With a string of gold albums, a hit TV series and the signature Moon River, Andy Williams was a voice of the 1960s, although not the sixties we usually hear about.
The singer, known for his easy-listening style and wholesome, middle-America appeal, was the antithesis of the counterculture that gave rise to rock ’n’ roll.
“The old cliché says that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there,” he 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.”
Williams’ plaintive tenor, boyish features and clean-cut demeanour 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, hosting hugely popular Christmas television specials and becoming closely associated with the holiday standard The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
Williams, who continued to perform into his 80s at the Moon River Theatre he built in Branson, Mo., said in November, 2011, that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and vowed to return to performing the following year, his 75th in show business.
The 84-year-old entertainer died Tuesday at his Branson home following a year-long battle with the disease, his Los Angeles-based publicist, Paul Shefrin, said.
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 and three platinum, was nominated for five Grammy awards and hosted the Grammy ceremonies for several years.
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 beloved 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 guests.
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. Their younger sibling, Donny, also made his debut on Williams’ show, in 1963, when he was six years old. Four decades later, the Osmonds and Williams would find themselves in close proximity again, sharing Williams’ theatre 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.