I knew nothing about Andy Williams until my late 20s – around the year 2000 – by which time I was married with two small boys. As I began to survey the new-to-me world of Easy Livin’ Classics (Sinatra & Friends, lounge and easy listening, etc.), I became aware of the long and stellar career of Howard Andrew Williams. I explored his music and it was clear to me that his career mirrored that of his Columbia labelmate’s, Johnny Mathis. While Andy may not have moved as many units as Johnny – few did – he did release scores of LPs through the Sixties and Seventies that attempted to draw listeners with milk & honey treatments of Top 40 hits. And while Williams sometimes frustrates me with his sedate versions of the “hits of the day”, I grew to love and respect the man and his music, particularly around Christmas time.
Andy was born in Wall Lake, Iowa on December 3, 1927 to Florence and Jay. He was the fourth of six children; after Andy came the only girl, Janey and the baby was Buddy, who died at two due to complications from spinal meningitis. The family was poor and Jay soon bartered his sons’ singing ability for essentials like shoes and milk. Having to sing before the salesman at the department store in order to keep shoes on their feet mortified Andy. Worse was the four Williams brothers having to sing at the funeral of little Buddy in order to pay for the services. Father Jay, Andy has said, was doing his best with what he had but these things had a demoralizing effect on young Andy.
When it was determined that the four boys could perhaps gain some recognition with their singing, Jay began taking them around to various radio stations including WLS in Chicago. The family moved there and Andy dated Red Foley’s daughter, Shirley who was soon to become Mrs. Pat Boone. Eventually, Jay moved the family to Los Angeles and Andy was enrolled in school there; he was for a time in the same class as Shirley Temple. School was no problem for Howard Andrew – Jay didn’t want his sons wasting time with school when there was rehearsing to be done. Someone did Andy’s homework for him. Andy did, though, have time for another girlfriend who was 37 to his 17.
The Williams Brothers were singing everywhere that would have them including recording shows for servicemen overseas. It was here that they were heard by John Scott Trotter, musical director for Bing Crosby. When young voices were needed to back Bing on a recording session, Trotter remembered the lads and had them come in. The boys sang back-up on Bing’s Oscar-winning “Swingin’ on a Star” and the Williams Brothers had the big break that Jay Williams had been working for. This lead them to be signed by MGM who used them in mid-level musicals as one of a handful of acts.
Andy alone was also contacted by Warner Brothers to provide the vocals for a movie then in production. Long have I heard that Andy Williams provided the singing voice of Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not and he did – but he didn’t. Andy was asked to record the vocals for Bacall’s singing and the intention was to use it. Bacall was against it, though, and scored a reprieve. At a break in the song on-screen, Betty was to speak a line and the mismatch in voices was so pronounced that Bacall won the chance to use her own singing voice.
The Williams Brothers went on hiatus when Andy’s three older brothers served in World War 2 – Andy was 4F due to a stomach ulcer. Once the boys were reunited, they joined forces again. At this point, Kay Thompson came into the picture. The multi-talented Thompson was working as a vocal coach at MGM when she decided to create a night club act. She went to work with choreographer Robert Alton who suggested the Williams Brothers. Though the boys had never even been in a night club before, they accepted the offer. They were drilled ruthlessly and Alton made them into something resembling dancers. When the act was ready, it was Alton again who suggested performing in Las Vegas. The act auditioned for then-owner of The Hotel El Rancho Vegas and the Flamingo, Barron Polan and his partner Meyer Lansky. “It knocked them all out”, Don Williams remembered, “because it was something nobody’d ever seen before”. A deal had to be struck with Jay Williams on behalf of his sons. Considering the lifeblood that Jay had put into his family’s act, it’s no surprise that he wanted the billing to read “The Williams Brothers featuring Kay Thompson”, an idea at which Kay quickly scoffed. Interesting to note that calling the act “Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers” sat fine with easy-going Andy and his brothers. The split was fifty-fifty; 50% to Kay and the boys divided 50%.
