Andy Williams: Singer whose relaxed style made him a star in the United States and Britain
His father told him not to bother with school: he was going to be a singer, he said
Thursday 27 September 2012
With numerous hit singles and albums and as the host of a major television series, Andy Williams became the Emperor of Easy. He came across as he was in real life: a relaxed, even-tempered and thoroughly decent man.
Not being a songwriter, Williams relied upon others for material. Sometimes he picked songs aimed at the youth market in an ill-advised attempt to appear hip. Also, he was not generally able to refashion his material in the way that Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Bobby Darin did. With a few notable exceptions, his records now seem straightforward interpretations of familiar material, warmly performed with perfect diction to be sure, but more sentimental than exciting. Being a tenor with a wide range including a seemingly effortless falsetto, Williams later admitted that there was too much echo on some recordings. He thought that "Born Free" (1967) captured his most natural sound.
Andy Williams was born in 1927 in Wall Lake, Iowa, a town of less than 1,000 inhabitants. His birthplace, which he shares with his mother, is now a tourist attraction. His parents were Jay and Florence Williams; his father was a railway worker and amateur pianist. He, his three elder brothers Bob, Don and Dick, and his parents were the entire choir at their Presbyterian church. The family moved to Des Moines when he was seven. The Williams Brothers started singing on the radio station, WHO, at the same time that Ronald Reagan was the sports commentator.
The family moved to Chicago and the brothers secured daily broadcasts. Jay told Andy not to bother about his schooling as he was going to be a singer. They moved to Hollywood with hopes of further success and many prospective employers were impressed with their ability to read music.
In 1944 the Williams Brothers appeared with Bing Crosby on his hit record, "Swinging On A Star", although they did not perform it in his film, Going My Way. The Brothers did appear in a few Hollywood films, but nothing of lasting consequence. They found regular work in night clubs but their records met with little success. They toured with Kay Thompson, later to appear in Funny Face, and learnt dance routines and performed with her in Las Vegas in 1947. They also worked in both London and Paris and for some years, Williams had a clandestine affair with Thompson, who was 20 years older than he was.
The brothers' career was broken up by military service and Andy was discharged with a stomach ulcer in 1948. He sought solo work in New York and at one point was so poor he was eating dog food. He found regular employment, both singing and acting, on the Tonight show, hosted by Steve Allen and syndicated from New York.
Following Kay Thompson's recommendation, Archie Bleyer signed Williams to his Cadence label. Williams had a US Top 10 success with "Canadian Sunset" in 1956 and it was followed by a transatlantic No 1, a cover version of Charlie Gracie's "Butterfly", which had a striking resemblance to "Singing The Blues". Considering the quality songs associated with Williams, it is surprising that this was his only No 1 single in Britain or the US. Williams said he hated the song.
Williams continued to have US hits for Cadence including "I Like Your Kind Of Love" (a novelty duet with Peggy Powers), "Are You Sincere", "Lonely Street" and a British song, "The Village Of St Bernadette". Marlene Dietrich enjoyed his version of "Hawaiian Wedding Song" so much that she had a special album made consisting of the single 12 times over.
His first album was Andy Williams Sings Steve Allen and another was a fine album of standards, Under Paris Skies, recorded in France with Quincy Jones' arrangements, which was the closest he got to jazz.
In 1964 when Williams was having major success for Columbia, he wanted to avoid compilations of his early, inferior (or so he thought) work being released on budget labels. He resolved the matter by buying Cadence's catalogue which included the Everly Brothers, Link Wray and the Chordettes. He licensed reissues of the other artists' work but not his own. Around 1970 he relented and released his early work on his own Barnaby label. He brought out new recordings by Ray Stevens and Jimmy Buffett.
Moving to Columbia in 1962, Williams scored with a vocal version of Acker Bilk's instrumental, "Stranger On The Shore". He had asked Bleyer if he could record "Moon River" from Breakfast At Tiffany's, but Bleyer couldn't see the sense in the song. After all, what did "my huckleberry friend" mean? The composer Henry Mancini asked him to perform the song at the Oscars and as it had already been a hit single for Jerry Butler by then, he released his version on the album, Moon River And Other Great Movie Themes (1962), which sold two million copies.
After several try-outs in different guises, The Andy Williams Show began on NBC in May 1961 with "Moon River" as its theme song. The hour-long variety show concentrated on music, Williams performing with his guests. His father recommended the young Osmond brothers and they became a regular feature. British TV stations were reluctant to show the series but after having success with The Val Doonican Show, the BBC wanted more of the same and screened the shows from 1966.
