This is an amazing collection of 50 years worth of recordings, going back to your very first one in 1964 when you were 23 years old. It is not only a reflection of what is happening in the music world, but also what is happening in London life as well. Let’s start with André Previn.
JOHN WILLIAMS: I first met André in 1967 in Houston, Texas, in the United States, where he was the conductor [of the local symphony]. I was playing the usual [Joaquín] Rodrigo concerto [Concierto de Aranjuez], and we struck a friendship from then. He was about to take up the London Symphony Orchestra post. Then, some time over the next couple of years, he wrote a concerto for me. We did the premiere of that in 1971—the concerto included a jazz trio.
CG: Yes, it’s here in the box, CD15, and it says that the British prime minister, Edward Heath, guest-conducted the opening piece by Elgar. You so often work with jazz musicians.
WILLIAMS: Yes, I don’t improvise but I have done a lot with [reeds player] John Dankworth and [singer] Cleo Laine so I’m very good at playing the style, if it’s written out for me, which they always used to do. I did two recordings with them. I did a whole week as their guest when they were playing at the London Palladium. It happened to be a blackout [power outage] week; it must have been 1978.
Segovia was in town also, staying at his usual hotel. I was going through a little bit of a delicate time with Segovia then, but I hadn’t fallen out with him—he had heard that I was accompanying a jazz singer. He hadn’t told me, but he had told other people that he didn’t really like the idea of me playing with a jazz singer. So I visited him during the blackout because it was easy to hop across from the Palladium after a rehearsal. I thought: “I’ve got to explain it.” I played him a bit of “Cavatina”—the instrumental version. He looked at me and said. “It’s a pretty tune; it’s nice.” I was quite pleased that I got away with it. Then I explained that Cleo Laine had written words for it.
CG: On CD3 in the box set you are playing the Concierto de Aranjuez with the conductor Eugene Ormandy. Was that your first Rodrigo recording?
WILLIAMS: Yes, that’s the first one, but of course I had played it a few times before that recording. I must have played it much earlier, at a Sunday evening concert in Swiss Cottage with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Charles Groves. Then I played it up in Liverpool with him. Charles Groves was the music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for years.
CG: Were there lots of performances of Aranjuez at that time?
WILLIAMS: I first heard it after I came to England as a boy of 11 with my mother and father in the early 1950s. We knew Julian Bream, having met him at a guitar society meeting. He would have been about 19 years old then—he’s about seven or eight years older than me. He was playing the Rodrigo concerto at Tottenham Municipal Baths in north London—Julian and I were talking about this a few months ago. I always remember that, because in the slow movement the oboe or the flute didn’t come in on a cue and Julian played it himself.
John Williams and Julian Bream
CG: Can you remember when you first got the score?
WILLIAMS: I can’t remember, to be honest, but I can remember that there were a couple of things that I never liked and still don’t like, which I change: There are a couple of passages very up high in the first movement, which I think are very unpleasant- sounding; I play them down the octave. And I have never liked the high strummed chords at the end of the cadenza. Musically it makes total sense, but I find that there’s more strength in the lower register—I play it an octave lower—because you play all six strings and the body of sound is much stronger. I noticed that very early on and that’s how I’ve always done it.
CG: Over the years, do you feel that you have made changes in your playing of it?
WILLIAMS: In my case, the changes that people generally read into different versions just happen on different days. It’s not that I’ve sat down at the music stand and thought: “I must rethink my interpretation and I must rephrase this, and I think this is more important on the recapitulation.” I think all that is nonsense; you’re just playing as you feel at the time. There is a basic interpretation or a basic idea of the piece that you carry with you, like a suitcase I suppose, and the contents are sometimes old and sometimes they’re new, but it’s the same suitcase.
CG: The range of recordings in the box set is so broad. Was it easy to get the record company to agree to your collaborations?
WILLIAMS: For all the early years, I had a fantastic relationship with my producer, Paul Myers. We did things that were quite experimental—even for that time. Looking back, they weren’t always 100 percent successful, but they have a little cult following now, which I am quite proud of, like the Patrick Gowers pieces—the Chamber Concerto for Guitar, first of all, and then Rhapsody, which was commissioned by the St. Alban’s Cathedral Festival, where I gave the first performance. The organist [at St. Alban’s], Peter Hurford, is a friend of mine, and he also loves the guitar. Rhapsody has two electric guitar tracks, one on each side of the stereo [field], and then it has a “live” classical guitar positioned in the center, like a concerto with a prepared tape. Later on, I played it for a whole week at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in [London’s] Soho using the prepared tapes.
CG: And the Itzhak Perlman recording [Duos by Paganini and Giuliani, 1977]?
WILLIAMS: I knew Itzhak through [pianist and conductor] Daniel Barenboim; Daniel and I knew each other from when we were about 11 or 12 years old in Siena—we are almost the same age, just six months apart. Chris Nupen [from Allegro Films] and I had a flat in New Cavendish Street and Daniel used to visit there and rehearse at a studio around the corner. Itzhak suggested that we do a record together; it just came up in conversation. Itzhak, of all the violinists, is my favorite, so it was an honor to do that recording, but it’s a shame that the repertoire is so thin.
It was one of the easiest recordings I have ever done, because of his sense of movement and rhythmic gravity; we just had exactly the same approach. Come the week before the recording, we still hadn’t played a note together. So one evening he arrived at about midnight and we sat at my kitchen table until about 4 o’clock in the morning, reading through Giuliani, Paganini, odd bits and pieces to decide what to record in the following week. We had the studio for two days but we finished early. It was just so easy. If one of us felt that a repeat needed to be softer, we would just make a raised eyebrow and we’d both play softer and then come in together.
