Wishing “America’s Composer,” John Williams, a Happy 89th Birthday

By Steve Vertlieb: After nearly dying a little more than a decade ago during and just after major open heart surgery, I fulfilled one of the major dreams of my life…meeting the man who would become my last living lifelong hero. I’d adored him as far back as 1959 when first hearing the dramatic strains of the theme from Checkmate on CBS Television. That feeling solidified a year later in 1960 with the rich, sweet strains of ABC Television’s Alcoa Premiere, hosted by Fred Astaire.

Over the ensuing years, as I matured physically and John matured musically, I grew to love the man and his music. I sensed a new maturity in his music with the release of the TV adaptation of Jane Eyre featuring George C Scott. I recall being thrilled on New Year’s Eve when going to a first night screening of The Poseidon Adventure, and hearing his full blown themes for the thrilling finale and end titles. By the time that I’d both heard and seen The Towering Inferno, I’d become convinced that John Williams had stunningly evolved into one of the screen’s greatest composers.

Then came Jaws, and a minor space opus called Star Wars, for which he won an Academy Award for the year’s best score. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman (which old friend Ron Borst called “John Williams’ Christmas gift to the world”), the Indiana Jones trilogy, JFK, Born On The Fourth of July, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Space Camp, Hook, Home Alone, War Horse,” and so many other glorious themes and scores followed, leaving little doubt in anyone’s mind that John Williams, along with Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Victor Young, Elmer Bernstein, and Jerry Goldsmith, had become one of the screen’s premiere composers of the past ninety years.

I’d tried for decades to meet John, and yet it seemed that it might never happen. Beaten back time after time … Close Encounter after Close Encounter … I’d given up my dreams of meeting this joyous soul… and then, just a few months after enduring nearly six hours on the operating table during major open heart surgery, I received a message of hope from Juliet Rozsa. My brother had chosen to reward me for surviving, and embracing life once more, by having me visit him in Los Angeles for my first visit West in thirty years. Juliet had graciously promised to try to arrange for a meeting between my last living life long hero and I.

This particular evening with John in his dressing room, backstage at The Hollywood Bowl in August, 2010, was one of the greatest, most exciting nights of my life. My eyes filled with tears as I approached him and, thanks to the kind and generous friendship of Juliet Rozsa, I’d move from death’s door and finality to the smiles and warm embrace of “America’s Composer,” John Williams.

Born February 8th, 1932 … Wishing Maestro John Williams a sublimely Happy, decidedly symphonic, 89th Birthday. God Bless You, Maestro…and Thank You So Very Much for your most gracious generosity and kindness.

John Williams and Steve Vertlieb.

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3 thoughts on “Wishing “America’s Composer,” John Williams, a Happy 89th Birthday

  1. John Williams is a major master of a musical genre far, far older than movies. Composers going back to George Frederick Handel (18th century) and Henry Purcell (17th century) have written much incidental music for drama–which is what movie music scores are. I consider Williams to be the Handel of our times, especially since both composers make much use of the brass section of the orchestra.

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