BOB THOMAS, JIM SALTER
BRANSON, Mo. — For many Americans, particularly those on the older — OK, squarer — side of the generation gap, Andy Williams was part of the soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s, with easy-listening hits like “Moon River,” the “Love Story” theme and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” from his beloved Christmas TV specials.
The singer known for his wholesome, middle-America appeal was the antithesis of the counterculture that produced rock and roll.
“The old cliche says that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there,” Williams once recalled. “Well, I was there all right, but my memory of them is blurred — not by any drugs I took but by the relentless pace of the schedule I set myself.”
The entertainer, who died Tuesday night at his Branson home following a yearlong battle with bladder cancer, had a plaintive tenor, boyish features and clean-cut demeanor that helped him outlast many of the decade’s rock stars and fellow crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. He remained on the charts into the 1970s and continued to perform into his 80s.
Williams became a major star in 1956, the same year as Elvis Presley, with the Sinatra-like swing number “Canadian Sunset.” For a time, he was pushed into such Presley imitations as “Lips of Wine” and the No. 1 smash “Butterfly.”
But he mostly stuck to what he called his “natural style” and kept it up throughout his career. In 1970, when even Sinatra had temporarily retired, Williams was in the top 10 with the theme from “Love Story,” the Oscar-winning tearjerker. He had 18 gold records, three platinum and five Grammy award nominations.
Williams was also the first host of the live Grammy awards telecast and hosted the show for seven consecutive years, beginning in 1971.
Movie songs became a specialty, including his signature “Moon River.” The longing Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini ballad was his most famous song, even though he never released it as a single because his record company feared such lines as “my huckleberry friend” were too confusing and old-fashioned for teens.
The song was first performed by Audrey Hepburn in the cherished 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but Mancini thought “Moon River” ideal for Williams, who recorded it in “pretty much one take” and also sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards. Although “Moon River” was covered by countless artists and became a hit single for Jerry Butler, Williams made the song his personal brand. In fact, he insisted on it.
“When I hear anybody else sing it, it’s all I can to do stop myself from shouting at the television screen, ‘No! That’s my song!’” Williams wrote in his 2009 memoir titled, fittingly, “Moon River and Me.”
“The Andy Williams Show,” which lasted in various formats through the 1960s and into 1971, won three Emmys and featured Williams alternately performing his stable of hits and bantering with guest stars.
It was on that show that Williams — who launched his own career as part of an all-brother quartet — introduced the world to another clean-cut act — the original four singing Osmond Brothers of Utah. Four decades later, the Osmonds and Williams would find themselves in close proximity again, sharing Williams’ Moon River Theater in Branson.
Williams did book some rock and soul acts, including the Beach Boys, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson. On one show, in 1970, Williams sang “Heaven Help Us All” with Ray Charles, Mama Cass and a then-little known Elton John, a vision to Williams in his rhinestone glasses and black cape. But Williams liked him and his breakthrough hit “Your Song” enough to record it himself.
Williams’ act was, apparently, not an act. The singer’s unflappable manner on television and in concert was mirrored offstage.
“I guess I’ve never really been aggressive, although almost everybody else in show business fights and gouges and knees to get where they want to be,” he once said. “My trouble is, I’m not constructed temperamentally along those lines.”
His wholesome image endured one jarring interlude.
In 1976, his ex-wife, former Las Vegas showgirl Claudine Longet, shot and killed her lover, skiing champion Spider Sabich. The Rolling Stones mocked the tragedy in “Claudine,” a song so pitiless that it wasn’t released until decades later. Longet, who said the slaying was an accident, spent only a week in jail. Williams stood by her. He escorted her to the courthouse, testified on her behalf and provided support for her and their children, Noelle, Christian and Robert.
Also in the 1970s, Williams was seen frequently in the company of Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow. The singer denied any romantic involvement.
He was born Howard Andrew Williams in Wall Lake, Iowa, on Dec. 3, 1927, and began performing with older brothers Dick, Bob and Don in the local Presbyterian church choir. Their father, postal worker and insurance man Jay Emerson Williams, was the choirmaster and the force behind his children’s career.
When Andy was 8, Williams’ father arranged for the kids to have an audition on Des Moines radio station WHO’s Iowa Barn Dance. They were initially turned down but kept returning until they were finally accepted. The show attracted attention from Chicago, Cincinnati and Hollywood. Another star at WHO was a young sportscaster named Ronald Reagan, who would later praise Williams as a “national treasure.”
The brothers later worked with Kay Thompson, a singer who eventually became famous for the “Eloise” children’s books. She had taken a position as vocal coach at MGM studios, working with Judy Garland, June Allyson and others. After three months of training, Thompson and the Williams Brothers broke in their show at the El Rancho Room in Las Vegas, drawing rave reviews in New York, Los Angeles and across the nation and as much as $25,000 a week.
After five years, the three older brothers, who were starting their own families, had tired of the constant travel and left to pursue other careers.
Williams initially struggled as a solo act and was so broke at one point that he resorted to eating food intended for his two dogs.
A two-year TV stint on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” and a contract with Cadence Records turned things around. Williams later formed his own label, Barnaby Records, which released music by the Everly Brothers, Ray Stevens and Jimmy Buffett.
Williams was a lifelong Republican who once accused President Obama of “following Marxist theory.” But he acknowledged experimenting with LSD, opposed the Nixon administration’s efforts in the 1970s to deport John Lennon and in 1968 was an energetic supporter of Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. When Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, just after winning the California Democratic primary, Williams sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at his funeral.
“We chose that song because he used it on the campaign trail,” Williams later said of Kennedy, who had been a close friend. “He had a terrible voice, but he loved to sing that song. The only way I got through singing in church that day was by saying, ‘This is my job. I can’t let emotion get in the way of the song.’ I really concentrated on not thinking about him.”
After giving up touring, he settled in Branson, with its dozens of theaters featuring live music, comedy and magic acts, and was among the first wave of national entertainers to perform there regularly.
When he arrived in 1992, the town was dominated by country music, but Williams changed that with his classy, $13 million theater in the heart of the entertainment district, where he did two shows a night, six days a week, nine months of the year. Only in recent years did he cut back to one show a night. His most popular time was Christmas.
Not everyone in Hollywood accepted his move to the Midwest. “The fact is most of my friends in L.A. still think I’m nuts for coming here,” he told The Associated Press in 1998.
He and his second wife, the former Debbie Haas, divided their time between homes in Branson and Palm Springs, where he spent his leisure hours on the golf course when Branson’s theaters were dark during the winter months following Christmas.
Retirement was not on his schedule. As he told the AP in 2001: “I’ll keep going until I get to the point where I can’t get out on stage.”
Williams is survived by his wife and his three children.