"The Emperor of Easy," as he was known to his faithful fans in the U.K., Andy Williams was a singer and television host whose tasteful renditions of songs from the Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer songbook like "Moon River" and "Days of Wine and Roses" made him one of the more well-loved entertainers of the 1960s and 1970s. A former child member of a vocal act featuring his brothers, Williams broke out on his own in 1951 and soon established himself as an effortlessly warm and smooth singer on the aforementioned songs, as well as hits like "Are You Sincere," "Music to Watch Girls By" and "(This Is Where I Begin) Love Story." He parlayed his popularity into a lengthy second career as the host of his own variety series, which ran for over a decade before settling into yearly specials, especially around the holidays. He later became one of the most successful performers in the Southern entertainment mecca of Branson, Missouri, where his easygoing charm and unblemished baritone continued to please generations of music fans.
Born Howard Andrew Williams on Dec. 3, 1927 in Wall Lake, IA, he began singing in the children's choir at the local Presbyterian church. After the family moved to Des Moines, the 11-year-old Williams and his brothers Don, Dick and Bob formed a vocal quartet, the Williams Brothers, with their father, Jay, serving as manager. The group launched their career in 1938 with performances on Des Moines' WHO radio before establishing themselves at stations throughout the Midwest. In 1943, the Williams Brothers moved to Los Angeles, where they landed a film contract with MGM and appeared in several minor musicals, including "Janie" (1944) and "Kansas City Kitty" (1944), though Williams did not provide the singing voice for Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not" (1945), which he was frequently rumored. After lending their polished harmonies to Bing Crosby's Oscar-winning song "Swinging on a Star," they forged a lucrative working partnership with entertainer Kay Thompson, who played countless nightclub and cabaret dates as well as appearances on early TV variety series. The Williams Brothers ceased to be a recording act in 1951, but Andy returned back East to try his hand at a solo career.
After a slow start, Williams began to attract some attention after being featured regularly on "Tonight Starring Steve Allen" (NBC, 1954-57). A contract with the small New England label Cadence Records yielded his first Top 10 single, "Canadian Sunset," in 1956, which was soon followed by a mild rockabilly take on "Butterfly" which earned him his first and only No. 1 single. His high, pleasing baritone soon made him a favorite on the pop charts, where he scored numerous Top 10 hits between 1958 and 1959, including "Are You Sincere," "The Village of St. Bernadette" and "Lonely Street." Williams was also an impeccably polished performer - handsome, gracious and poised - which led to countless stints as both guest and guest host on television.
In 1961, Williams moved to Columbia Records, where he found his greatest success as a musical artist. Interestingly, he scored relatively few hit singles during his tenure there, save for 1963's "Can't Get Used to Losing You." Williams was more popular as an album artist for adult and easy-listening audiences, beginning in 1962 with Moon River & Other Great Movie Themes, which provided him with a signature song in Henry Mancini's theme from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961). Its follow-up, Days of Wine and Roses, hit the top of the albums chart, and established him as a superior crooner with a particular knack for sweeping ballads. During this period, he was also a major television star with "The Andy Williams Show" (CBS/NBC, 1959-1971), an affable blend of its host's latest pop hits, genial guest stars like Bobby Darin and the New Christy Minstrels, and broad comedy sketches. Williams frequently reunited with his brothers for special performances, and shepherded an up-and-coming family act, The Osmonds, who made their television debut on his series. Another regular guest, French singer Claudine Longet, became Williams' wife in 1961. Williams received two Emmy nominations for his hosting duties in 1963 and 1964.
Not everything Williams touched came away as a success; there was a brief attempt in 1964 to turn him into a movie star, but the end result, a dismal musical comedy called "I'd Rather Be Rich" with Sandra Dee and Robert Goulet, assured all involved that Williams was better served as a singer. He quickly returned to his busy schedule of recording and hosting, which soon included headlining duties at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, a job he held for the next two decades. In 1968, Williams sang at the funeral of his close friend, Robert F. Kennedy, for whom he had campaigned during his presidential run, and whom he had seen assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in June of that year.
The late '60s and early '70s saw Williams return to the singles charts with several well-crafted pop hits, including the unusually swinging "Music to Watch Girls By" (1967), "Happy Heart" (1969) and "(Where Do I Begin)" the theme to "Love Story" (1970). "The Andy Williams Show" also returned to the airwaves after a brief cancellation in 1967, and Williams would continue to host the show until 1971, when he brought it to an end in favor of regular TV specials that would allow him more time for touring. That year also marked the beginning of his seven-year stint as the host of the Grammy Awards, which he would oversee until 1977.
In 1976, Williams became embroiled in a scandalous murder case involving Claudine Longet. The couple had separated in 1970 and divorced just a year before Longet was arrested on charges of murdering her then-boyfriend, famous skier Spider Sabich. To the surprise of many, Williams appeared at Longet's side throughout the trial, providing not only character testimony, but escorting her to and from court each day. Lack of evidence resulted in Longet being convicted of misdemeanor negligent homicide and serving a 30-day sentence. Williams soon returned to his music career, which had seen diminished returns for his albums, save for England, where he continued to enjoy strong sales. In America, he largely became a nostalgia performer whose semi-regular specials were an old-fashioned highlight of most Christmas seasons, earning him the respectful nickname "Mr. Christmas."
In 1991, