From Wall Lake, Iowa to Branson, Missouri, by way of New York and Hollywood.. the story of Andy Williams has a Midwest flavor, a small-town boy who makes it big and returns to the small town. His performing style is friendly, laid back and approachable, not unlike that of one of his heroes, Perry Como.. a style that’s as comfortable as the sweaters he wears. And yet, Moon River runs deep…
“Start at the Very Beginning…”
Howard Andrew Williams was born December 3, 1927, in Wall Lake, Iowa, to parents Jay and Florence – their fourth son. A daughter, Jane, and another son would follow in a few years, but the youngest boy would die at the age of three.
Jay Williams was a mail clerk for the CNW railroad. He started and then led the choir at the Wall Lake Presbyterian Church. Andy was six when he joined brothers Bob, Dick and Don in that choir. He was eight when he made his professional singing debut. The Williams Brothers Quartet sang on radio shows.. The “Iowa Barn Dance” on WHO in Des Moines, then on WLS in Chicago and on to WLW in Cincinnati.
In 1944, the Williams Brothers cut their first record, singing along with Bing Crosby on the tune “Swinging on a Star”, a huge hit for Bing and the boys. According to some sources, Andy also dubbed Lauren Bacall’s singing voice for the movie To Have and Have Not that year.
During World War II, while Andy’s older brothers were away, he sang with another group and also did some back-up singing for M-G-M, on the soundtrack of the movies, The Harvey Girls and Good News. It was there that he connected with comedian, actress, writer, singer, arranger, Jill-of-All-Show-Business-Trades, Kay Thompson. Thompson may be best remembered for her role as magazine editor Maggie Prescott in the film classic Funny Face and for her series of children’s books about Eloise, the six year old who lived at New York’s Plaza Hotel. But in 1944, Thompson was arranging music for MGM, working closely with Judy Garland and many others.
“When the War Was Over… There Were Jobs Galore.. ”
When the war ended, the Williams Brot
hers teamed up again and joined Thompson in a ground-breaking nightclub act. Williams is quoted in articles found on a website tribute to Thompson:
It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t an act like us before, because there have been so many since. Up to that time, everyone just sang around a microphone, and when the song was over, the singers would raise their arms. That’s about all there was to it. What Kay and (M-G-M choreographer) Bob Alton put together was like a mini-musical revue… We acted out scenes like a miniature Broadway show.
“Another Opening.. Another Show”
The act opened in 1947 at El Rancho in Las Vegas, and while screenwriter Leonard Gershe told Vanity Fair magazine that Thompson was madly in love with young Andy, Williams denied that. He does say that Thompson demanded, and got, complete control of the act:
At one time my brother Dick wanted to compose or arrange one of the songs. Very soon it was decided that that wasn’t the way it was going to go.
The act played Vegas, then Los Angeles and then moved to New York in April, 1948. It was fresh, it was fun and it was just the ticket for Manhattanites. Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers continued their partnership into the early 1950’s.
“Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine…”
The act broke up in 1951. Thompson went on to write the Eloise books, Dick Williams went to sing with the Harry James band, Don became an actor and later an agent and manager. Brother Bob left show business for real estate.
And Andy went solo. He remained in New York, where he struggled for two and a half years before landing a job as a performer on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show. That led to his first record contract, with Cadence Records, and his first big hit, “Canadian Sunset” in 1956. He reached number one on the charts in 1957 with “Butterfly” and made the Top Ten with “Lonely Street”, “The Village of St. Bernadette” and “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” which garnered the first of his five Grammy nominations.
He changed record labels in 1961, moving to Columbia where he had some success with the song “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”. But singles weren’t what the listening public wanted from Andy Williams – they wanted albums. And in 1962, his Moon River & Other Great Movie Themes was released. The title song won an Oscar for Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Andy performed the song at the Academy Awards and “Moon River” quickly became his signature song. The album would remain at Number One on the charts for four months.
“TV is the Thing This Year”
And Andy had another talent that would become more evident in the early 1960’s.. he was a natural as a television host. People felt comfortable welcoming him into their living rooms. The Andy Williams Show debuted in the fall of 1963 on NBC and remained on the air for nine years, winning three Emmys> Guest stars included Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, Vic Damone and Bobby Darin. The show helped launch the careers of the Osmond Brothers and turned the spotlight on Andy’s twin nephews, Andrew and David, also known as The Williams Brothers.
