About Johnny Williams
Johnny Williams (Watertown, Maine, 1905 – Los Angeles, California, 1984) was an American jazz drummer and percussionist from the early 1930s to the late 1950s. In New York and Hollywood he worked on radio, in films, and as a recording artist.
He is the father of Hollywood film score composer John Williams, and the grandfather of singer Joseph Williams.
The Raymond Scott Quintette
Williams played drums in the New York-based CBS Radio orchestra in the early 1930s, and achieved stardom as drummer for the Raymond Scott Quintette from 1936 to 1939. Despite the name, the band was a sextet. Formed by Scott from the ranks of the CBS orchestra, the Quintette was an overnight sensation at the end of 1936, thanks to Scott's eccentric approach to jazz and idiosyncratic titles (e.g., "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals" and "War Dance for Wooden Indians," both of which showcase the drummer's virtuosity). Williams contributed a very animated style of percussion, which provided a rhythmic foundation for the comic design of Scott's compositions. In addition to the standard jazz drum and cymbal setup, Williams used a lot of cowbell, wood block, and tuned percussion. He had a flawless sense of timing, and was able to execute faithfully the abrupt tempo shifts of Scott's dynamic arrangements. Existing film clips of the Quintette show Williams displaying a high degree of showmanship, including stick twirls, tom-tom rides, and popgun rim-shots. His theatrical, effects-heavy approach predated and no doubt influenced the hyperactive style of musician-comedian Spike Jones.
Scott was a notorious perfectionist, demanding retake after retake in the rehearsal studio. About this process, Williams told historian Michèle Wood, "All he ever had was machines, only we had names." Williams, explaining Scott's (commercially successful) penchant for recording rehearsals and using the reference discs to develop and finalize his compositions, said, "He didn't write anything, but he edited everything. We would work these things up and we would never change them, ever. We had to do them note for note. It was highly unsatisfactory, and it sold like hell."
Scott painted "portraits in jazz," or "descriptive jazz"—what he felt were musical vignettes of colorful evocations, such as "Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner" and "Celebration on the Planet Mars." Williams considered it undignified, but admittedly lucrative. "We really didn't want to do any of it," he told Wood. "We thought [it] was descriptive, all right, but not jazz, because jazz is right now, not memorized note for note. And after all this compulsive rehearsal, suddenly it all caught on and we were making more money than anybody else in town, all thanks to him. We were doing records, public appearances, making movies, everything." Williams also acknowledged a performance dividend. "All that discipline helped," he told Wood. "It had to. I developed a technique way beyond what I'd had."
The Quintette recorded for the Master, Brunswick, and Columbia labels.
When Scott went to Hollywood in late 1937 to work in motion pictures, Williams accompanied the bandleader and appeared on camera with the Quintette in the films Happy Landing and Ali Baba Goes to Town. Although he does not appear on camera, his drumming is heard with the Quintette in the films Nothing Sacred, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Sally, Irene and Mary, and Just Around the Corner.
Scott and his band returned to New York in 1938, allegedly due to the leader's disgust at Hollywood culture ("They think everything is 'wonderful'," he told an interviewer). After dissolving his Quintette in 1939, Scott formed a swing-fashioned big band. Williams remained with the bandleader for at least one incarnation of Scott's newly constituted orchestra. (Scott re-formed the Raymond Scott Quintet [sic] in 1948, but Williams was not involved.)
Throughout his association with Scott, Williams continued as an in-demand drummer for the CBS radio network. His assignments included playing for bands led by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Vincent Lopez, Leo Reisman, Jacques Renard, and Alfonso D'Artega. He also drummed for singer Kate Smith's radio program and in Mark Warnow's orchestra on the long-running radio program Your Hit Parade in the 1930s and '40s. (Note: Warnow was Scott's older brother.)
When Your Hit Parade moved to California in 1948, Williams relocated to the west coast. In Hollywood he found session work in films, performing for Columbia Pictures in soundtrack orchestras for such films as On the Waterfront, Picnic, and From Here to Eternity. In the 1953 film Let's Do It Again, he "ghost-drummed" for actor Ray Milland.
Williams recorded at least twice under his own name, as Johnny Williams and His Swing Sextet (1937, Variety Records) and Drummer Man Johnny Williams and His Boys (1939, Vocalion Records). These recordings reflect the standard Dixieland-swing style of the period, rather than the Scott novelty approach.
While playing in the CBS Orchestra in New York during the 1930s, Williams studied architecture at Columbia University.
His wife was named Esther (not to be confused with actress Esther Williams).
In a 2008 interview with Stan Warnow (Raymond Scott's son, a filmmaker) and Jeff Winner (of RaymondScott.com), John Williams explained that his father was also an expert marksman who won national awards in pistol shooting. "He made his own ammunition," said John, "We had a target range in our basement in Queens where he practiced for pistol competitions." Williams was a marine instructor during World War II, specializing in the use of the Colt .45 handguns. An early Raymond Scott composition on which Williams fired a loaded pistol on microphone in the pre-Quintette days was a novelty entitled "Duet For Pistol and Piano." In one surviving shellac of a live radio program where this number was featured, Williams had to improvise rimshots to simulate the gunshots after the pistol he was firing failed.