The act was unique and pioneered many staging techniques that became commonplace in clubs. And it was an immediate hit. Kay humbly declared they were “the greatest group that ever hit humanity”. When Kay and the boys opened at Ciro’s in West Hollywood, the elite of Hollywood was in attendance and the performance was a smash. Thompson and Alton had crafted a singular act joining urbane wit with manic athletics. “It wasn’t an act”, said one patron, “it was a scrimmage”. The inspired and cutting-edge material was devoured by standing-room-only crowds and the act was uniformly hailed as brilliant. Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers were the talk of the town.
Kay Thompson – who taught her four co-stars everything she knew about performing and about the arts – began to show decided favouritism towards Andy. The two began an affair in an era when a relationship of this kind between an older woman – Kay was 18 years older than Andy – and a young man was considered scandalous. The two kept things under wraps, not even admitting their affair to Andy’s brothers. Andy and Kay lived together during the summer of 1948 on Nantucket and that fall Kay was offered a cool $1 million by the Kirkeby hotel chain to stage performances for 26 weeks annually. Savvy Kay set up her agreement so that she could appear with or without the Williams Brothers, thereby capitalizing and her newfound superstardom without necessarily having to share the wealth with Andy and the boys. Kay Thompson had been an in-demand contributor to the entertainment business before hooking up with the Williams’. But her time spent with the boys put her over the top and allowed her to spend the rest of her days as a star.
By the summer of 1949, Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers had flamed out. Kay began making solo deals and the boys themselves decided that they needed to acquire real social skills; since they had been children, they had been joined at the hip and had only really related to each other. As Kay moved through the Fifties, her star continued to rise – she created the Eloise children’s books – and she took Andy Williams with her, their relationship intact. Their open secret eventually even inspired the 1951 RKO film Two Tickets to Broadway, a bomb that starred Tony Martin and Janet Leigh. By this point, Andy was intent on a career as a solo singer and Kay helped by fashioning an act for him. Problem was Thompson’s style was too erudite for the night clubs Andy was playing. At one point while touring the clubs, Andy was reduced to eating dog food to stay alive.
In the summer of 1954, Andy was asked to audition to be the resident singer for a new late-night talk show called The Tonight Show to be hosted by Steve Allen. Singing a Kay Thompson arrangement, Andy got the job and gained much visibility appearing on television every night. Then Andy told Kay he wanted a record deal, specifically with Cadence Records. When he told Kay this, she said she could help as she knew the label’s head, Archie Bleyer, well. Andy may have been too effusive when he then told Kay that, if she could secure the deal, he would “give her half”. Kay took Andy to Bleyer who signed him instantly. Then, not only did Kay assume 50% of Andy’s royalties but their new alliance reinforced her sense of ownership of Andy and his career.
Archie Bleyer attempted to direct Andy towards a rock & roll sound – understandable as that was what was selling in 1956. His early singles for Cadence have a charm stemming from their straddling of the styles of Presley and Mathis. “Canadian Sunset”, his third single, got things rolling reaching #7 on the US Pop charts. It started a run of 6 Top Ten songs among his next eleven singles, including the delightful “Butterfly” – a Number One song – “I Like Your Kind of Love”, the gentle “Are You Sincere?” and the superb “Lonely Street”. His album releases while with the label include two stand-outs. Lonely Street is an excellent program of “wee small hours” ballads including, actually, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and the stunning opener “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. The record is perhaps the most-revered in all of Andy’s vast catalogue and provides a worthy companion to Sinatra’s more “doom-laden” releases of that time. Lonely Street was crafted with the help of Andy’s pianist, Dave Grusin, and man with whom Andy worked closely throughout the early performances on record, in clubs and on TV and a man who would forge his own formidable career. The other notable record was his last for the label, one that he talked Archie Bleyer into letting him make on his own in Paris. On Under Paris Skies, Andy chose to work with the legendary Quincy Jones and the result is a wonderfully erudite and stylish record.