“Love and Marriage..”
These were halcyon days for Andy. He racked up gold albums. He was the first performer booked at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, opening the casino in 1966. It was during this time that he met and married Las Vegas showgirl, Claudine Longet. She was born in Paris, France and Andy has claimed that he had seen her roller-skating in France when she was a school girl, some ten years before they met. An Internet profile of Claudine says Andy told an A&E special that they met in 1960, when her car broke down in Vegas. They married in 1961. She was 19, he was 34. The couple had three children, a daughter and two sons and the family became a big part of Andy’s Christmas shows.
Claudine appeared in a few films and also released a few albums of her own, singing in a sweet, breathy voice but her career was overshadowed by Andy’s and it would come to a complete stop in the mid 1970’s.
“There May Be Trouble Ahead..”
The late 60’s were turbulent times. Among the couple’s closest friends were Senator Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel. Andy and Claudine were planning to celebrate with the Senator, after he won the California Democratic Primary on that June night in 1968, the night that Kennedy was murdered. Andy was devastated by the death but he sang a memorable version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Kennedy’s funeral.
There was trouble at home as well. The marriage had hit the rocks, and in 1969, Andy and Claudine separated, tho she and the children would continue to appear on his TV show and Christmas specials for several years to come. It was during this time of marital strife, that a psychiatrist recommended that Andy take LSD. In the June 10, 2005 issue of The London Times, Williams told interviewer Amber Cowan:
When I was getting divorced from my first wife in the Seventies I went to a hospital in Canada where I took LSD for three days. A psychiatrist in San Diego suggested it to find out why I was unhappy. I took three shots and discovered that the only things that matter in life are your children and your family.
“I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans”
Andy’s TV show was canceled in 1972, around the time that Claudine and the children moved to Aspen to be with her lover, skier Spider Sabich. Andy and Claudine officially divorced in 1975, and a year later, Sabich died in what Claudine has claimed was an accidental shooting. Andy rushed to Aspen to support her, explaining in 2002, to interviewer Michael Shelden:
I had to be there for her. She is the mother of my children. And we never stopped being friends… I still accept her story that the shooting was accidental… Bing Crosby’s wife once told me that she was amazed that I had taken so much trouble to help Claudine after we divorced. I said that anybody would have done the same thing, and she said: ‘Bing wouldn’t’. I think she meant that Bing was a very rigid guy, and once you had screwed up, you were off his list. Well, that’s not the kind of guy I am.
The kind of guy he is and was, was someone who got on with his life. He continued performing, recording, playing golf, touring the world and winning over audiences in Great Britain, Europe and Asia.
“No Business Like Show Business.. ”
Then, in 1991, Andy took a trip to Branson, Missouri to see his friend, Ray Stevens, and was captivated by the town. So much so, that he decided to relocate. He opened the multi-million dollar Moon River Theater in Branson, soon after, and now divides his time between Palm Springs and Branson, where he performs six days a week from September through December. He also spends time on the road each year, especially during the Christmas season.
His recordings continue to find new audiences. When Fiat featured his 1967 tune “Music to Watch Girls By”, , in commercials in Great Britain, the ad was so popular that the song was re-released as a single and broke into the Top Ten.
Andy Williams says he was always willing to take risks, even if they fell flat, like the last couple
of seasons of his TV show, when producers and the network tried to appeal to a younger audience. These days he has added a rap number to his Christmas shows. Later this year he will return to the recording studio for the first time in 20 years and among the songs he plans to do are “Desperado”, a hit for The Eagles, and Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”. He’s also filming a TV special for PBS with Ann-Margret and Petula Clark, and heading off soon on a concert tour of Japan and Hong Kong.
“The Second Time Around..”
He’s married again. His wife is the former Debbie Haas, and they met on a blind date on a golf course in Branson, about 16 years ago. His eldest son, Bobby, named for Bobby Kennedy, is 35 and makes political documentaries. Youngest son, Christian, owns property in Costa Rica and daughter Noelle lives just outside Los Angeles. Andy Williams has six grandchildren.
As for retirement, Andy Williams says you only retire from “work” and what he’s doing now, is fun!