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Celebrated Pianist's Songbook Fills 13-Hour Library Show

Roger Williams plays 400 requests during a 13-hour Nixon birthplace performance.

November 11, 2002|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

The silky notes were as kisses to the audience Sunday as famed "pianist to the presidents" Roger Williams celebrated his 78th birthday with a 13-hour ivory-tickling marathon at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

Among the tunes he played were several renditions of "Happy Birthday," as well as an unnamed song written by Nixon himself and performed only once before: on Jack Paar's television show in 1963.

"Just Nixon played it," Williams said, "and not very well."

The level of performance was elevated considerably on Sunday, however, as Williams -- who claims to know 10,000 songs by heart -- played about 400 requests from an audience that organizers estimated would top 1,000 listeners by the end of the day.

"I'm so grateful that people still want to come and listen to me," said Williams, who in a career spanning 47 years has performed for eight American presidents, recorded 115 albums and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The custom of celebrating his birthday with marathon concerts began three years ago with an appearance in Phoenix, Williams said.

Last year he played for 12 1/2 hours at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley.

And he plans to best this year's 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. extravaganza with an even longer performance next year at Jimmy Carter's presidential library in Georgia, he said.

"We older people are pretty much discarded by society," said Williams, wearing tan slacks and a colorful shirt.

"They don't feel that we have anything left."

The concert, he said, was aimed at changing such impressions.

"I feel better than I ever have," the pianist said.

"The message is 'Don't write us off.' "

Members of the audience certainly didn't seem to be doing that as they sang along, clapped and hummed to apparently seamless medleys of tunes ranging from "On Wisconsin" to Williams' more famous renditions of "Autumn Leaves" and "Rhapsody in Blue."

"I love it," said Tom Campbell, 70, of Huntington Beach. "He's playing all the tunes I know."

It was especially appropriate that the performance take place at the Nixon Library & Birthplace, executive director John H. Taylor said, because "we have ancestral links to Mr. Williams," who played several times for Nixon, both in and out of office.

The most recent performance, he said, was at the opening of the library itself in 1990, after which he donated the Steinway piano on which Sunday's concert was performed.

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