Legendary pianist Roger Williams dies after battle with cancer

Roger Williams plays on grand piano in Arizona, in 1999, during a 12-hour marathon performance.

Story highlights

  • Roger Williams dies Saturday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, his assistant says
  • Born Louis Weertz, he won numerous awards over his prolific music career
  • He performed for 9 presidential administrations, including that of his friend Ronald Reagan
  • Nancy Reagan calls him "a great pianist, a great American and a great friend"
Award-winning pianist Roger Williams, who played before nine U.S. presidents and recorded dozens of albums over his long career, died early Saturday in Los Angeles after a struggle with pancreatic cancer, his assistant said. He was 87.
Jacque Heebner, Williams' personal assistant who said she had known the musician for 77 years, said she was with him inside his home when he died. Even into his final weeks, Williams continued to perform and to champion such causes as music education. He had recently released an album and was under contract for three more, she said.
"There was never a man with a more tender, gentle heart," Heebner said. "He was a charming man, even at the age of 87."
Born Louis Weertz in Omaha, Nebraska, the pianist attended Drake University and the Juilliard School in New York City. He then met Dave Kapp, the founder of Kapp Records, who suggested the musician change his name to Roger Williams, according to a biography on the Hit Parade Hall of Fame website.
His break came in 1955 with his recording of "Autumn Leaves," going on to have hits on the Billboard charts for four decades, according to his official website. His records include "Born Free" and themes from the movies "Doctor Zhivago" and "Somewhere in Time."
Williams' success helped land him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a 2011 induction into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame and many other honors. He was also a workhorse performer, including long stints headlining shows in Las Vegas in which he played his characteristic blend of originals, classics and works from greats like Duke Ellington and more contemporary composers.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan noted in a statement Saturday that Williams played for nine presidential administrations, including her husband's. She said Ronald Reagan and the pianist "met as young men, each just getting started, and had been friends for decades."
"Roger kept in touch long after we left in Washington," Nancy Reagan said, noting he performed "many times at the Reagan Library."
"Roger was a great pianist, a great American and a great friend," she said.
According to Heebner, Williams played and practiced eight hours a day. She said he continued to do so into his final days, adding that his cancer didn't affect his sunny demeanor or sharp mind.
"His oncologist (recently) said his sickness hadn't done anything to his intelligence, his quick wit and his charm," Heebner said. "He was an amazing person."