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Las Vegas Sun Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pianist Who Played for Truman (and vice versa) Going Strong But Roger Williams, 83, now limits his birthday concerts to a mere 12 hour
By Jerry Fink

Self-discipline is the secret to success for pianist Roger Williams “I hate it, but I live by it,” the 83-year-old pianist says during a recent interview from his studio in Las Angeles. “We’ve got to get off our butts. In my case, I’m a lazy SOB and I have to force myself to do these things. But they pay off.”

The son of a Lutheran minister practices daily even though he’s sold millions of records, including such classics as “Autumn Leaves”, “Born Free”, and “Lara’s Theme” from the film “Dr. Zhivago”. “I’m still trying to get good”, he says. “I’m serious. I’m my own worst critic. I hardly ever listen to my own recordings because I think of what I could have done, and it’s kind of discouraging. I thought things would slow down at my age, but they’re speeding up. I’m so grateful people want to hear me at this age. I’m playing better than I have ever played in my life.”

The honors keep rolling in for Williams, who will perform Friday through Sunday at South Point. He received the “Pianist to the Presidents” Award on Sept. 17 at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. During a 60-year career, he has performed for nine presidents. Each year he performs a marathon piano concert on his birthday. Last year Williams played for 14 1/2 hours. The piano marathon, scheduled for Oct. 1 at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo., was canceled, and a new location hasn’t been announced.

Q. Are you slowing down?
Not at all. I will be 84 Oct. 1. Last year my manager got after me. He said he didn’t like to see those bleeding fingers at the end of the day. So from now on, I’m just going to do 12 hours. The only problem is this: I could play 24 hours if I was just playing “Chopsticks” or something easy. But in our marathons we give people a piece of paper when they come in and they write what they might want to hear. We have a lot of concert artists come in and people that really like classics and jazz. They ask for tough stuff. So I really work. It isn’t just playing the piano.

Q. Ever been stumped?
Oh, yes. Kids ask for something new, some rap tune or something. I’m just honest. I tell them I don’t know it. The thing about rap is some of the words are pretty creative, but the music is mostly a couple of chords - and it makes me sick to hear them again and again. But if you listen to the words, some of it is pretty good. In rap, the kids are more interested in the lyrics than they are the music. Just give them a couple of chords and go, man. And most of today’s music is so loud and pounding, almost deafening.

That’s the problem with being almost 84. Anything you say brings up a story. I do a thing for one of the largest hearing aid manufacturers in the world. They fitted hearing aids for almost everybody -- Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh. You don’t know the number of kids coming in , in their early 20s and 30s, almost completely deaf. Our ears cannot take that kind of sound. I never go to a concert without ear plugs. It’s killing our kids’ hearing, and that’s sad to me.

Q. Speaking of Reagan, you’ve been called the “pianist to the presidents”. Do you get nervous playing for them?
Not particularly. I’d make a lousy president and most of those I’ve heard play the piano, I’m not overly impressed with.

Q. Did any of the presidents impress you?

The first guy I played for was Harry Truman. The first time I played for him, I was amazed. I didn’t know he played piano. He asked for all kinds of classical stuff and in those days, I was playing classical concerts, so I got about nine out of 10 of the things he asked for. I played for over an hour and when I got through he said. “Now I’m going to play for you.” I thought he was going to play “The Missouri Waltz” or something. Nixon played “God Bless America”. Simple little things. But Harry Truman sat down and played the Chopin C sharp minor waltz. It’s got a tricky little part in the middle and he made a couple of little goofs, but he played beautifully. When he got through I said. “Mr. President, you would have made a good pianist.” And he just snapped back at me and he said, “You know, a hell of a lot of people wish I’d stuck with it.” Good comeback. He was so honest and so refreshing. That’s another thing I get into. All these kids, everything is “love, love, love.” I remember Truman, they burned him in effigy around the country when he fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur (in 1951) . I’ll take an ounce of respect in deference to 20 pounds of love, because respect has to be earned. Even if you don’t agree with some of these guys, you’ve got to respect them for being honest.

Today it’s all about marketing. Politicians say what people want to hear. It just makes me sick. I hate to make statements about anything, but I can make them about what I believe in. You can disagree with me, but I hope you respect the fact that I try to be honest.

Q. Do you have a favorite president?
Jimmy Carter and his wife couldn’t be nicer to me. But we’re poles apart politically. But I love the guy and I love Rosalynn. He’s tried so hard to do so many things since his presidency. The things he’s trying to do, he’s turned out to be our greatest ex-president. We’re poles apart politically, but that’s OK. This is America.