“We’re after the same rainbow’s end/ Waitin’ round the bend/ My huckleberry friend/ Moon river and me”… Millions of devotees of high-class schmaltz will hum the beautiful but lyrically inscrutable “Moon River” when they hear the sad news. Andy Williams, the most clean-cut and laid-back of the crooner generation, has died of cancer, aged 84.
His light tenor voice lacked passion but breathed romance. “You’re Just Too Good to Be True” and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” were the epitome of “easy listening”. Dean Martin called it “musical milk and cookies”. The music suited Williams’ bland good looks and easy manner. His face, haircut, polo-neck jumpers and voice formed a package of niceness, a continuum of cosiness, that was as friendly offstage as on.
“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. “I’m not constructed temperamentally along those lines.”
Williams was born in a small town in Iowa where, he used to joke, so little happened that crowds would gather to watch someone get a haircut. He first sang in public with his three brothers, spurred on by their insurance-salesman father Jay. At eight, he and the Williams Brothers Quartet were singing on the radio. At 17, Andy backed Bing Crosby in “Swinging on a Star”. The brothers were successful nationwide, but the teenage Andy’s heart wasn’t in it. “I didn’t really enjoy singing,” he said, “until I started singing alone.”
The extraordinary thing about Williams’ career is that it survived the rock ‘n’ roll era, when guitar bands, aggression and high camp almost entirely eclipsed his peers, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Perry Como. His first success came in 1956, the same year as Elvis Presley, whose style he imitated; but he hit his stride singing “Moon River” in the 1961 Audrey Hepburn movie. After that, naturalness and niceness took over. In 1970 he made the Top 10 with “Love Story”, from the drippy Ryan O’Neal film. He was back there in the 1990s when a compilation album of “lounge” music brought “Music to Watch Girls By” to a new audience.
In America, he hosted a popular TV show from 1962 to 1971. Among the guests who showed up for duets and light banter was a youthful Elton John in rhinestones spectacles and a black cape. Williams made 18 gold and three platinum albums.
In 1992 he settled in Branson, Missouri, where he built the $13m Andy Williams Moon River Theatre. He performed there two shows a night, six days a week, nine months of the year, until slowed down by illness. He possessed the knack of making the everyday sound romantic. And whatever a “huckleberry friend” might be, you felt he might be yours.