Star Wars wouldn’t be what it is without the score from the incomparable John Williams. His music is iconic, evoking a spectrum of emotions throughout his discography. Whether it’s a standalone film or a major franchise, he always brings his talent and style to his work.
Undoubtedly, John Williams will go down in history as one of the greatest film composers ever. With his decades-long career, here are 10 facts you might not know about John Williams.
1. A Musical Family
Talent seems to be part of the Williams name, as John isn’t the only musician in his family. His father, Johnny Williams, was the drummer for the Raymond Scott Quintette before settling in as an in-demand drummer for CBS radio. Here, Johnny played for various bands throughout the 1930s and 1940s and was the main drummer for the ‘First Lady of Radio,’ singer Kate Smith’s radio program. His work would take him to Hollywood, where he settled as a session drummer at Columbia Pictures.
John’s first wife was actor and singer Barbara Ruick. She was a signed contract player with MGM Studios, where she recorded several songs with the company, was in the original radio version of Dragnet, and was a regular guest on The Johnny Carson Show. Barbara’s best-known works were by Rodgers and Hammerstein, where she starred in the film version of Carousel and their television version of Cinderella.
John and Barbara would have three children, including Joseph Williams, the lead singer of the band Toto. Joseph also has worked in film and television as a singer and composer, including the vocals for Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears theme song and the singing voice for adult Simba in The Lion King. Joseph is also part of the Star Wars family, having written the original English lyrics for the “Ewok Celebration” and “Lapti Nek” before the songs were replaced in the special editions. He would again team up with his father to compose songs for The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.
2. Classical Training With a Contemporary Twist
Because of his father’s Hollywood-bound career and connections, Williams attended some prestigious schools taught by the best in the business. His original studies were to be a concert pianist. He first learned privately under the tutelage of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who is considered one the foremost guitar composers of the twentieth century. He later attended The Juilliard School, where he studied piano under Rosina Lhévinne, whose students were considered the best pianists of this time period.
Despite focusing on more classical training, John heard the work of contemporary musicians like Van Cliburn and John Browning. These pianists made him realize he didn’t want to be a concert performer; John Williams decided he wanted to be a composer.
3. U.S. Air Force Band
Before attending Juilliard, Williams entered the Air Force following in his father’s footsteps of serving in the military. He attended basic training before taking on secondary duties and assignments of serving as a piano and brass player for the U.S. Air Force Band. Here, he received work and practice conducting and arranging music.
4. A Fateful Meeting
Steven Spielberg first introduced Williams to George Lucas when the latter needed a composer for his upcoming film, a little thing known as Star Wars. They were an ideal match, and Williams still holds the record with one of the highest-grossing scores of all time with the “Star Wars Theme.”
5. Not Good Enough
In 2009 while attending Boston University’s Night at the Pops celebration, Williams shared which score he felt he wasn’t good enough to compose. It was 1993’s Schindler’s List. After seeing a raw cut of the film, Williams choked up, becoming incredibly emotional over the film. He turned to Spielberg and said, “I really think you need a better composer than I am for this film.”
Spielberg told his friend, “I know, but they’re all dead.”
For the film, Williams called up world-renowned Israeli-American violinist, Itzhak Perlman, to play the movie's main theme. Despite Williams feeling he wasn’t good enough, Schindler’s List would garner his fourth Oscar win for Best Original Song.
Also, the theme from the movie, particularly Perlman’s violin parts, is a popular song choice among professional figure skaters, with competitors like Johnny Weir, Tatiana Navka, Roman Sadovsky, Satoko Miyahara, Yulia Lipnitskaya, and more using the score in their routines.
6. Alfred Hitchcock
One great honor Williams had in his young career was working with the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. When Hitchcock needed a composer for his film Family Plot, the music executive at Universal Pictures, Harry Garfield, suggested Williams. Williams actually didn’t really like Family Plot when he saw the movie, but there was no way he would turn down the chance to work with the Alfred Hitchcock.
The two worked closely together as Hitchcock attended most of the score sessions. Whenever Williams tried to use darker tones of music for the harrowing scenes, Hitchcock told Williams to use lighter music, saying, “Mr. Williams, murder can be fun.”
7. Don’t Listen
In an interview in 2019 with CBS News, Williams shared that once a movie is complete, he doesn’t go back and listen to the score. He said: “Because I'm writing music all the time, and therefore, it's no comfort to listen to it. I don't listen to music very much.”
8. Second Place to The Big Mouse
John Williams is the most decorated person alive regarding Academy Awards nominations. Though, he doesn’t have the most Academy nominations of all time; he is in second place behind Walt Disney.
9. Final Knight of Queen Elizabeth
Before Queen Elizabeth II passed away in 2022, she issued at the same time two final titles for the Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and one of them was John Williams for his service in the arts and charity. Disney CEO Bob Iger was the other person who shared this final title issue.
10. Oma Tres
John Williams has appeared on screen in Star Wars. He made a cameo as the bartender, Oma Tres, on the planet of Kijimi in The Rise of Skywalker. He didn’t immediately accept the offer, thinking that making a cameo would be silly. But his wife, Samantha Winslow, talked him into it.
Oma Tres’ name is an anagram of the word “maestro,” and the props on set had particular significance. There were 51 items at Oma’s bar for the 51 Academy Awards nominations he’d received at the time. The props were chosen from his movies; a few examples are a whip for Indiana Jones, a time turner from Harry Potter, a model of E.T.’s spaceship, and yellow barrels from JAWS.