At this point in Andy’s career, his visibility was on the rise due to his appearances on TV, in night clubs and on the charts. But he was still very much under the thumb of Kay Thompson and paying her 50 cents on every dollar he made. Finally the cord was cut when two major events occurred in Andy’s life. In October of 1961, he signed with Columbia Records. Andy had decided to relocate to Los Angeles and Archie Bleyer’s Cadence Records was a New York outfit. Graciously, Bleyer let Andy out of his contract. Then later that same year, Andy met Claudine Longet, a French dancer and singer, when her car broke down in Las Vegas and Andy stopped to help. Claudine had been dancing in Folies Bergere and Andy was performing at the Flamingo. The two fell madly in love and were married on December 15, 1961. The first event severed his financial obligation to Kay Thompson and the second ended his personal relationship with his mentor.
“I can see that in some ways she was overly possessive of me as well as to some extent took advantage of me, but I can’t be too critical of her. Aside from the personal relationship we shared, she helped shape my career and my life. She put me on the road to success more than anyone other than my father.”Andy graciously wraps Kay Thompson in his memoir.
Early in 1962, Andy was asked by the Motion Picture Academy to sing one of the five songs nominated for the Oscar for Best Song. To his good fortune, he was offered the song “Moon River”, the eventual winner. Hoping to capitalize, Andy convinced Columbia that an album of movie songs titled Moon River might be a brisk seller. They recorded the album in three days and hustled it onto the racks where it sold well, eventually reaching #3 on the Pop Albums chart. And while Andy Williams never released “Moon River” as a single, it became his theme and his signature song being identified with him for the rest of his life.
Then on May 4, 1962, The Andy Williams Show debuted on NBC with guest stars Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith, Henry Mancini and Ann-Margret who had just turned 21. Andy’s popular television variety program is actually a pretty good representation of Andy himself and of his whole career. It was long-running, featured many different stars and all types of music and it was extremely popular. Much like Andy, it was content to be charming and sedate entertainment for the whole family. It certainly lacked any of the daring programming choices that made The Ed Sullivan Show the iconic program it is, though it did provide early platforms for many who would go on to be stars. Andy’s Emmy-winning program kept him in the public eye during its run between 1962 and 1971, serving much the same purpose as Elvis Presley’s Hollywood films did for the King. Singers of Andy’s ilk struggled to remain relevant through the constantly changing 1960s and therefore having a weekly variety show maintained Andy’s visibility and gave him a means by which he could regularly reach the masses.
There are two pertinent legacies of The Andy Williams Show. The first relates to the program’s annual Christmas edition. For this yearly episode, Andy brought in not high-profile guest stars but his brothers and indeed all of the Williams clan. And here is where the charm and warmth and Andy Williams finds it truest representation. The Christmas shows presented not only family values but also allowed Andy to share with the world perhaps his finest contribution, his Christmas music. For a full discussion of this gift Andy gave to all of us, read my article on his Yuletide offerings here.
The second reason The Andy Williams Show is notable has to do with one particularly large family from Utah. It was Andy’s father Jay who saw the young Osmond Brothers singing on television and told Andy he should have them on his show. Andy’s TV show was the first showcase for the formidable talents of the Osmonds and springboarded them – in all their iterations – to stardom. The Osmonds today maintain a close relationship with Andy’s legacy and with their own fans, perhaps the most devoted fan base in all the world.
In 1964, Andy starred in his lone motion picture and it was a unique one. I’d Rather Be Rich co-starred Sandra Dee, Robert Goulet and Maurice Chevalier – three singers and one actress. The romantic comedy showcased Andy’s easy-going charm, Bob’s well-polished wolf persona and 22-year-old Sandra’s fresh beauty. The music for the film was handled by Toronto-born Columbia recording artist Percy Faith and the soundtrack features Andy singing the gorgeous “Almost There”, one of the few songs that he claims as his very own. I’d Rather Be Rich was unsuccessful and is something of a rarity. I caught it one night on the great, old channel Drive-In Classics and it is one of the few movies I have bought from sites that offer films that have been recorded from television; the one I bought features the Drive-In Classics stamp on the corner of the screen. Like Tony Bennett’s one-off in The Oscar, Andy did not pursue film acting.