CG: This box set doesn’t include a major aspect of your life, which was being part of the group called Sky [a very popular band that mixed rock, classical, and other forms].
WILLIAMS:Nor the Cleo Laine and John Dankworth recordings. Sky was launched in 1979–80 and I was in it for about three or four years. Sky I and Sky II were by far our best albums. I left when we did the sixth recording. I learned an amazing amount working with others during that period, which, by the way, was not exclusive to everything else—I was doing just as many other things at the same time; there’s never been a conflict for me.
CG: Not a conflict, but the volume of work must have been exhausting.
WILLIAMS: It was a lot of work, but if you are learning and you are excited by it, then for a musician, it’s not a lot of work. I can’t emphasize enough how much the classical world has got to learn from, let’s call it, the popular world in music. Even singers like Val Doonican—to watch Val working on his television show, his presentation, it’s all part of it. Things are getting much better now in the classical world, but there’s still a lot they can learn.
CG: A lot of those television appearances are on YouTube now.
WILLIAMS: Have you seen the Les Dawson Show? Les Dawson was wonderful, and I also did loads of Eric Sykes [comedy show] programs. I’ve always liked that. The first television show of that sort that I did was the Billy Cotton Band Show in about 1960. I met Eric Sykes just before that. Val Doonican’s shows were mostly broadcast live from the BBC theater in Shepherd’s Bush during the 1970s and 1980s. Every week at 8 o’clock on Saturday night, he would be talking live to 18 million people.
With Sky we all had fingers in lots of pies. The bass player, Herbie Flowers, is legendary, famous for the bass riff on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Then, apart from my recordings with Sky, there were Changes and The Height Below, with Brian Gascoigne—they were for the Fly Cube label. Changes had the first “Cavatina,” in 1970. Changes and Travelling were with Stanley Myers, and Herbie played bass on both of them; that was 1978–79.
Sky II, with the Bach “Toccata” as the single, was one of the best-selling records of the year. On one tour, we were at Glasgow Apollo with an audience of 2,000 people. Francis Monkman, our keyboard player, was playing the “Fandango” by Soler—which lasts for about 12 minutes—on the harpsichord—amplified obviously—and people just went mad afterwards; they really liked it. That sort of experience always stays with me—it is what music should be about.
CG: Was it strange to do regular classical concerts after that?
WILLIAMS: No, except that gradually I tried to incorporate a lot of the response and feeling that I would get from that into my classical playing. Over the last few years, I have regularly played in large concert halls, which are not ideal for the guitar, but if you are going to do it, then you have to do it with as good amplification as you can find. It’s a way of bringing the guitar right up to a big audience, not just the faithful who know it.
In my case, it’s a question of exploiting the luck that I have had, like with “Cavatina,” which, because of the film The Deer Hunter, did get me known by a lot more people. But it also means that they get to know the guitar because of that. I think that is great, and I will exploit that, not for my own ego, but for the guitar. For example, if I’m on The Val Doonican Show and play the Bach “Gavotte” live for 18 million people—you have to play a lot of Wigmore Halls to reach that number of people!
CG: I cannot imagine anyone else ever having a similar career path as you with the guitar.
WILLIAMS: You could look at it in two ways. One of the ways is certainly luck. When I came to England with my family, Julian Bream was blazing all these trails. As he got more well-known and started touring more, he passed on various work which he didn’t have time to do. So I got all the benefit of Julian’s work, certainly in England. Elsewhere was a bit different, because we went different ways, with our different musical tastes, but at the beginning, my stepping stones were ones that Julian had made. After that, my tastes changed and developed—I did a huge amount of contemporary music in the 1960s and basically decided it was a waste of time. It was an interesting experiment: Leo Brouwer, [Toru] Takemitsu, Peter Sculthorpe, Peter Maxwell Davies, all of them went on beyond the 1960s so-called avant-garde and developed their own identities. I played Leo’s first guitar concerto, which is one of his real 1960s aleatoric pieces; it’s in the box set I’m sure.
Everything I have done has been a result of initially being in London and jumping at the opportunity, following up on suggestions and contacts. For example, playing at Ronnie Scott’s Club. Ronnie Scott loved the guitar—he absolutely loved it. Do you know what his favorite piece was? “Scherzino Mexicana” by Ponce. He loved the way in the second part of it the fingers move like a crab in the descending, chromatic passage. I met him at the Africa Freedom Day Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968.
CG: How did the recording with Greek singer Maria Farantouri come about?
WILLIAMS: At the time of the dictatorship in Greece, which was from 1967 until 1974, a lot of Greeks, including musicians, writers, and poets, were exiled in Paris, Rome, and London. Maria used to stay in Kentish Town, when she wasn’t in Paris. I was supporting occasional charity events for the Greeks and that’s how I met them. Mikis Theodorakis had composed a set of songs based on poems by Garcia Lorca, and they asked if I would I play them. Again, like the Ronnie Scott situation—I was so pleased that I had been asked and I couldn’t have wanted to do it more.
It was an identical situation with the group Inti-Illimani, because the Chileans had been based in Europe, exiled from the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. The political groups organizing the fundraising asked if I would play as a guest with them, and Paco Peña joined in as well. We ended up doing quite a few tours with them and two CDs [which are in the collection].
CG: There’s so much more to talk about. It is a fantastic box set. Are there more recordings to come?
WILLIAMS: Yes, but on my own label, called JCW Recordings. Also, there will be a few concerts, in the UK only, with John Etheridge and Gary Ryan—you’ll be hearing about those very soon!