Howard Andrew “Andy” Williams (December 3, 1927 – September 25, 2012) was an American popular music singer. He recorded forty-four albums in his career, seventeen of which have been Gold-certified and three of which have been Platinum-certified.
He hosted The Andy Williams Show, a television variety show, from 1962 to 1971, and numerous television specials. The Moon River Theatre in Branson, Missouri is named after the song he is most known for singing—Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”.
Williams was born in Wall Lake, Iowa, the son of Jay Emerson and Florence (née Finley) Williams. While living in Cheviot, Ohio, Williams attended Western Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio; he finished high school at University High School, in West Los Angeles, because of his family’s move to California. He had three older brothers—Bob, Don, and Dick Williams.
Williams’s first performance was in a children’s choir at the local Presbyterian church. He and his brothers formed The Williams Brothers quartet in late 1938, and they performed on radio in the Midwest, first at WHO, in Des Moines, Iowa, and later at WLS, in Chicago, and WLW, in Cincinnati.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1943, The Williams Brothers sang with Bing Crosby on the hit record “Swinging on a Star” (1944). They appeared in four musical films: Janie (1944), Kansas City Kitty (1944), Something in the Wind (1947) and Ladies’ Man (1947).
The Williams Brothers were signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to appear in Anchors Aweigh and Ziegfeld Follies (1945) but, before they went before the cameras, the oldest brother, Bob, was drafted into military service and the group’s contract was canceled.
Kay Thompson, a former radio star who was now head of the vocal department at MGM, had a nose for talent and hired the remaining three Williams Brothers to sing in her large choir on many soundtracks for MGM films, including The Harvey Girls (1946). When Bob completed his military service, Kay hired all four brothers to sing on the soundtrack to Good News (1947).
By then, Thompson was tired of working behind the scenes at MGM so, with the four Williams boys as her backup singers and dancers, she formed a nightclub act called Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers. They made their debut in Las Vegas in 1947 and became an overnight sensation. Within a year, they were the highest paid nightclub act in the world, breaking records wherever they appeared.
Williams revealed in his memoir Moon River and Me that he and Thompson became romantically involved while on tour, despite the age difference (he was 19 and she was 38). The act broke up in 1949 but reunited for another hugely successful tour from the fall of 1951 through the summer of 1953. After that, the four brothers went their separate ways. A complete itinerary of both tours is listed on the Kay Thompson biography website.
Williams and Thompson, however, remained very close, both personally and professionally. She mentored his emergence as a solo singing star. She coached him, wrote his arrangements, and composed many songs that he recorded (including his 1958 Top 20 hit “Promise Me, Love” and, later, “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells” on his 1964 No. 1 The Andy Williams Christmas Album).
Using her contacts in the business, Thompson helped Williams land his breakthrough television gig as a featured singer for two-and-a-half years on The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen (it helped that the producer of the series Bill Harbach was Kay’s former aide de camp).
Thompson also got Williams his breakthrough recording contract with Cadence Records (the label’s owner Archie Bleyer had gotten early career breaks because of Kay and he owed her a favor). Meanwhile, Williams sang backup on many of Thompson’s recordings through the 1950s, including her Top 40 hit Eloise based on her bestselling books about the mischievous little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Thompson also served as a creative consultant and vocal arranger on Williams’ three summer replacement network television series in 1957, 1958, and 1959. In the summer of 1961, Thompson traveled with Williams and coached him throughout his starring role in a summer stock tour of the musical Pal Joey. Their personal and professional relationship finally ended in 1962 when Williams met and married Claudine Longet, and Thompson moved to Rome.
Williams’ solo career began in 1953. He recorded six songs for RCA Victor’s label “X”, but none of them were popular hits.
After finally landing a spot as a regular on Tonight Starring Steve Allen in 1954, Williams was signed to a recording contract with Cadence Records, a small label in New York run by conductor Archie Bleyer. His third single, “Canadian Sunset” reached No. 7 in the Top Ten in August 1956, and was soon followed by his only Billboard No. 1 hit—in February 1957—”Butterfly”—a cover of a Charlie Gracie record. “Butterfly” also reached No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart in May 1957, where it spent two weeks.
More hits followed, including “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” (US #11), “Are You Sincere?” (US #3 in February 1958), “The Village of St. Bernadette” (US #7 in December 1959), “Lonely Street” (US #5 in September 1959), and “I Like Your Kind of Love” with Peggy Powers (US #8 in May 1957) before Williams moved to Columbia Records in 1961, having moved from New York to Los Angeles and gaining another hit with “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” (US #2).