Meanwhile, Andy Williams became one of Columbia Records’ most prolific album artists. He released on average two records a year until 1975 and most all were filled with Andy’s takes on the top songs of the time. A highlight among his early releases sits on my list of my favourite albums of all-time. His third LP for Columbia – and third of 1962 – is Warm and Willing, an absolutely sumptuous record with perfect singing from Andy and gorgeous charts from Robert Mersey. The record ranks at least near the pinnacle of this type of music and is perfect for windswept summer afternoons.
Between 1962 and 1969, Andy scored eleven Top 10 albums including 1963’s Days of Wine and Roses and Other TV Requests that reached the Number One spot. In 1971, he would place one last record in the Top Ten, Love Story, that peaked at Number 3 and was buoyed by Andy’s single of the title track that reached #9 on the Pop charts. As a singles artist, Andy was somewhat less successful but I don’t believe that was the aim of his recording career. For the record, Andy racked up 16 Top 40 hits while with Columbia. For analysis of his success on the Adult Contemporary Chart – listings that were created for artists like Andy – see my article on the topic here.
After early Columbia albums dedicated to movie tunes and songs from Broadway shows, Andy soon devoted records to his own interpretations of the mellower Top 40 hits of the 1960s. I use the word “interpretation” but – and here’s the rub where Andy Williams is concerned – he didn’t actually “interpret” the songs in his own distinct style that was divergent from the original. He simply surrounded himself with competent players and gifted arrangers and sang the songs in his own way. And his own way was decidedly gorgeous and vocally perfect but the result was that very few of his albums or his single releases contain songs he can really claim as his own. One album really can’t be discerned from another. Aside from his Christmas music and maybe a half-dozen signature tunes – many of them early Cadence sides – Andy Williams really never put his own stamp on a song.
On albums like 1965’s Dear Heart and the next year’s The Shadow of Your Smile, Williams mixed classic standards like “It Had to Be You” and “That Old Feeling” with more contemporary standards like “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” and Jobim’s “How Insensitive”. Seems Andy was happy essaying this type of song and employed no one to really dig for songs by new songwriters or older nuggets buried by time.
Later in the 1960s, Andy’s records featured songs made popular by the likes of Bobby Hebb, the Monkees, the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, the Classics IV, the Association and many, many others. Thing is these songs are wonderful. They are staples of a certain type of music. They are the pillars of the modern wave of standards that emerged at this time. And Andy’s version are delightful. But there seems to be a…redundancy to them. In his memoir, Andy says he would “go off” and make a record on his own and then deliver it to Columbia. Perhaps had he worked more closely with someone at the label, he could have been steered toward better, more original material.
In a revealing blurb from Billboard magazine from November 3, 1973 – my first birthday – Andy talks about his “MOR” – middle-of-the-road – cover versions. In promotion for his new LP Solitaire, Williams discusses his approach to record-making. He notes that Easy Listening radio is playing “softer new rock records” as opposed to “cover versions by MOR artists”; he identifies himself as a middle-of-the-road singer who does cover versions. He goes on to say that Solitaire is a bit of a departure having been produced by Richard Perry, a producer with rock bona fides, and featuring contributions from George Harrison, Hal Blaine, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner and Red Rhodes. Most tellingly, for me, anyways, was his admission that he “generally has never” recorded his vocals in the studio with the orchestra. For Solitaire, though, he did – although here he still re-recorded his vocals at a later session. While not everyone can or should be compared to Sinatra, it’s worth noting that Frank almost always recorded with the orchestra – and his records are the most substantial and revered ever made. Take a look at this interesting piece of ephemera from Billboard here.
But don’t get me wrong; Andy is still Andy. His voice was still pristine even as late as 1974 and his records – I still own most of his and buy any I see that I don’t – will always be listenable. And the music industry was what it was at the dawn of the 1970s. Records by Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and Andy simply were not what was in vogue. This is no fault of the artists themselves and they still made some beautiful music. In Andy’s case, he also found that audiences were waiting to hear him sing live in Las Vegas.
In the summer of 1966, Caesar’s Palace opened across from the Flamingo and Andy was the first performer booked there. He maintained this relationship for 20 years though he never was comfortable in the desert heat. Neither was Andy comfortable being a mogul. When his old mentor, Archie Bleyer, was selling the Cadence Records catalogue, Andy bought the label that included all of his own early masters and also those of the Everly Brothers. Andy set up Barnaby Records and used the company to reissue these early records and also to sign new talent including Ray Stevens and a young Jimmy Buffett. But it was never more than a sideline for Andy who makes it clear in his memoir that he was most concerned with performing and television. Seems it was never really about the records.
