John Williams Continues To Score The Sound Of The Olympics

Philadelphia, PA.

Legendary composer John Williams’ work has become synonymous with the presentation of the Olympic Games.

On NBC’s Rio Olympic coverage, you’ll instantly recognize the performances of one of the network’s highest-profile stars. You’ll just never see him.

Olympic coverage really wouldn’t be the same without the distinctive music from John Williams, whose stirring Olympic Fanfare and Theme will float continually through NBC’s Rio coverage as an Olympic staple as familiar to viewers as any camera shot or on-air commentator.

By now, some viewers might be excused for assuming the Games’ unofficial U.S. TV anthem dates back to ancient Greece. But Williams wrote Fanfare for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, where he conducted its orchestral debut at the Opening Ceremony.

NBC, which had used Williams’ The Olympic Spirit song on its 1988 Summer Olympic coverage and again on its 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, began using Fanfare on its coverage of the 1996 Atlanta Summer – and has featured it ever since.

It’s melded with Bugler’s Dream, written in 1958 by French composer Leo Arnaud, who died at age 86 in 1991. ABC began using Bugler on its coverage of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble and NBC has used it since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1996, NBC fused a Williams-arranged version of Bugler with Fanfare and made it the musical star of its Olympic coverage.

While the tune sometimes pops up elsewhere, such as at college graduation ceremonies, it’s hard to argue with Jim Bell, Executive Producer, NBC Olympics, when he says "there is no music more associated with a sporting event." Arnaud’s Bugler was inspired by a typical French cavalry trumpet’s call from the Napoleonic era – and debuted on an album called Charge! But Williams, in an interview, said Fanfare, which took him about a month to compose, had a more abstract grounding. "It’s always difficult to recount and describe in words what inspiration is about — if there is such a thing. But there should be no difficulty in anyone’s mind in finding inspiration in what these athletes do. … It’s a celebration of what the human body is capable of."

Along with Fanfare, NBC will also return Williams’ Summon the Heroes, which he wrote to honor the centennial of the modern Olympics in 1996, and which NBC will incorporate extensively into its daytime cable coverage.

"The challenge there was to write a piece about heroes and I think these Olympic athletes can be admired as such," says Williams. "The question was how not to write about a hero, but a group of heroes who represent the best of us. And there’s no difficulty in anyone’s mind in finding inspiration in what these athletes do."

While Williams’ melodies now seem as mandatory in Olympic coverage as, say, shots of the Olympic torch, the composer suggests that Fanfare drew interest that could have end have led to it ending up in Hollywood instead. While he was working on the music for its 1984 debut, he says he shared it with filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who liked what he heard. Says Williams: "He said he was a bit jealous because he’d liked to have had it for his films."

But Hollywood got plenty from Williams, whose industriousness could make anybody feel pretty darn lazy by comparison.

Williams, 84, has won five Academy Awards – his first for the score for the classic 1971 Fiddler on the Roof — and was nominated 50 times, a total that trails only Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (62) and Walt Disney (59). His music, including various collaborations with Spielberg, has wafted from a long parade of blockbusters, such as the Harry Potter, Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies as well as Jaws, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. (Bugler composer Arnaud, who immigrated to Hollywood and knew Williams, also worked on movies. His work included being the orchestrator on the 1964 The Unsinkable Molly Brown and orchestrator for the Munchkinland scenes in the 1939 Wizard of Oz.)

Williams’ awards include the Olympic Order and National Medal of Arts while his work with various orchestras included serving as musical director of the Boston Pops. And he’s in involved in sports television beyond the Olympics. Williams, whose TV work includes scores (albeit not the famous theme song) for the first season of Gilligan’s Island as well as longtime themes for NBC’s nightly news show, also composed NBC’s Sunday Night Football theme.

Williams says he’s not bound by any kind of formal agreement with NBC. He’s been contacted by other networks, such as ABC for an old Ted Koppel show – "and I love Ted Koppel" – but hasn’t had any interest in straying beyond NBC because he considers it his TV "musical home."

Says Mark Levy, SVP, Original Productions and Creative, NBC Sports Group: "We have been fortunate to be the honored caretakers of his extraordinary work."

You might assume music-making comes easy to anybody who’s generated so many tunes that millions of Americans would recognize instantly.

Well, not exactly, although Williams got an early start. Growing up in New York before moving to Los Angeles in 1948, Williams had music in his genes – his father was a jazz percussionist — and says "I never had an idea you’d do something else" besides music. After being drafted into the Air Force in 1951, Williams defended freedom by conducting and composing for Air Force bands in Arizona and Newfoundland, Canada. (But Newfoundland sounds like a balmy outpost compared to what Williams describes as a particularly striking Olympic personal memory. He vividly recalls conducting the performance of his Call of the Champions Olympic song to open the 2004 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, in a production that included the Mormon Tabernacle, "and it was the coldest night of my life.")

But in his line of work, suggests Williams, obviously having some natural talent isn’t enough. He says he really does get ideas even in, say, the shower or on the golf course and quickly jots them down. (Often, picking them up later, he concludes he’s just come up with "rubbish.")

And he says he never gets time off: "Music for me is a 24-hour-per-day job, you do it while you’re eating, sleeping, when you’re working."

Sounds exhausting. But just because he was born during Herbert Hoover’s administration doesn’t mean he’s looking to stop. "I don’t think any of us plan on going on forever," he says. "But I don’t think you ever retire from music. It’s still the best way to spend my time."

Williams won’t be in attendance at Rio, but figures he’ll find time to watch NBC’s Rio Olympic action: "I’ll do it when I can. I’m not an addictive watcher. But it will be marvelous to see."

And, thanks to Williams and NBC keeping a good thing going, it will have some pretty marvelous moments to hear.