Robert Meredith Willson was an American composer, songwriter, conductor and playwright best known for writing the book, music and lyrics for the hit Broadway musical The Music Man, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1958. The cast recording of The Music Man won the first Grammy Award given for best cast album, and its 1962 film adaptation was a success.
Starting in the 1920s as a member of John Philip Sousa’s band and then the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Willson became a radio music director in the 1930s. He then worked on films and was nominated for two Academy Awards; in 1940 and in 1941. After more radio work during World War II, he worked on the Burns and Allen and Jack Benny radio programs, among others. Willson’s second Broadway musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was a success in 1960. He also composed symphonies and a number of popular songs.
Born Robert Meredith Willson in Mason City, Iowa, Willson attended Frank Damrosch’s Institute of Musical Art in New York City. In August 1920 he married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth “Peggy” Wilson. A flute and piccolo player, Willson was a member of John Philip Sousa’s band and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. Willson then moved to San Francisco, California as the concert director for KFRC, and then as a musical director for the NBC radio network in Hollywood.
His work for films included writing the music for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes, both of which garnered him Academy Award nominations. During World War II, he worked for the United States’ 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 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 dizzy as well, basically a male version of Gracie Allen’s character.