Robert Meredith Willson (May 18, 1902 – June 15, 1984) was an American composer, songwriter, conductor who is best known for writing the book, music, and lyrics for the hit Broadway musical The Music Man. Wilson was born in Mason City, Iowa to John David Willson and Rosalie Reiniger Willson, and he had a brother two years his senior, John Cedrick, and a sister twelve years his senior, Lucille. He attended Frank Damrosch’s Institute of Musical Art, later The Juilliard School, in New York City and married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth “Peggy” Wilson on August 29, 1920. 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 radio station KFRC, and then as a musical director for the NBC radio network in Hollywood.
Wilson’s work in films included composing the score for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score, and arranging music for the score of William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941) which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Music Score of a Dramatic Picture. During World War II, he worked for the United States’ Armed Forces Radio Service as the bandleader. 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 prestigious comedy-variety program hosted by actress Tallulah Bankhead and featuring some of the world’s most respected entertainers. He wrote the song, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” for the show. He also worked on Jack Benny’s radio program, and hosted his own program in 1949. For a few years in the early 1950s, Willson was a regular panelist on the Goodson-Todman game show The Name’s the Same.
In 1950 Willson served as Musical Director for The California Story, the Golden State’s centennial production at the Hollywood Bowl. This spectacular was followed by two more state centennial collaborations with stage director Vladimir Rosing, The Oregon Story in 1959 and The Kansas Story in 1961. Willson’s most famous work, The Music Man, premiered on Broadway in 1957, and was adapted twice for film (in 1962 and 2003). 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 Broadway musical 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 in 1969, but was never produced on Broadway.
In addition to his Broadway musicals and his film scores, Willson composed symphonies and popular songs. His Symphony No. 1 in f minor: A Symphony of San Francisco and his Symphony No. 2 in e minor: Missions of California were recorded in 1999 by William T. Stromberg conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Other symphonic works include O.O. McIntyre Suite, Symphonic Variations on an American Theme and Anthem, the symphonic poem Jervis Bay, and Ask Not which incorporates quotations from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. In tribute to the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (ISOMATA), he composed In Idyllwild for orchestra, choir, vocal solo and Alphorn. His chamber music also includes A Suite for Flute.
Willson penned a number of very well known songs, such as “You and I”, which was a No. 1 for Glenn Miller in 1941 on Billboard. Individual songs include “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “I See The Moon.” He wrote the University of Iowa’s fight song, and Iowa State University’s “For I for S Forever.” He also wrote the fight song for his hometown high school “Mason City, Go!” He honored The Salvation Army with a musical tribute entitled “Banners and Bonnets”. An oddity in Willson’s body of work is “Chicken Fat”, written in 1962. In school gymnasiums across the nation, this was the theme song for President John F. Kennedy’s youth fitness program. In 1974 he offered a marching song “Whip Inflation Now” to the Ford Administration, but it was not used. In 1964 Meredith Willson produced three original summer variety specials for CBS under the title Texaco Star Parade.
Willson was married three times. After divorcing first wife Elizabeth, he married Ralina “Rini” Zarova on March 13, 1948. Following her December 6, 1966, death, he married Rosemary Sullivan in February 1968. He lived for years in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood, California. In 1982, both he and Rosemary appeared in the audience of The Lawrence Welk Show. Willson returned several times to his home town for the North Iowa Band Festival. From about 1948 to the end of his life he was an active member, a deacon, of Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Los Angeles. Willson died of heart failure in 1984 at the age of 82. He is buried at the Elmwood Saint Joseph Cemetery in Mason City, Iowa.
I have two works by Willson in my collection:
Symphony No. 1 in fm, A Symphony of San Francisco.
Symphony No. 2 in em, The Missions of California.