In terms of success on the singles charts, the Cadence era was Williams’ peak although songs he introduced on Columbia became much bigger standards.
In 1964, Williams ultimately became the owner of the Cadence master tapes, which he occasionally licensed to Columbia, including not only his own recordings, but also those of his fellow Cadence-era labelmates: The Everly Brothers, Lenny Welch, The Chordettes, and Johnny Tillotson.
In 1968, although he was still under contract with Columbia for his own recordings, Williams formed a separate company called Barnaby Records to handle not only reissuing of the Cadence material, especially that of the Everly Brothers (one of the first Barnaby LPs was a double LP set of the brothers long out of print Cadence hits) but also new artists.
Barnaby also had several Top 40 hits in the 1970s with novelty artist Ray Stevens (who had done a summer replacement show for Williams in 1970), including number-one hits such as “Everything Is Beautiful” in 1970 and “The Streak” in 1974.
Also in 1970, Barnaby signed and released the first album by an unknown singer-songwriter named Jimmy Buffett (Jimmy Buffett Down to Earth) produced by Travis Turk.
Columbia was initially the distributor for Barnaby, but later distribution was handled first by MGM Records and then General Recorded Tape. Once Barnaby ceased operating as a working record company at the end of the 1970s, Williams licensed the old Cadence material to various other labels (such as Varese & Rhino in the US) after 1980.
During the 1960s, Williams became one of the most popular vocalists in the country and was signed to what was at that time the biggest recording contract in history. He was primarily an album artist, and at one time he had earned more gold albums than any solo performer except Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Elvis Presley. By 1973 he had earned as many as 18 gold album awards.
Among his hit albums from this period were Moon River, Days of Wine and Roses (number one for 16 weeks in mid-1963), The Andy Williams Christmas Album, Dear Heart, The Shadow of Your Smile, Love, Andy, Get Together with Andy Williams, and Love Story. These recordings, along with his natural affinity for the music of the 1960s and early 1970s, combined to make him one of the premier easy listening singers of that era.
In the UK, Williams continued to reach high chart status until 1978. The albums Can’t Help Falling In Love (1970), Andy Williams Show (1970) Home Lovin Man (No. 1, 1971), Solitaire (1973), The Way We Were (1974) and Reflections (1978) all reached the Top 10.
Williams forged an indirect collaborative relationship with Henry Mancini, although they never recorded together. Williams was asked to sing Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s song “Moon River” from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the 1962 Oscar Awards. The song won the Oscar and quickly became Williams’ theme song; however, because it was never released as a single, “Moon River” was never actually a chart hit for Williams.
The next year Williams sang “Days of Wine and Roses” which was written by Mancini and Mercer (this song also won). Two years later, he sang Mancini’s “Dear Heart” at the 1965 awards and “The Sweetheart Tree” (also written with Mercer) at the 1966 awards.
On August 5, 1966, the 14-story, 700-room Caesars Palace casino and nightclub opened in Las Vegas, Nevada, with the stage production of “Rome Swings”, in which Williams starred. He performed live to a sold-out crowd in the Circus Maximus showroom. He headlined for Caesars for the next twenty years.
On September 17, 1968, Columbia released a 45-rpm record of two songs Williams sang at the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, his close friend: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria.” These were never released on a long-playing record. However, Williams sang a different rendition of the first song that appears in the Columbia Masterworks album Robert Francis Kennedy: A Memorial.
Williams also competed in the teenage-oriented singles market and had several charting hits including “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”, “Happy Heart”, and “Where Do I Begin”, the theme song from the 1970 blockbuster film, Love Story. In addition, Williams hit the Top 10 of the UK Singles Chart with “Almost There” (1964), “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (1970), “Home Lovin’ Man” (1970) and “Solitaire” (1973).
Both Williams and Petula Clark recorded “Happy Heart” around the same time, just prior to his guest appearance on her second NBC-TV special. Unaware that she was releasing the song as a single, he asked to perform it on the show. The exposure ultimately led to his having the bigger hit with the song. The song “Happy Heart” was used for the final scene and end credits of Danny Boyle’s award-winning directorial debut film Shallow Grave (1994).
Building on his experience with Allen and some short-term variety shows in the 1950s, he became the star of his own weekly television variety show in 1962. This series, The Andy Williams Show, won three Emmy Awards for outstanding variety program. Among his series regulars were the Osmond Brothers. He gave up the variety show in 1971 while it was still popular and reduced his show to three specials per year.
