LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Roger Williams, known as “the Pianist to the Presidents,” died on Saturday at the age of 87 in his California home after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, his former publicist said.
Williams scored his first hit in 1955 with his Billboard-topping instrumental “Autumn Leaves,” which remains the best-selling piano record of all time.
He would go on to earn 18 gold and platinum records and albums throughout his six-decade career, making him the top charting pianist in the history of Billboard magazine.
Born Louis Weertz on October 1, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, Williams learned to play piano at age three in his father’s church.
Before turning 18 Williams was given his own radio show in Des Moines, Iowa. While there he met and formed a relationship with the station’s sports announcer, future President Ronald Reagan. Their friendship lasted more than 60 years, Williams’s former publicist said.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement on Saturday that Williams and the late President Ronald Reagan had remained friends for decades. Williams performed for a concert marking what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th Birthday at the Reagan Library this year.
“Roger was a great pianist, a great American, and a great friend. I am saddened by his death, and my sympathy and prayers go out to his family,” Reagan said.
In 1942, at the age of 18, Williams enlisted and served in the Navy throughout World War II. After the war he graduated with a Masters degree in music from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Williams moved to New York City to pursue a career as a pianist. He was signed to his first recording label after being spotted by a record producer while playing at the ritzy Forest Hill Inn.
Williams’s second release, “Autumn Leaves,” would catapult him to touring the U.S.
While touring, President Harry S. Truman asked Williams to stop and play at his Missouri office. Later President Dwight D. Eisenhower would invite him to the White House, and he would eventually perform for nine presidents, earning him his nickname.
Williams, the first pianist to be honored with a star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame,” performed for the last time a few days after announcing on his website in March he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Williams is survived by his daughters Laura Fisher and Alice Jung, as well as five grandchildren. His son Jim died in 2004.
Writing by Roy Strom; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Greg McCune