Robert Meredith Willson (18 May 1902 – 15 June 1984) was an American composer, songwriter, conductor and playwright.
He is best known for writing the book, music, and lyrics for the hit musical The Music Man, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1958. The cast recording of The Music Man won the first Grammy Award given for best cast album. Willson also is remembered for his work on films, the Burns and Allen radio program, among other radio shows, and was nominated for two Academy Awards
Born Robert Meredith Reiniger in Mason City, Iowa, Willson attended Frank Damrosch's Institute of Musical Art (later The Juilliard School) in New York City. A flute and piccolo player, Willson was a member of John Philip Sousa's band (1921–1923) and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini (1924–1929). Willson then moved to San Francisco, California as the concert director for KFRC, and then as a musical director for the NBC radio network in Hollywood. Read more
His work for films included writing the music for Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and William Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941), both of which garnered him Academy Award nominations. During World War II, he worked for the United States' Armed Forces Radio Service. His work with the AFRS teamed him with George Burns, Gracie Allen and Bill Goodwin. He would work with all three as the bandleader, and a regular character, on the Burns and Allen radio program. He played a shy man, always trying to get advice on women. His character was dizzy as well, basically a male version of Gracie Allen.
Returning to network radio after WWII, he created the Talking People, a choral group that spoke in unison while delivering radio commercials. He also became the musical director for The Big Show, a respected comedy-variety program hosted by stage legend Tallulah Bankhead and featuring some of the world's most respected entertainers. Willson himself became part of one of the show's very few running gags, beginning replies to Bankhead's comments or questions with, "Well, sir, Miss Bankhead...." Willson wrote the song, "May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You" for the show. Tallulah spoke the lyrics over the music at the end of each show. For a few years in the early 1950s, Willson was a regular panelist on the Goodson-Todman game show "The Name's the Same."
Willson's most famous work, The Music Man, premiered on Broadway in 1957 and was adapted twice for film (in 1962 and 2003). He referred to the show as "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state." It took Willson some eight years and thirty revisions to complete the musical, for which he wrote more than forty songs. The cast recording of The Music Man won the first Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album (Broadway or TV) ever issued.
His second musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, ran on Broadway for 532 performances from 1960 to 1962 and was made into a 1964 motion picture starring Debbie Reynolds. His third musical to reach Broadway was an adaptation of the film Miracle On 34th Street, called Here's Love (1963). His fourth, last, and least successful musical was 1491, which told the story of Columbus's attempts to finance his famous voyage. It was produced by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association but never made it to Broadway.
His Symphony No. 1 In F Minor, A Symphony Of San Francisco, and Symphony No. 2 In E Minor, Missions Of California, were recorded in 1999 by William T. Stromberg conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.
Willson penned a number of very well-known songs, such as "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Gary Indiana," "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas," "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" and "Till There Was You," which was a hit for the Beatles in 1963. He also wrote the University of Iowa's fight song and Iowa State University's "For I for S Forever". He honored The Salvation Army with a musical tribute entitled "Banners and Bonnets." He also wrote the fight song for his hometown high school "Mason City Go!"
Another oddity in Willson's body of work is "Chicken Fat." In the 1960s, this was the theme song in school gymnasiums across the nation as part of President John F. Kennedy's youth fitness program. It was time to get the country's youth into shape, and Willson's song had youngsters moving through basic exercises at a frenetic pace: push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, torso twists, running in place, pogo springs, and plenty of marching. With an energetic lead vocal by Robert Preston, orchestral marching band, and full chorus, it was likely recorded during sessions for the Music Man motion picture.
In general, it was recognized that Willson wrote surprisingly well-crafted, complex, and subtle music that classical music fans could appreciate, with intricate and sometimes startling counterpoint, well-crafted melody, and subtle orchestration, all while still appealing to mass audiences.
Willson wrote two autobiographies: "And There I Stood With My Piccolo" (1948) and "But He Doesn't Know the Territory" (1959).
Willson and his wife lived for years in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood, California. In the 1960s, Willson was fondly remembered by friends and neighbors as a warm and gregarious host who loved nothing more than to play the piano and sing at parties. Willson often gave out autographed copies of his record album, Meredith Willson Sings Songs from The Music Man.
His alma mater, Juilliard, dedicated its first and only residence hall to Willson. He was a member of the National Honorary Band Fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.