When Henry Mancini asked him to record the theme song from Days Of Wine And Roses, he agreed but was annoyed when Columbia stuck it on the B-side of a pop song, albeit an excellent one, "Can't Get Used To Losing You". He pushed his choice on his TV show, but relented once the record was in the Top 10. By way of consolation, it was the title song of another big-selling album.
Although Williams found performing in Las Vegas uninspiring, he met his first wife there, 19-year-old Claudine Longet, a would-be singer and dancer from a professional family in Paris, who had disappointed her parents by going to work in Vegas. Her parents were disappointed when she fell for Williams, an older man, but were won round. The couple married in 1961 and had three children.
He admitted she soon found him boring: "She would be playing tennis with Peter Fonda and I'd be playing golf with Bing Crosby." Sometimes he babysat while she went on dates and by 1971 the marriage was over, though they didn't divorce until 1975.
When Williams appeared with Robert Goulet and Sandra Dee in a light-hearted musical, I'd Rather Be Rich, he sang "Almost There". Although this was a B-side to a revival of "On The Street Where You Live" in the States, the British arm of his record company spotted its potential and it reached No 2 – although road safety campaigners complained about the video, which showed Williams driving his car with his arm around a girl.
In 1968 Williams scored with a punchy revival of Frankie Valli's little-known "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and Columbia released "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", which he sang at Bobby Kennedy's funeral. In 1970 Williams reworked Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love", a romantic ballad from the 1961 film, Blue Hawaii. The up-tempo arrangement worked so well that Presley never again sang it as a ballad and it became the closing number at all his concerts.
The British writers Tony Macaulay and Roger Greenaway had written "Home Lovin' Man" for Richard Harris. Greenaway recalls, "I was in Hollywood and I played the demo to Dick Glasser who was Andy Williams' producer. He said, 'I'll do it with Andy on Saturday.' I got to sing on the session, doing the high voice, which Andy usually did himself." Not only was it a hit single, it was also the title track of yet another best-selling album – but the writers had to avoid an irate Richard Harris.
In 1971 Williams sang the romantic theme for Love Story, "Where Do I Begin?". The following year, he sang "Speak Softly Love", the love theme from The Godfather (if that is not an oxymoron). Although several versions of "Solitaire" had been issued, it was Andy Williams who took the song into the charts over Christmas 1973.
In 1977 Claudine Longet was living in Aspen, Colorado with the Olympic skier, Vladimir "Spider" Sabich, whose career was the basis of Robert Redford's film, Downhill Racer. He had a Luger with a broken safety catch. She pointed the gun at him and it went off and killed him. Williams escorted her to the trial, testifying to her character and providing legal help. She was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and was jailed for a month. She married her defence lawyer.
When The Andy Williams Show was cancelled in 1971, Williams took to hosting the Grammys and organising sporting events, notably a golf tournament in his name. He retained his popularity as a concert act, but his best-selling records tended to be compilations. Nevertheless, there were some fine moments and a totally overlooked single was the superb "Railway Hotel" (1980), written by Mike Batt about a ramshackle hotel near Croydon: "I wanted so much for the first night with you / But the Railway Hotel was the best I could do."
Williams' life changed in two ways in 1991. First, he married Debbie Haas, whom he met through a mutual friend. Secondly, his brother Don, who managed Ray Stevens, invited him to the opening of Stevens' theatre in Branson, Missouri. Williams thought this was a great idea and built his own venue, the Moon River Theatre, the following year. The walls were filled with memorabilia and items from Williams' collection of modern art including Pollock and Warhol. He appeared regularly at the theatre and booked many star names. An episode of The Simpsons was set in the theatre.
Williams' "Happy Heart", a 1969 success, was used to telling effect in the film, Shallow Grave (1994). Then his 1967 recording of "Music to Watch Girls By" became a surprise UK hit after being featured in TV ads for Fiat and despite being about as politically incorrect as a song could be in 1999. Sell-out UK dates followed including the Albert Hall and Williams remade "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" with Denise van Outen, although his original was superior. In 2009 he published his autobiography, Moon River And Me, but when he sang on Strictly Come Dancing to promote a hits collection, his version of "Moon River" revealed that his voice had deteriorated.
Howard Andrew Williams, singer: born Wall Lake, Iowa 3 December 1927; married 1961 Claudine Longet (divorced 1975; two sons, one daughter), 1991 Debbie Mayer; died Branson, Missouri 25 September 2012.
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