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‘I’ve Never Judged Myself Against Him, Ever’: Toto’s Joseph Williams on His Father, ‘Star Wars’ Composer John Williams

The singer-songwriter grew up watching his dad craft the scores for beloved blockbusters. He’s gone on to forge his own path, but he’s never stopped admiring his old man — especially his work ethic

Welcome to The Daddy Issue, our very fatherly tip of the cap to the father figures in our lives as well as all the fatherly stuff they can’t help but do — from pretending they’re not asleep on the couch, to the dad jokes that make even Tony Soprano smile. We’ll talk to famous dads and their equally famous progeny and also deconstruct fatherly influence in each and every one of its forms. In doing so, we hope to come out the other side with a better understanding of our own — and everyone else’s — daddy issues. Read all of the stories here.

Some of Joseph Williams’ earliest memories involve tagging along with his dad when he went to work. For most of us, that would mean going to an office or a factory. But Joseph’s dad is John Williams, the five-time Oscar-winning composer responsible for the most indelible movie scores of the last half-century and beyond. And so, going to work with him meant getting to sit in on these legendary scoring sessions.

“They would just put us where we would be quieter,” Joseph tells me over the phone.  “We were either in the big room or we were in the booth, where you were a little more of an annoyance. I loved being there, so I was as well-behaved as I could be.”

Now 61, Joseph remains in awe of his dad, although he’s had a fine career in the music business himself: recording solo albums, serving as the singer and occasional songwriter in Toto, providing the voice of the adult Simba for a few songs on the original Lion King animated film. He’s done some of his own composing, too, earning an Emmy nomination for co-writing the theme to the 2003 ABC series Miracle. None of this is surprising considering that he grew up in a household where music was omnipresent.

“He was doing it well before I was born,”Joseph says of John. “My first memories, I already knew what he was doing. I understood it very rudimentarily, but it’s pretty straight-ahead what he does.”

Born in September 1960, Joseph was raised in Southern California, his dad already writing music for TV shows and the occasional movie. (His professional name at the time was Johnny Williams.) But come the early 1970s, John Williams began to pivot to film scores full-time, winning his first Oscar for his work on 1972’s Fiddler on the Roof. Soon began a few collaborations with director Robert Altman before his long, fruitful partnerships with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, giving the world the music to Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (For good measure, he also crafted the music for The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Superman during that decade.)

Joseph, who’s readying for Toto’s European tour that starts next month, remembers hearing pieces of such scores as a boy, his dad working them out at the house, playing snippets on the piano. “All the time, if I were around and he was interested or had the time,” Joseph says when I ask about hearing that now-iconic music. “I cannot say that I had any contributions to any of his main music, but he played me early stuff, and it’s always great because he plays so well. You got a real good sense of what it’s going to be.” 

Because John specialized in symphonic scores, bringing a grandeur to film music that had started to fade away in the late 1970s, you might assume that Joseph was inundated by classical music on the stereo. That wasn’t entirely the case. “My older sister was the one who brought in [rock albums],” he tells me. “Or was allowed to bring it in for us to listen to. What was going on in the musical household was a lot of jazz and show tunes and score material, but inside that, we had my sister listening to early Beatles stuff.” 

It wasn’t just Joseph’s father who was passionate about the arts. Joseph’s mother, Barbara Ruick, was an actress and singer, appearing in films like the 1956 movie adaptation of Carousel. His dad’s father was John Francis Williams, a jazz drummer whose career extended from radio to film. “I had spurts where I thought I’d try other things like flying a plane or just doing something else as a living,” Joseph admits about his formative years. “But music was sort of a second language — it was a family business, so it was a circus all the time. I was just sort of naturally involved in that, and that’s where I ended up.”

But that didn’t necessarily mean he would do exactly what his father did. “My first instrument that shone a bit was singing,” he says. “I started there, but I still don’t really have a target that I’m aiming for in terms of being a better or perfect this. I have my toe in a bunch of different areas.”

Joseph’s career has certainly been more wide-ranging than his father’s, but he learned a long time ago that there was no point in comparing himself to his dad. “I’ve never judged myself against him, ever,” Joseph says. “I went down a slightly different path and did pretty well, but mine lacks some of the discipline that he grew up with.”

“Discipline” was his father’s watchword. When I ask Joseph if he ever talked to John about the secrets behind his acclaimed scores, he replies, “He’ll tell you, ‘Just discipline and a little bit of talent.’ That’s how he was introduced to people who worked that way, back early on — that’s his method, just writing a note at a time until it’s right, until it’s finished.”

Joseph laments that he didn’t inherit that gene from his dad, although he’s been productive, too. Releasing his self-titled solo debut in 1982, he went on to join Toto a few years later, having been friends with the guys from before the group’s inception. But by the mid-1980s, longtime vocalist Bobby Kimball had left the band — and his replacement, Fergie Frederiksen, was fired after one album, 1984’s commercially disappointing Isolation — and Joseph Williams was brought in for the follow-up, Fahrenheit. Williams co-wrote the band’s 1988 hit “Pamela,” but he says he didn’t have the dogged focus that his father possesses. “Not even close to the type of discipline he displays,” Joseph tells me. “And that’s why he’s had such great longevity, because his routine in his personal life is just as strict. He’s taken really good care of himself. As one of his sons, I’m nowhere near in that condition.”

