Book Talk: Moon River and Me

“If I’m remembered at all, I hope to be thought of as a good man who brought much joy to many people, but above all I want to be remembered for my music. Whatever happens to me, I hope the music lives on.”

“Moon River and Me: A Memoir” by Andy Williams (2009)

Andy Williams was one of the very first performers I delighted in learning about when I first embraced the type of music I have in the past referred to as “easy livin’ classics”. Andy lends himself well to discovery in that his albums are plentiful and his Christmas music is some of the finest ever recorded. My love for him grew and it was during one Christmas season that I longed to delve deeper. I sought out and purchased his memoir, the book we are looking at today.

From the outset, it’s plain to the reader that Andy’s book – written alone – will flow like one of his late-Sixties album releases; it’s a casual and uncomplicated stroll. He starts at the beginning and the tale of his young life is rendered in warm and charming prose. His origins in the small town of Wall Lake, Iowa remind the reader that many an entertainment bio is written by an older star like Andy who is reminiscing fondly about life in the 1920s and 30s; a simple existence that the wealthy star has moved a long way from. There is a certain charm, I think, in hearing an older person recall such simple times. Andy and his story in particular bring to mind the fact that he is like many stars of the Sixties who came from plain, rural settings; Andy’s early life includes humble places shared with cows and pigs and features rope swings, fishing and baseball played with cow dung for bases.

Andy tells of his father, Jay, to whom his book is dedicated, being the driving force behind combining his four sons into the singing Williams Brothers. He also makes note though of Jay’s method of motivation which often included as “inspiration” telling the boys they were nowhere near as good as professionals and therefore needed to work ever harder. While he fondly expresses love for his parents, it is plain to the reader that the elder Mr. Williams’ method had a negative psychological effect on Andy throughout his career.

The last picture of all four Williams brothers. Included in Andy’s book.

Andy describes how Jay Williams’ persistence won the day. At one point, the family was so poor that Andy’s dad would get his boys to sing as payment for necessities of life like shoes and milk. But eventually he moved his family to LA and Jay haunted the offices of Hollywood executives. Andy relates the story of their big break which came when they sang back-up for Bing Crosby on his hit “Swinging on a Star”. The boys really broke through though when they went to work for Kay Thompson. Andy’s book provides much inside dope on his time spent as part of Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers, an act that became the hottest night club attraction in the country. The major revelation that comes from Moon River and Me is that Andy and Kay engaged in an intimate relationship while they were working together and for a short time afterwards. Kay was 18 years Andy’s senior.

Andy goes on to detail the lean years he spent singing in nightclubs and is honest about what he was getting wrong. He carried into the clubs an act that was similar to the one Kay Thompson had built for herself and the four boys from Iowa; and that is one that was erudite and somewhat highbrow. After being reduced to eating dog food to stay alive, Andy realized he was trying to sell Noel Coward to a room containing half-a-dozen drunks. After “dumbing down” his act, he gained some traction and landed at Cadence Records. The reader will learn of Andy’s first few hit records rendered in a rock & roll vein and of his tenure as a regular on the nascent Tonight show.

Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers, 1947.

Andy Williams will tell of his long-running television variety program and – to a lesser extent – of his recording career with Columbia Records. But once you finish this book, you will discern that there are two players in Andy’s life that take up the bulk of the second half of his life story. Andy relates with warmth the time he spent as a good friend of Senator Robert Kennedy. Andy shares in detail a river rafting trip he took with Kennedy, John Glenn and others. While you read, you get the sense that you are sitting by the fire hearing an elder’s cherished remembrances.

Andy details his time spent with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy at the California primary on June 4, 1968 and takes the reader step-by-step through his own movements the fateful night RFK was shot, including mentioning the hand signal Bobby used near the end of his speech to alert Andy and company that he was almost through. The reader also learns of Andy going to the hospital and finding Ethel Kennedy alone and unguarded in a room with Bobby, his body inundated with tubes while his life ebbed away. In a touching note, Andy relates that once Kennedy was pronounced dead, it was he and John Glenn who had to retrieve one of RFK’s suits in which to dress him. A tie was forgotten and so Robert Kennedy’s body was transported to his final resting place wearing Andy Williams’ own necktie. Williams also goes through the harrowing days afterward including Kennedy’s funeral at which he sang. The reader comes away realizing that here was lost not only a great American leader but someone’s close friend. The sad story casts somewhat of a pall over the book but you will discern the enormity of the event in Andy’s life; Andy’s next child was a son he named Bobby. Andy relates this part of his story poignantly and with much feeling without being maudlin.

Claudine and Andy with Ethel and Bobby Kennedy.

The other significant participant in the life of Andy Williams is his first wife, French singer and actress Claudine Longet. First off, Andy takes full responsibility for allowing his marriage to disintegrate. The story then pivots to Andy relating purchasing the Aspen Ski Lodge and spending time there skiing with his family. When the Williams broke up, Claudine settled in Aspen, asking Andy to not spend any time there so as to affect a clean break.

“In danger of becoming a workaholic, I was so obsessed with building my career that everything, including my family, suffered as a result. My marriage was over, and I had to live with the knowledge that I bore the full responsibility for that.”

The reader will have to decide for his or her self how to take Andy’s version of events when he speaks of his ex-wife’s relationship with champion skier, “Spider” Sabich. Andy would have gotten his version of events straight from Claudine, so, again, make up your own mind. The pertinent detail here is that Andy – thinking also, no doubt, of his children – was by Claudine’s side every step of the way during the court case resulting from Spider’s death. What I don’t believe can be debated here is the class and character Andy displayed.

Andy escorts Claudine into the courthouse.

The last quarter of the book features Andy’s telling of his discovery of Branson, Missouri and of his building his Moon River Theatre in the town. He admits that by settling in the Ozarks, of all places, he was cutting himself off from the entertainment centres of the country but the appeal of less touring and staying put proved too much to pass up. Speaking of being out of the spotlight, Andy also hints at the legacy of his recording career when he relates the story of Columbia Records not renewing his contract. I hoped he would open up a bit about his recordings but you’ll get very little talk of his records in Moon River and Me.

“For a long time I’d had the image of being a wholesome, clean-cut, all-American boy; I was even described as ‘a farm boy in a tuxedo’. I didn’t feel that was me at all, but the label stuck, and in some ways I’ve never been able to shake it off.”

Andy Williams in his memoir sometimes comes off a little racier than you’d expect considering his public persona; for example when he talks about his experiences with LSD. Perhaps, though, when you are through reading this book it may occur to you that – a couple of examples aside – Andy’s story is not filled with many really noteworthy events. But this reflects the life and career of Andy Williams. Both his personal and professional lives were relatively quiet and sedate and this is part of what there is to love about the man. Moon River and Me is pleasant, charming and warm. Lack of sensation doesn’t hurt its appeal. Get your copy at AbeBooks.

Classy to the end.

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