Strings Attached: The Life and Music of John Williams

Strings Attached: The Life and Music of John Williams
By William Starling
The Robson Press; 378 pages
A review by R. C. Speck

How does one write the story of a charmed life? This is essentially the question William Starling had to answer when penning the biography of Australian guitarist John Williams. Starling begins with Williams’s father Len, a fascinating character in his own right. Operating under the twin stars of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and Classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, Len opened the Spanish Guitar Centre in London in the early 1950s and helped popularize the Classical guitar in Great Britain. Volatile and manipulative yet brilliant, Len was the driving force behind young John’s musical education. That is, until John became the student of Segovia.

Starling describes the striking contrast between the two older men: Segovia, the conservative, snobbish maestro perched atop the world of the Classical guitar. And Len, the working-class genius with attitude. It should come as no surprise that these two nearly came to blows over John’s future.

Even-keeled and compassionate, John Williams went his own way as a musician. Starling takes us through Williams’s halcyon days in the 1960s when he began to introduce works of contemporary Latin American composers into the Classical canon. Williams’s nearly flawless technique won him fans the world over. Starling also covers Williams’s friendships with other Classical music luminaries such as Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline Du Pré as well as Williams’s good-natured rivalry with Julian Bream, the other great Classical guitarist from the English-speaking world.

Williams was always one to court controversy, even if he didn’t mean to. 1971’s Changes marks the first foray of a major Classical guitarist into popular genres. Williams also ruffled a few feathers performing the works of modernist composer Anton Webern as well appearing onstage with rock guitarist Pete Townshend. But this was nothing compared to the lightning rod that was Sky.

Sky could best be described as an amalgam of Classical, pop, jazz, and progressive rock. It had the predictable disapproval from both rock and Classical critics, yet was immensely popular. Front and center was John Williams, enjoying the music as usual.

Best of all, Starling includes a wealth of anecdotes about Williams’s life. Yes, John Williams gets mistaken for John Towner Williams, the composer, often experiencing amusing encounters. More often than not, however, these anecdotes display the kindness and generosity of the guitarist. A great example is when he befriended a prison inmate after the man mailed him a description of a nine-string guitar.

It is stories like this, along with the music, that makes John Williams one of the most beloved musicians in the world.

This book review appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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