With legendary film composer John Williams occupying a prominent place in today's GO! cover story, we thought we'd throw our few cents in.

For the first few coins tossed, we'll simply marvel at the man's peerless fusion of longevity and productivity.

About to turn a spry 86 (on Feb. 8), maestro Williams has credits on his IMDB page that take him well into 2020: Steven Spielberg's "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara" for 2018 "Star Wars: Episode IX" for 2019 and "Untitled Indiana Jones Project" for 2020.

Bettered among long-lived film composers only by Italy's indefatigable Ennio Morricone, who turned 89 in November, Williams' dominance of the film music scene began around a quarter of the way into his career.

That's when he scored Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," cementing an epic director-composer relationship yet to be equaled.

But Williams was something of a veteran even that early on: He was 42, and had been scoring movies and TV series since the late 1950s.

Which brings us to the rest of the two cents we're offering up.

We admire and have been transported by Williams' post-"Jaws" work, which has encompassed the bulk of Spielberg's resume ... a chunk of George Lucas' inventory ... the only "Superman" film that really matters (1978) ... and our pick for his finest work during this multiple-blockbuster era, the 1979 Frank Langella version of "Dracula," a box office flop, and thus unfairly forgotten.

But as film music lovers with a sizable soundtrack collection, we've come to the conclusion that we prefer Johnny to John.

Johnny Williams is how the young John Williams signed his work for the first decade of his career.

As far as we can tell, the shift from casual to formal occurred somewhere around 1968-69, when Johnny became "John" on behalf of a forgotten thriller called "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting."

Before Spielberg and "Jaws" came along, the newly minted "John Williams" became pigeonholed as the disaster movie guy, scoring "The Poseidon Adventure," "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno," "Black Sunday" and "Midway."

Much better were his non-disaster scores during this period, including a trio of films for director Mark Rydell: "The Reivers" (1969), "The Cowboys" (1972) and "Cinderella Liberty" (1973).

For us, though, give us the earlier Johnny Williams era, which swung, baby, swung.

His first credited film was a 1958 juvenile delinquent potboiler called "Daddy-O," with Williams lashing the low-budget melodrama along with his down-and-dirty jazz riffs.

Johnny was also heavily working the TV series circuit, reaching his first great popular success with the ultra-cool-jazz theme to "Checkmate" (1960-62), which ranks right up there with Henry Mancini's work on "Peter Gunn" and Nelson Riddle's themes for "Route 66" and "The Untouchables."

Next came Williams' theme music for another series, "Lost in Space," which was bequeathed no fewer than two distinct Williams themes: one for the first two seasons and an even more dynamic new one for its third and final season that prefigured the shape of sounds to come a decade later with "Star Wars." 

Our favorite Johnny Williams scores from this era are mostly attached to films largely forgotten or not worth remembering ... take your pick.

But boy does Johnny's bright and energized music bring to them whatever life they have, all rooted in the swinging ’60s sounds now known as lounge music.

We wouldn't want to own the films themselves, thanks.

But we are proud possessors of their limited edition soundtracks: 1963's "Gidget Goes to Rome," 1965's Shirley MacLaine clunker "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home," 1966's smarmy, but endearing, "A Guide for the Married Man," and 1967's "How to Steal a Million" with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole (actually a very good film, too).

All of these Johnny scores display a lightness of touch and a freewheeling spirit that John's work would never really aspire to again.

If you'd like to sample some of this largely forgotten patch of Williams' career, your best source for discovering it is the most extensive film soundtrack source on the planet, Screen Archives Entertainment, located at www.screenarchives.com.

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com.

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