Indeed, Joseph had struggles with drugs. In a 2016 interview, he admitted that Toto dismissed him after 1988’s The Seventh One because of his habit. (“I had a cocaine addiction. Nothing abnormal,” he said back then. “But as a singer, that’s the one substance you can’t do. It freezes your throat.”) In 1990, he was arrested as part of what was believed to be the biggest marijuana seizure in Ventura County that year. But Joseph turned his life around, eventually getting the Lion King job, singing on “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” When asked how that gig came about, Joseph simply says, “Chris Montan, music supervisor at Disney, that’s the whole answer. He hired [me], made a thing on a demo and a demo turned into a little piece, and a little piece turned back into a demo. Then six months later, it’s a piece again, and it’s in the film. That’s a long time ago.”

He isn’t one for deep reflection. Still, there are aspects of his childhood he doesn’t mind discussing, like the memory of his mother listening to his father on the piano, John trying out something and getting her feedback. “They were in junior high and high school together,” he tells me, “so she always stood at the piano and helped and judged. Up until 1974, it was always her. He would play something in passing if [Joseph and his siblings] were coming in and out, and he was always very generous about doing that. Everything he wrote, as far as I was concerned, was perfect.”

But life changed radically for the Williams family in March 1974, when Ruick died at the age of 43 while on location filming Altman’s California Split, her passing ruled natural causes. This was right before John created some of his best-known scores, and for Joseph there’s a little melancholy mixed in with his dad’s sudden rise to superstardom as a composer. “We had a lot of personal tragedies leading up to him doing things like Jaws and Star Wars, where we had some of the biggest success,” Joseph says. “What was happening in our family made it a lot more different than you might think. But, of course, a few years in, Star Wars and everything he touches basically is great.” 

How did John handle raising three kids on his own? “Let’s just say it was tough, and you can kind of imagine,” Joseph replies. “But he always worked and always was very disciplined about his work. ”

Unlike John, Joseph is a lyricist, although he insists he’s not a natural poet. “I was very much thrust into it as a young teenager. At that time, it was just about getting this gig done for the time it was due,” he says, laughing. “Just being thrust into doing it.” And after The Lion King, he returned to solo work, releasing I Am Alive and 3 in quick succession. Williams rejoined Toto in 2010, the band putting out Toto XIV in 2015 and Old Is New three years later. But he’s also kept making solo albums, including last year’s Denizen Tenant, which features a cover of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s duet “Don’t Give Up,” which he does with his daughter Hannah Ruick. The track, in which the female character is offering encouragement to the downtrodden male character, has an additional warmth on Denizen Tenant, switching from a romantic love song to an ode to a family bond.

“It worked well as a father-daughter story,” Joseph says. “I just did it because Hannah sings so great, and it just seemed to work. With a little imagination, it’s not hard to switch the roles around and still make sense.” 

Joseph has three children, and he notices that the family’s long-running fascination with music has continued on with this new generation. “Well, I found that I didn’t have to push anything,” he tells me about his kids. “They just were into it, so in any way I could, I would just encourage it. I don’t know if that was how it was for my father and his kids, to be honest with you, but that’s how it was with my daughters. They were just so into it, so why not have them around? My kids, some [are] doing music, some [are] raising kids.”

John and Joseph have very rarely worked together — but their most famous pairing you probably know, which was on two Return of the Jedi songs, “Lapti Nek” (which is performed in Jabba the Hutt’s palace for the film’s original release) and “Ewok Celebration” (which plays during the final celebration). Joseph wrote lyrics for the tracks, which were then “translated” into the creatures’ languages. 

“I can’t repeat [the lyrics] to you verbatim,” he says, “but they were based mainly on the syllables and what he wanted the characters’ mouth to eventually be doing. So, what I wrote was just something simple — like a workout tune, basically — with words that just kept repeating so that the mouth didn’t have to do very much. It didn’t really come out that great, but that’s how that was done. Then after the fact they [translated] those languages for those characters.” 

How did this collaboration come about? Joseph is self-deprecating: “[I was] probably hanging out with [John] at the studio and jumping up with an idea that made everybody laugh, and they just kept it.”

If all goes well, he’ll get to spend some time with his dad this Father’s Day. (“I hope so, but it depends on the schedule.”) Regardless, he’s proud of his old man, who turned 90 in February and is still composing, writing the music for Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as Spielberg’s forthcoming The Fabelmans and the latest Indiana Jones movie. 

“I’ve always known, since I was a little kid, I could never do what he does and how he does it, because it comes from his abilities as a player,” Joseph tells me. “It’s amazing what he can do with any emotion: Just call it out to him, and he can come up with the whole thing on the piano. I always knew I was never going to be a musician on his level — that I would probably try more of a showbiz angle to my thing. Still, I’ve had nothing but just amazing pride in his stuff.”