Robert Meridith Willson was born May 18, 1902 in Mason City, Iowa.
He attended Frank Damrosch’s Institute of Musical Art (later The Juilliard School) in New York City.
Willson married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth “Peggy” Wilson on August 29, 1920.
As a flute and piccolo player, Willson joined John Philip Sousa’s band in 1921. Then in 1924, he became a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini.
Willson 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.
Willson’s work soon included composing the score for Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator which received the Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score.
He then arranged music for the score of William Wyler’s The Little Foxes in 1941 which also received the Academy Award nomination for Best Music Score of a Dramatic Picture.
Willson wrote the very well known song, “You and I”, which became a Number 1 hit for Glenn Miller in 1941 on the Billboard chart. It was later recorded by Bing Crosby, and by Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra on vocals.
During World War II, Willson worked for the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service. His work with the AFRS teamed him with George Burns, Gracie Allen and Bill Goodwin. He would work with all three as the bandleader, and became a regular character on the Burns and Allen radio program. He played a shy man, always trying to get advice on women. His character was basically a male version of Gracie Allen’s character.
Returning to network radio after WWII, Willson 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 featuring some of the world’s most respected entertainers. Willson wrote the song, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” for the show. Bankhead spoke the lyrics over the music at the end of each 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. Through working on this production, Willson met writer Franklin Lacey who proved instrumental in developing the story line for a musical Willson had been working on, soon to be known as The Music Man.
The Music Man
Willson’s most famous work, The Music Man, premiered on Broadway in 1957, and was adapted twice for film (in 1962 and 2003).
He referred to the show as “an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state”.
It took Willson some eight years and thirty revisions to complete the musical, for which he wrote more than forty songs.
Three songs from The Music Man have become American standards: “Seventy-Six Trombones”, “Gary Indiana”, and “Till There Was You.” Till There was You was later recorded by The Beatles’ for their album With The Beatles (UK release, 1963) and Meet The Beatles! (US release, in 1964).
The cast recording of The Music Man won the first Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album (Broadway or TV).
In 1959, Willson and his wife Rini recorded an album called “…and Then I Wrote The Music Man”, in which they review the history of, and sing songs from the show.
Willson’s second Broadway 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 in 1963.
His fourth, and last, and least successful Broadway 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.
Willson is also remembered for his 1951 classic Christmas song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”
The song was originally titled “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” and has been recorded by many artists, but was a hit by Perry Como and The Fontane Sisters with Mitchell Ayres & His Orchestra on September 10, 1951.
Bing Crosby then recorded a version on October 1, 1951, which was also widely played.
Willson wrote “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You”, 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 also 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. It was time to get the country’s youth into shape, and Willson’s song had youngsters moving through basic exercises at a frenetic pace: push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, torso twists, running in place, pogo springs, and plenty of marching. With an energetic lead vocal by Robert Preston, orchestral marching band, and full chorus, it was likely recorded during sessions for the Music Man motion picture.
In general, Willson is recognized for writing well-crafted, complex music with intricate and sometimes startling counterpoint, well-crafted melody, and subtle orchestration.
From about 1948 to the end of his life Willson was an active member, a deacon, of Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Los Angeles. He donated a stained glass window, known as “The Music Man Window”, above the pew where he would sit, which represented various musical instruments. He was known to drive his Rolls Royce to church.
Meredith Willson died of heart failure June 15, 1984 at the age of 82. He is buried at the Elmwood Saint Joseph Cemetery in Mason City, Iowa.
On June 23, 1987, Meredith Willson was presented, posthumously, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan.
Willson’s boyhood home in Mason City, Iowa is part of “The Music Man Square”, which opened in the spring of 2002.
His alma mater, the Juilliard School, dedicated its first and only residence hall to Willson in 2005.
Today, Paul McCartney, through his MPL Communications company, controls the rights to Willson’s song catalog.
Now WE know em