Nfld. & Labrador

Star Wars composer John Williams' first score a 1952 Newfoundland film

American composer John Williams, now finishing the music for the upcoming Star Wars film, says the roots of his craft can be traced back to his military stint in Newfoundland.

John Williams posted by U.S. Air Force to St. John's, arranged folk songs for tourism film

American composer John Williams in 1952 at the Atlantic Films studio on Prescott Street in St. John's. Behind Williams are Ralph Blei, sound engineer, and Margeurite Reid, scriptwriter. (The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, A 68-51 / AFE)

The renowned American composer who is completing the soundtrack to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, says the roots of his high profile musical career can be traced back to two years he spent in St. John's in the early 1950s. 

"Unquestionably, it's all one link," said John Williams.

Williams is widely considered to be one of the best film composers of all time. His six- decade long career includes collaborations with filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and a stint as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. He has received multiple Oscars, Grammys, and Golden Globe Awards for his work.

But before all that, when he was a young man, Williams was drafted into the U.S. military.

Williams posted to St. John's 

Like many other music conservatory students of his era, Williams elected to join a service band. He was assigned to the Northeast Air Command Band with the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Fort Pepperell in St. John's.

"We played dances on the American bases and the Canadian base," recalled Williams, "and little concerts that were staged, and even radio programs."

"It was actually a wonderful school. My mates were, many of them, super musicians, that ended up in American symphony orchestras later."

Williams said he has many fond memories of his two years in St. John's, the first time he had ever travelled outside the continental U.S. states. He found Newfoundlanders to be friendly and welcoming, and many of his Air Force buddies became lifelong friends.

He also became well-known in St. John's for being able to arrange many kinds of music and songs for the Air Force Band.

First film music request 

That brought Williams to the attention of Atlantic Films, a local production company which had been commissioned by Joey Smallwood's government to make a Newfoundland tourism film.

Wanting a sophisticated sound for the soundtrack, a company official approached Williams' base commander with a request for Williams and the band to provide music for the film, called You Are Welcome.

What I did was go to the library, and pick a Newfoundland folk song or two.- John Williams, composer, on first film score

"It was not an original score,"  recalled Williams.

"I did not have a clue or an idea on how to do that. What I did was go to the library, it must have been in St. John's, and pick a Newfoundland folk song or two which formed the basis of what I arranged for that little film."

"The one song that I can remember (from the score) was called Jack Was Ev'ry Inch a Sailor."

Williams' score also included arrangements of The Ode to Newfoundland, The Squid Jigging Ground, and Lots of Fish in Bonavist' Harbour.

You Are Welcome may have been lost to film and music buffs forever if it wasn't for filmmaker Derek Norman.

When the Atlantic Films building was being demolished in 1980, Norman salvaged some of the company's equipment for reuse at the Newfoundland Independent Film Co-Operative (NIFCO).

He also rescued reels of film from the studio's shelves.

It was only later, when Norman was hired by the provincial archives to sort through what was on those film reels, that he discovered You Are Welcome.

"It was fabulous, I loved it," said Norman. "It had Newfoundland, the holiday destination. It was, how you call it, very cosmopolitan."

Norman, who is working on a book about the history of film in Newfoundland and Labrador, maintains he hears a bit of John Williams' St. John's experience in the composer's famous film scores.

"All the U.S. Air Force marches have that big, heroic sound."   

After Williams wrote the sheet music for the film accompaniment, he and ten of his fellow U.S. Northeast Air Command Band musicians crowded into the Prescott Street studio of Atlantic Films and played it in front of the microphones.

An early footnote 

You Are Welcome doesn't contain the brass fanfares or soaring string melodies which are heard in most of Williams' film scores, and Williams considers the music to be an early footnote in his career.

Williams said he really developed and refined his musical composition style after he left Newfoundland and the U.S. Air Force, and returned to the United States to work in Hollywood film orchestras.

However, Williams said he is working the same way today, for the latest Star Wars film, as he did for his first film in St. John's in 1952 — with live musicians playing real instruments in front of microphones.

Williams added that the lessons he learned from his bandmates still stay with him.

"Living with these boys who were serious flutists, trumpeters, bassoonists, the rest of them, studying what they did, learning instrumentation, applying it to our little concerts, and even in this juvenile way, to this film, was a great part of what musical education I've been able to absorb," said Williams.

"And I remember it all well, and with tremendous gratitude."