“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 it 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. In his memoir, Williams remembered himself as a shy boy who concealed his insecurity “behind a veneer of cheek and self-confidence.”
Williams began performing with his 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 eight, 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 Jay Emerson Williams and the young quartet kept returning, and 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 joined Bing Crosby in recording the hit Swinging on a Star in 1944 for Crosby’s film Going My Way, and Andy, barely a teenager, was picked to dub Lauren Bacall’s voice on a song for the film To Have and Have Not. His voice stayed in the film until the preview, when it was cut because it didn’t sound like Bacall’s.
Later, the brothers worked with Kay Thompson of eventual Eloise fame, then a singer who 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 to a huge ovation. They drew rave reviews in New York, Los Angeles and across the nation, earning a peak of $25,000 (U.S.) a week.
Williams, analyzing their success, once said: “Somehow, we managed to work up and sustain an almost unbearable pitch of speed and rhythm.”
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.
“I had no money for food, so I ate it,” he recalled in 2001, “and it actually was damned good.”
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.