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The son of a guitarist, John Williams — not to be confused with the film composer of the same name — took his first guitar lessons at age seven from his own father. By the time he was 11, he'd been sent to study with Andres Segovia, and the following year, with the virtuoso's endorsement, he earned a scholarship to Siena's Accademia Musicale Chigiana. In 1956, Williams entered the Royal College of Music and took up piano and composition. In 1958, at age 17, he made his London concert debut at Wigmore Hall and followed this with his Paris debut a year later. In addition to his concert work, he spent the next decade teaching at the Royal College of Music.
Williams was signed to Columbia Records' Masterworks division (now Sony Classical) at the end of the 1960s, where he became that label's answer to Julian Bream at RCA-Victor and Christopher Parkening at Angel Records.
Williams' interests, personally and professionally, however, extended far beyond the boundaries of classical music or the usual confines of the classical guitar repertory. He has concertized and recorded with Bream (whom he considers a good friend) and performed with most of England's leading orchestras, but also performed and recorded music in a popular vein as well. By the 1970s, Williams was cutting albums such as Changes and, particularly, The Height Below (the latter done for the progressive Fly Records imprint) which were more rock than classical in nature. He also became a regular performer at Ronnie Scott's, working in more of a jazz-classical fusion mode, and moved into folk music through a concert tour with Ralph McTell. In 1978, Williams linked up professionally with four musicians whom he had previously crossed paths with and admired — Francis Monkman, Tristan Fry, Kevin Peek, and Herbie Flowers — to form the quintet Sky, a jazz-rock fusion band with a strong progressive element. The group quickly gained a popular following in Europe, and Williams redefined the image of what a classical guitarist was with his willingness to play an electric instrument. It was with the latter group in 1980 that Williams enjoyed a number six-charting hit single in England during 1980, an arrangement of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue." His recording of the "Cavatina" from The Deer Hunter also made the British Top 20.
Williams has worked with such non-classical luminaries as bandleader/pianist John Dankworth and singer Cleo Laine, among others, over the years, in various recording and performing pursuits, but he also continues as an active classical artist in concert and in association with Sony Music. He counts himself a fan of Eric Clapton and Joe Pass, among other non-classical guitarists.