L.A. Studio Legends: Randy Kerber

Legendary pianist and keyboardist talks about his career and his collaborations with John Williams on numerous projects, including his iconic solos on such classic scores as Harry Potter, Angela’s Ashes, Lincoln and The Book Thief

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto

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Among the studio musicians who performed for John Williams during the last two decades, Randy Kerber occupies a special place. He’s one of the most accomplished pianists and keyboardists working in the studio environment, with an impressive resume that includes many legendary film composers (Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Michael Kamen, Randy Newman, Alan Silvestri), but also a great deal of iconic recording artists including Michael Jackson, Paul Anka, Leonard Cohen, Rickie Lee Jones, Whitney Houston, Michael Bolton, Rod Stewart, B.B. King, Bill Medley, Annie Lennox, Art Garfunkel, Anastacia, Celine Dion, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, Ray Charles. He’s also a Grammy-nominated composer and arranger, and worked as orchestrator for top Hollywood composers including James Horner and John Powell. He had the privilege of being appointed as featured piano soloist on several John Williams’ scores including Angela’s Ashes (1999), Lincoln (2012) and The Book Thief (2013) among others, but was also the keyboard soloist playing the celesta part of “Hedwig’s Theme” on the soundtrack for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).

Randy Kerber and John Williams during a recording session at Sony Scoring Stage. Photo © Dan Goldwasser / ScoringSessions.com

A native of Encino, California, Randy Kerber studied piano since childhood and continued throughout the high school years. In 1977, at age 19, Kerber did his first national concert tour performing for Bette Midler and also began working as a studio player, joining the band of jazz composer and performer Don Ellis playing synthesizer and clavinet for a recording called Music for Other Galaxies and Planets, which featured a jazz/funk arrangement of John Williams’ Star Wars theme. As Randy says during the interview, this was his very first record date.

In the following years, Kerber continued working as a studio musician for both recording artists and film soundtracks, starting to cultivate also an ambition at becoming a composer. In 1985, he was part of the music team assembled by Quincy Jones to work on the soundtrack for Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, for which Kerber also got an Academy Award nomination. Kerber worked on a few cues together with composer Joel Rosenbaum as co-writer, orchestrator and conductor.

Randy Kerber playing keyboards during a recording session in Hollywood playing keyboards. Photo © Dan Goldwasser / ScoringSessions.com

Kerber started being contracted as a synthesist on John Williams’ film sessions starting in 1989 for Born on the Fourth of July and Always. He has been part of many John Williams’ film recordings done in Los Angeles in the following years, often working alongside Ralph Grierson, Mike Lang and Chet Swiatkowski performing synth and keyboard parts on such classic scores as Home Alone, Hook, Far and Away and Jurassic Park. In 1999, Williams wanted Kerber as the featured piano soloist on his lyrical score for Angela’s Ashes. The piano is at the center of this delicate chamber score, often in duet with oboe (John Ellis), cello (Steve Erdody) and harp (Jo Ann Turovsky), playing Williams’ haunting themes and melodies.

Randy Kerber at the piano during a recording session in Hollywood. Photo © Dan Goldwasser / ScoringSessions.com

Kerber was featured keyboard soloist in John Williams’ score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this time playing the virtuosic, intricate celesta part that became the signature sound of the film and the overall series, as heard in the now-classic composition also known as “Hedwig’s Theme”. For this part, Kerber created a celesta sound with his synthesizer that enabled him to give the piece a more specific, unique colour.

Williams continued to ask for Randy’s talent as a synth programmer and keyboardist on the Star Wars prequel scores, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, the two Harry Potter sequels, Catch Me If You Can, and also put him again under the spotlight as piano soloist on the score for The Terminal, where he performs Williams’ love letter to some of his favourite jazz pianists known as “Jazz Autographs”. During the 2000s and 2010s, Kerber played for John Williams on War of the Worlds, Memoirs of a Geisha, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, and in 2012 he was again featured piano soloist in the score for Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln.

Randy Kerber and John Williams during a recording session at Sony Scoring Stage. Photo © Dan Goldwasser / ScoringSessions.com

In the same year, Kerber created a new arrangement of the song “Over the Rainbow” for the HEARTbeats Foundation charity album We’ll Paint You a Rainbow. Randy Kerber’s arrangement, written for full orchestra featuring vocalist Christine Brewer and cellist Lynn Harrell (co-founder of the HEARTbeats Foundation), was conducted by John Williams at the historic Sony Pictures Studios Scoring Stage, the very stage where Judy Garland first recorded “Over the Rainbow” back in 1938 for the beloved film Wizard of Oz.

In 2013, Kerber performed the piano solos on The Book Thief, in which again the instrument is at the forefront of Williams’ heartfelt, lyrical Academy Award-nominated composition. He continued to perform for the Maestro until recently and we can hear him on the scores for The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and The Post, in which he has again lovely jazz piano solos.

Randy Kerber plays piano with John Williams conducting a recording session at Sony Scoring Stage. Photo © Dan Goldwasser / ScoringSessions.com

His impressive career as one of the first-call studio keyboardist in Los Angeles also includes such unforgettable film scores as Forrest Gump (music by Alan Silvestri) and Titanic (music by James Horner), in which he can be heard performing exquisite piano solos. Kerber’s impeccable playing is also prominently featured in the Academy Award-winning musical La La Land, with music by Justin Hurwitz.

In recent years, Kerber devoted more time to work as a composer on several projects. In 2017, he composed a lovely lyrical score for the short film Cello. Written and directed by Angie Su and executive produced by Los Angeles studio musician Helen Nightengale, the short film stars late cellist Lynn Harrell in the role of a classical musician diagnosed with ALS and his journey to find dignity in life. The emotional story is accompanied with great sensitivity by Kerber’s heartfelt music, which features many solos for piano, cello, violin and oboe. In the film, Harrell also performs an excerpt of Edward Elgar’s immortal Cello Concerto, which was adapted and conducted for the film by William Ross. The score is a sublime example of Kerber’s talent as a composer or real, sensitive music for film.

A behind-the-scenes featurette on Randy Kerber’s score for the short film Cello (2017)
Randy Kerber and John Williams share a laugh together during a pause of the recording sessions of Kerber’s score for Cello (2017), which the Maestro visited. Photo © Dan Goldwasser / ScoringSessions.com

Kerber recently wrote music and songs with lyricist Glen Ballard for the Netflix series The Eddy, which tells the story of a jazz club in Paris and the lives of its musicians. Produced by La La Land‘s director Damien Chazelle, the series also spun a new creative venture for Randy Kerber, leading him to collaborate with Hawaaian-Canadian multi-instrumentalist Jowee Omicil (who also stars in the series) on an independent recording project called Y PATI, recorded at La Pigalle Studios in Paris. And just last year, on the occasion of Lynn Harrell’s memorial, Kerber penned a new arrangement of “Over the Rainbow” for violin and orchestra which was performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and conducted by John Williams.

In this conversation with The Legacy of John Williams, Randy Kerber talks about his career as a session musician, his early years working in the studio environment and how he became one of John Williams’ first-call musicians, from his first experiences as a synth programmer on such films as Always and Jurassic Park, to the prominent role as piano soloist on Angela’s Ashes, Lincoln and The Book Thief. Randy also talks about John Williams’ approach to piano writing and offers his take on the Maestro’s musicianship, reflecting on the various experiences as seen from his perspective as a studio musician.

Randy Kerber Official Website: http://randykerbermusic.com/

Special thanks to Randy Kerber for his time and generosity. Thanks to Dan Goldwasser (ScoringSessions.com) for his permission to use many photos featured in this article.

List of musical excerpts featured in the episode (all music by John Williams except where noted)

. “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
. “A Tree For My Bed” from Jurassic Park (1993)
. “Theme” from Angela’s Ashes (1999)
. “The Departure of Max” from The Book Thief (2013)
. Randy Kerber/Glen Ballard, “Call Me When You Get There” from The Eddy (2018)
. Randy Kerber, “The Life of Ansel Evans” from Cello (2017)
. “The Book Thief End Credits” from The Book Thief (2013)
. John Williams, arr. Don Ellis, “Star Wars Main Theme”, from the album Music from Other Galaxies and Planets, 1977, Atlantic Records
. Quincy Jones/Joel Rosenbaum/Randy Kerber, “Letter Search” from The Color Purple (1985)
. “Cua Viet River, Vietnam, 1968” from Born On The Fourth of July (1989)
. “Pete in Heaven” from Always (1989)
. “Inside the Mansion” from Far and Away (1992)
. “The Falling Car and The T-Rex Chase” from Jurassic Park (1993)
. “Theme”, “Lord, Why Do You Want The Wee Children?”, and “Angels Never Cough” from Angela’s Ashes (1999)
. “Jazz Autographs” from The Terminal (2004)
. “Hide and Seek” from A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
. “One Small Fact” from The Book Thief (2013)
. “Remembering Childhood” from Hook (1991)
. “The Chase Through Coruscant” from Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
. “Home Alone Main Title” from Home Alone (1990)
. “Prologue (Hedwig’s Flight)” and “Owl Delivers Nimbus 2000” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
. The Blue and Grey” and “The American Process” from Lincoln (2012)
. “Finale” from Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
. “Main Title” from The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
. R. Henderson/B. DeSylva/L. Brown, arr. John Williams, “The Varsity Drag”, from the album Rhythm in Motion, Columbia Records (1961)
. H. Arlen/E.Y. Hapburg, arr. Kerber, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, from the album Paint Me a Rainbow, HEARTbeats Foundation, 2012; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams; Chrstine Brewer, vocal; Lynn Harrell, cello; Randy Kerber, piano
. Randy Kerber, “A Choice To Be Made” and “Their Journey” from Cello (2017)
. “Finale” from The Book Thief (2013)

Listen to this playlist curated by The Legacy of John Williams featuring many piano and keyboard solos by Randy Kerber: