Meredith Willson was one of Americas most talented artistic personalities. As a composer his idiom, style and sources of inspiration were always American. Meredith was born in Mason City, Iowa on 18 May 1902. It was a family tradition to gather every evening around the piano in the living room to sing favorite songs. As a boy, Meredith was the proud owner of the first mail-order flute ever seen in his native city. The fact that he promptly sat on it, bending it to resemble a scimitar, may have been inadvertent. But it may also have been intentional, because he was bitterly disappointed to discover that he had to play it sideways, over his shoulder, instead of where he could see what was going on.
At fourteen, armed with a new flute, his fathers prayers and a bag of his mothers fried chicken, he set off for the Damrosch Institute of Musical Arts in New York, for the start of what was to be a brilliant career. There, young Meredith took private flute lessons from Georges Barrère, composition from Mortimer Wilson and conducting from Henry Hadley. To help meet expenses during his musical schooling he began playing in motion picture theaters in the Bronx. At the age of seventeen he auditioned for John Philip Sousa, who signed him up for a nationwide tour with his famous band. He remained with Sousa for three seasons, touring the United States, Mexico, Cuba and Canada. In 1925 Willson joined the New York Philharmonic as flutist, performing under such conductors as Toscanini, Furtwängler, Mengelberg, Goossens, Reiner, Stravinsky, and others.
In 1932 he joined NBC as general musical director of the Western Division, with headquarters in San Francisco, at radio station KFRC. He was a busy man for the next ten years, directing sometimes as many as seventeen musical radio programs a week and finding time for such extra-curricular activities as conducting the Seattle Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
For nearly four years during World War II he was addressed as Major Meredith Willson, head of the music division of the Armed Forces Radio Service, which produced such memorable programs as Command Performance and Mail Call for GIs all over he world. He came out of the service determined to embark on a personal crusade to do something about what he felt were the trite musical programs on radio and the tired format into which commercial announcements had fallen. In his zeal to make commercials palatable, Willson conceived the "Talking People," a speaking chorus to deliver the sponsors message, and various other ingenious devices. He also developed his own radio personality as a comedian.
As a composer of popular songs, Willson apparently had a Midas touch. "You and I", "Two in Love" and "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" swept the country within a few weeks after they were published. He also wrote marches, anthems, and musical scores for a number of films, notably The Great Dictator and The Little Foxes. His autobiography, And There I Stood with My Piccolo, became a best seller.
Meredith Willson achieved his greatest triumph with his musical revue The Music Man, for which he wrote the book, the lyrics and the music. It opened on Broadway on 19 December 1957 and became an instant success. The sparkling score and the hit chorus 76 Trombones made Willson a household name. He followed this with another Broadway hit, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960). Both were made into movies. In addition to his two symphonies, Willson composed a symphonic poem, The Jervis Bay, O.O. McIntyre Suite, based on the writing of the famed columnist, Symphonic Variations on an American Theme, Song of Steel, premièred by John Charles Thomas, Radio City Suite, a choral work, Anthem of the Atomic Age, and numerous shorter orchestral pieces in a lighter vein, including Sneezing Violins, A Childs Letter, Piccolo Polka, and The Marguerite Waltz. Meredith Willson died in Santa Monica, California on 15 June 1984.