His Christmas specials, which appeared regularly until 1974 and intermittently from 1982 into the 1990s, were among the most popular of the genre. Williams recorded eight Christmas albums over the years and was known as “Mr. Christmas”, due to his perennial Christmas specials and the success of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, which appears on all of his Christmas albums.
Williams hosted the most Grammy telecasts—seven consecutive shows—from the 13th Annual Grammy Awards in 1971 through to the 19th Awards in 1977. He returned to television to do a syndicated half-hour series in 1976–77.
In the early 1970s, when the Nixon Administration attempted to deport John Lennon, Williams was an outspoken defender of the former Beatle’s right to stay in the United States.
Williams is included in the montage of caricatures on the cover of Ringo Starr’s 1973 album, Ringo.
Williams also sang the national anthem at Super Bowl VII in 1973 with Little Angels of Holy Angels Church in Chicago, Illinois.
Williams continued to perform live into his 80s. In a 2007 tour of the UK, Williams said that it was this that kept him vital.
His 1967 recording of “Music to Watch Girls By” became a big UK hit to a new young television audience in 1999, when it reached No. 9 after being featured in new television advertisements for the Fiat Punto—and later for Diet Pepsi—beating the original peak of No. 33 in 1967. A new generation was reminded of Williams’ recordings and a sell-out UK tour followed the success of the single.
In 2002, he re-recorded “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” as a duet with British actress and singer Denise van Outen; it reached No. 23 in the UK singles charts.
He completed a sold-out tour of the United Kingdom and Asia in the winter and summer of 2007, in which he performed at several major concert halls including the Royal Albert Hall, singing, among other classics, Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately”.
Williams returned to the UK singles charts with his 1963 recording of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in December 2007, thanks to an advertisement for Marks & Spencer, reaching No. 21 in its first appearance in the British charts, also reaching No. 108 on the EU Top 200. In 2008 he lip-synched the 45-year-old recording to welcome Santa at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
On October 3, 2009, Williams appeared live on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in London, singing “Moon River” to promote the UK edition of The Very Best of Andy Williams LP, which peaked at No. 10 in the main pop chart.
Williams met French-born Claudine Longet when he came to her aid on a Las Vegas road. She was a dancer at the time at the Folies Bergère. They married on December 15, 1961. Over the next eight years they had three children – Noelle, Christian, and Robert.
After a lengthy separation, Williams and Longet divorced in 1975. In March 1976, Longet was charged with fatally shooting her boyfriend, alpine ski racer Spider Sabich, in Aspen. Williams played a public role in the subsequent events, escorting her to and from the courtroom, testifying to her character at the trial and providing legal assistance. Longet claimed the shooting was accidental, and eventually received 30 days in jail.
From the team’s induction in 1968 until 1987, Andy Williams also had partial ownership of the Phoenix Suns, a National Basketball Association team.
On May 3, 1991, Williams married Debbie Meyer, whom he met through a mutual friend. They made their homes at Branson, Missouri and La Quinta, California, where he was known as the “honorary mayor”. Williams was a noted collector of modern art and his homes have been featured in Architectural Digest.
Williams was an avid golfer and hosted the PGA Tour golf tournament in San Diego from 1968–88 at Torrey Pines. Then known as the “Andy Williams San Diego Open”, the tournament continues as the Farmers Insurance Open, usually played in February. He was also a competent ice skater, and occasionally skated as part of his television Christmas shows.
Williams was a noted collector of Navajo blankets. His collection had hung in his home, his offices, and the Moon River Theater, and was exhibited at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1997–1998.
Williams collection was valued at over $1 million by Sotheby’s, who were due to sell the collection in May 2013. The sale on May 21, 2013 yielded $978,506 (£642,064). Exch Rate: 0.66.
Williams’ birthplace in Iowa is a tourist attraction and is open most of the year.
In a surprise appearance at his theater in November 2011, Williams announced that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. After chemotherapy treatment in Houston, Texas, he and his wife moved to a rented home in Malibu, California in order to be closer to cancer specialists in the Los Angeles area.
On September 25, 2012, Williams died of bladder cancer at the age of 84 at his home in Branson, Missouri. Williams was cremated. His ashes were sprinkled into the artificial waterway at his theater in Branson. The memorial service for Williams was held a month later.