Andy Williams, ‘Moon River’ crooner, TV host, dies at 84

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 138 views 

Andy Williams, the “Moon River” crooner who helped define American popular music in the 1960s and 1970s through his Christmas albums, nightclub performances and television variety show, has died. He was 84.

Williams died yesterday at his home in Branson, Mo., his publicist, Paul Shefrin, said, citing the family. The cause was bladder cancer.

Since 1992, Williams made his home mostly in Branson, where he built, ran and performed at the 2,000-seat Moon River Theatre. During a concert there in November, he announced he had bladder cancer and vowed to return in 2012 to celebrate the Christmas season and to mark his 75th year in show business.

Williams became closely associated with Christmas through the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which he recorded and released in 1963, and through the television specials he hosted each holiday season – always with his family as special guests, and always in a colorful sweater that practically screamed yuletide cheer.

“The show I always enjoyed doing above all others was the Christmas show, and it was the one that the audiences loved the most, too,” Williams wrote in “Moon River and Me,” his 2009 memoir. “It always had the highest ratings of the entire season. To this day people stop me on the street and tell me how much they cherished the Christmas shows and how much it meant to their whole family.”

“The Andy Williams Show,” a weekly variety show, ran on NBC from 1962 to 1967, and again from 1969 to 1971. It helped make stars of the Osmond Brothers, whose 1963 performance was so popular that they were asked to become regulars.

Eighteen of Williams’s albums were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, meaning they each sold more than 500,000 copies. Three others sold more than 1 million copies each, achieving platinum status: “The Andy Williams Christmas Album” (1963), “Merry Christmas” (1965) and “Love Story” (1971).

The title song of “Love Story,” also known by its first four words, “Where Do I Begin,” was associated with the 1970 film of the same name.

It was “Moon River,” recorded in 1961 just after he signed with Columbia Records, that became his theme song. Written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, and sung by Audrey Hepburn in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” it won the Oscar for best song in 1962. At the Academy Awards ceremony that year, Williams performed it. He also opened his television show by singing the first bars – “Moon river, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style, someday.”

Williams’s life had its share of bumps.

He and his first wife, the former Claudine Longet – who appeared with their three children, Christian, Robert and Noelle, on his annual Christmas specials – split up in 1969 and divorced in 1975.

“My first priority should have been Claudine and the children,” he wrote in his memoir, “but they often had to make do with the scraps of time I had left when all my other commitments had been fulfilled.”

In 1977, when Longet faced a felony charge of reckless manslaughter in the shooting death of her boyfriend, skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich, Williams attended the trial in support of his ex-wife. After testifying that Sabich’s death was an accident, Longet was convicted of a lesser charge, misdemeanor negligent homicide. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Williams’s second marriage, in 1991, was to the former Debbie Haas.

Though he was a Republican, Williams became close friends with Robert Kennedy in the 1960s and was traveling with his presidential campaign on June 5, 1968, when Kennedy was assassinated in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Williams sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the memorial service for Kennedy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York – which he called “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

More recently, Williams’s politics drew interest after he told the U.K. magazine Radio Times in 2009 that U.S. President Barack Obama “is following Marxist theory” and “wants the country to fail.”

In an ABC News interview, he partially backtracked.

“I have nothing, absolutely, against a liberal Democrat,” he said. “I just think sometimes, like a lot of Americans, that he might be guiding us in the wrong direction. But that’s, that’s just from a singer. It really doesn’t mean much.”

Howard Andrew Williams was born on Dec. 3, 1927, in Wall Lake, Iowa – “one of those one-stoplight, one-horse Midwestern towns that a motorist would pass through in the blink of an eye,” he said. He was the fourth of six children of Jay and Florence Williams.

Williams and his three older brothers – Bob, Don and Dick – began singing as a quartet, managed and promoted by their father. When they were ready to graduate from Midwest radio stations, the whole family moved to Los Angeles, where the brothers recorded “Swinging on a Star” with Bing Crosby.

After a break for military service – Williams spent six months in the U.S. merchant marine – they reformed the group and toured from 1947 to 1949 with Kay Thompson, the singer best known as creator of the Eloise children’s book series.

After the brother act split up in 1954, Williams struggled to begin a solo career. He moved to New York City and did the nightclub circuit before landing a regular singing spot on Steve Allen’s “Tonight” show. His 1957 recording of the song “Butterfly” was his first huge hit.

Williams, who also had a residence in La Quinta, Calif., is survived by his wife Debbie and his three children, Robert, Noelle and Christian, according to Shefrin.