Around this time, Andy became a patron of the PGA Tour. He hosted the Andy Williams San Diego Open at Torrey Pines from 1968 until 1988. The tournament continues on in this age of corporate sponsorship as the Farmers Insurance Open.
I mentioned in my review of Andy’s autobiography that there were two significant events later in Andy’s life that occurred outside the music. One was his strong friendship with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy. Andy and another friend, John Glenn, were in the Kennedy party the fateful night that RFK was shot. Andy sang an emotional “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Kennedy’s funeral and the single release of the performance was moderately successful. Andy would name his next child Robert.
The other story from Andy’s later life originates in the ashes of his marriage to Claudine Longet. Andy takes full responsibility for letting the marriage crumble and the two eventually divorced. Claudine settled in Aspen and began a relationship with champion skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. In March of 1976, Claudine accidentally shot and killed Spider. She went to trial and Andy was at her side accompanying her to court every day. Many in the public and the press convicted Claudine but few could help but admire the class Andy showed as he stood by his ex-wife and the mother of his children. Longet was eventually convicted of a lesser charge and served 30 days in prison. She would eventually marry her defense attorney and the two still live in Aspen, as of this writing. Side note: in his autobiography, Andy mentions talking with Bing Crosby’s widow, Kathryn, who applauded Andy for supporting Claudine so openly. Andy said any husband would’ve done the same. Before moving on, Kathryn said simply “Bing wouldn’t have”. Interesting.
By the 1990’s, Andy’s brother, Don, was managing Ray Stevens. Stevens had just opened his own theatre in Branson, Missouri in the heart of the Ozarks and Don invited Andy to come out and see a show. Don encouraged Andy to build his own theatre and settle in Missouri. Williams at first thought the idea was risky for his career – basing himself so far from the limelight. But the lure of setting up shop in one place as opposed to touring was too much to ignore.
Andy built the Moon River Theatre, a 48,000-square foot building on a 16-acre lot on Country Music Boulevard – now renamed Andy Williams Boulevard. The theatre opened on May 1, 1992 and soon became the only venue in town to be featured in Architectural Digest. Andy then based his operation in the first theatre built in Branson to feature a non-country music star. He was joined on stage by the likes of Glen Campbell, Ann-Margret and the Osmonds and each November and December Andy carried on the Christmas tradition by staging Christmas shows.
It was from the stage in his theatre that Andy announced to the crowd in November of 2011 that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. The regular fella with the honey voice finally succumbed to the disease on September 25, 2012 at his home in Branson. He was 84. After his death, his ashes were sprinkled into the artificial waterway called Moon River in his Moon River Theatre. Always an avid art collector, his collections were auctioned after his death. His collection of paintings alone were sold by Christie’s in New York for in excess of $50 million.
In his own unassuming, quiet way, Andy Williams forged a formidable career. He gave the world the definitive version of the delightful “Moon River” and gifted us all with his wonderful Christmas music performed on record, on television and on stage. He was the first TV host for the Golden Globes and for the Grammys and he released scores of wonderful records on Columbia. He was a patron to many including the Osmond family and the Lennon Sisters and was the first headliner at Caesar’s Palace. He put his own stamp on the music city of the Ozarks with his theatre in Branson. And he did all this while remaining a down home country boy. He left behind for all of us a legacy of decency and wonderful music.
Ten from Williams
- You Don’t Know What Love Is
- Can’t Get Used to Losing You
- More Than You Know
- Almost There
- Music to Watch Girls By
- Sweet Memories
- Happy Heart
- Speak Softly Love (Love Theme from The Godfather)
- Williams, Andy. Moon River & Me: A Memoir. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. (2009)
- Irvin, Sam. Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise. Simon & Schuster. (2010)
Another great article, Thanks for sharing this story of Andy Williams with us.
It is my pleasure.