thu 18/07/2024

First Person: 'America's sweetheart organist' Carol Williams on running the musical gamut | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: 'America's sweetheart organist' Carol Williams on running the musical gamut

First Person: 'America's sweetheart organist' Carol Williams on running the musical gamut

A born entertainer about to surprise London audiences discusses her happy life

Carol Williams at the e Midmer-Losh World's Largest Pipe Organ, Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall

I have always had a fascination with concert programmes. I did my Doctorate thesis on this subject. I remember vividly as a youngster attending many uninteresting programmes and thinking “there has to be more exciting, exhilarating, interesting music for the concert goer!” What type of repertoire makes audiences come back to solo organ concerts?

The varied repertoire kept me alive and my studies at the Royal Academy of Music with David Sanger were priceless. I came from a musical family - Dad had an amazing ability to play the theatre organ, Mum the piano and Aunt Olwen played organ in church. Their support of my musical journey I will always be grateful for. I knew at an early age that I wanted to be a concert artist - I could read music before I could read English. The instruments we had at home were a grand piano and a Hammond organ. From an early age I sure loved jazz organ. I didn’t see any barriers in musical styles. To me, music is a universal language; once listened to, it fills your soul.

During my time at Manhattan School of Music, New York, I studied the concert venues in late 19th century England such as the Royal Albert Hall and Liverpool Town Hall. The concert organists such as W.T. Best and Edwin Lemare were some of the people I researched in studying their precious programmes. In a nutshell, the repertoire contained the standard organ works and, more importantly, the popular music of the day. This approach was how I successfully tackled my position as Civic Organist of San Diego (2001-17). Carol Williams in San DiegoI quickly learned what music kept people in their seats at a free organ concert. The Spreckels Organ and Pavilion were a gift by John D. Spreckels to the people of San Diego with the stipulation that concerts must always be free to the public. So, with every performance you certainly had to play what people wanted to hear - not what you thought they should listen to (pictured above: San Diegor Civic Organist Emerite). ! I found out very quickly the more diverse repertoire didn’t always go down well and, that tourists would quickly head out for the Japanese Tea Garden if they didn’t like the music.

From an early age I have enjoyed playing every type of music from the great Romantic organ works of Vierne and Widor to the amazing jazz works of artists such as Jimmy Smith and Dave Brubeck, and other rock and blues composers. I had the pleasure of hearing Jimmy Smith perform in a New York nightclub years ago and it was one of the greatest concerts I have ever attended. He caressed the Hammond B3 organ with his subtle playing and exquisite registrations. And his stage manner was warm and inviting. I loved it. Carol WilliamsNow, the truth of the politics behind my San Diego job... In my tenure as San Diego Civic Organist I was paid by the city and in that capacity, I was given total control of my performances and who could even play "my" organ. I was Artistic Director of the Spreckels Organ Society of which I had to report to a board of trustees. The organ belongs to the city and they gave me free control of my performances. On the other hand the Spreckels Organ Society did not always approve of some genres of music I chose - some genres were just "never done before"! My husband Kerry, a film producer, introduced concert live stream for the first time. Kerry also produced the 100th Spreckels Organ Anniversary concert highlights. (Pictured above by Chris Valle: talking at "Let's Rock").

I invited to accompany me various jazz, rock, blues musicians, bag pipers, colonial folk dancers, poets, broadway singers, percussionists and, even the US Navy band. I proclaimed myself the ambassador of the San Diego Spreckels Organ on all my domestic and world concerts.

Being San Diego Civic Organist with the trust and freedom the City of San Diego gave me opened the chance to really explore all avenues of music in my performances. I paid attention to the news; if some famous artist passed away I would do my very best to play a tribute to them. The week that David Bowie passed, Kerry, also a drummer, agreed that we would do a medley in his honour. This was well publicized for a Sunday concert and we had a record turnout for that event. From that concert came the idea to form the Carol Williams Band (pictured below by Robert Lang) which was very well received. The Society realized that donations were at their highest levels with an audience record of 7,000 for a Rock 'n Roll concert. My innovative approach continues to this day. Carol Williams BandIn conclusion, my goal in life is to make people feel good from all aspects of my performance. What I mean is, not only to play very well but, as I was taught in school, to speak between musical pieces with boring notations that only classical connoisseurs, scholars or fellow organists would appreciate. However, my husband and I are very happy people and we make each other laugh a lot. We decided to place comedy in between the pieces. Kind of like Victor Borge. Kerry writes comedy well and I am a good speaker and performer (cheeky eye)..

Currently my husband and I live outside of Atlanta Georgia - I now serve as Artist in Residence at Peachtree Christian Church in Atlanta. We have a Ruffatti and a Pilcher instrument. Two organs, two consoles, and both can be played at one console. Luxury!  We are having the Pilcher rebuilt and after this returns to the church, we will have a major concert series. And the series will explore “The Outer Limits”. I also serve as Artistic Director to Viscount Organs North America. I will say that the future is bright;  don't be surprised at what I get up to next.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters