The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

In Memory of Dr. Willard "Bill" Palmer

by Faithe Deffner

This article was originally posted to the internet newsgroup for accordionists, rec.musicmakers.squeezebox, on July 31, 1996.

Dr. Willard "Bill" Palmer (1917-1996)

On April 30, 1996, one of the accordion's foremost exponents, Dr. Willard A. Palmer, passed away. He was a dear friend, a wonderful mentor, an incredible human being, and simply "Bill" to those in the accordion community who knew and loved him dearly.

The funeral service took place on May 3, at Memorial Lutheran Church in Houston, where Palmer was the choir director for many years. Several of the choral hymns at the service were his own beautiful arrangements. Rev. Gene Oesch opened the service with these words: "God called to himself a mountain of a man, one with a big and loving heart, great integrity and enormous generosity, a wonderful sense of humor, a man of vision, of faith, richly gifted....." That was Bill Palmer.

The son of Willard Aldrich Palmer, Sr. and Alma Ophelia Crawford Palmer, Willard Jr. was born in McComb, Mississippi, on January 31, 1917. He became a world renowned musician, scholar and music educator. His revolutionary teaching principles were reflected in 789 of his published works, which included an accordion method, several piano methods, a method for Hammond Chord Organ, a guitar method, hundreds of solo pieces and many choral works.

Palmer was a child prodigy. At 13, he played the piano on the radio. He studied both piano and accordion, which were to form the basis of his musical endeavors. He attended Whitworth College in Brookhaven, Mississippi and Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he continued to play the accordion and piano on radio shows and in ensembles both on and off campus.

During World War II, he joined the Army Air Corps and was stationed in San Antonio. Here, he taught Navigation, Physics, Mathematics and German, in addition to performing on accordion as the soloist with a number of prominent local ensembles.

Palmer's subsequent accordion career may be divided into three segments -- performer, composer and educator. In each area, he distinguished himself sufficiently so that others might have called it a full, successful career in itself. But Palmer always went on to do more.

After the war, he and his former student, the late Bill Hughes joined forces. They can be credited with the high point in accordion performance in the United States. Audiences will recall their white-tie-and-tails performances as they played one prestigious engagement after another in the 50s and 60s. They were the ultimate inspiration to serious accordionists of the day.

Palmer collaborated with Hughes in producing a series of accordion method books which have had worldwide impact. Theirs was, and still is, the largest-selling and most successful accordion course on the market. Sales soared like a rocket and ran into the millions, making the duo the cornerstone of the Alfred Publishing Company empire.

As an educator, Willard Palmer was ahead of his time -- instrumental in carving an indisputable niche for the accordion at the university level. He and Hughes took the accordion beyond mere college acceptance, into the realm of establishing an actual accordion department within the University of Houston, where they were faculty members.

They pioneered the accordion's acceptance as a fully accredited applied major, enabling young accordionists to earn both Bachelor's and Master's degrees with their instrument. In 1946, [one of] the first such study program ever to be offered at the college level in the U.S. (and most of the world), was available in Houston under the aegis of the accordion community's greatest educators, Palmer and Hughes. Students of their program comprise a "Who's Who" for the accordion field in English-speaking countries, much the same as Hohner's program in Trossingen (Germany) did for accordion education in Europe.

Editor's note: The University of Texas at Houston was not the first United States university to offer the accordion as a major instrument. In 1936 an accordion program began at Oklahoma State University under the direction of Louis Ronchetto, and in 1935 the accordion was accepted at Capitol University in Columbus, Ohio. Internationally, the first university to offer an accordion major was the University of Kiev (USSR) in 1927.

To see "Bill" Palmer's article from the February 1947 issue of Accordion World magazine, What's Right With Our Instrument, Click Here.

Invitation to Contributors / Submission Guidelines
Back to The Free-Reed Journal Contents Page
Back to The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Home Page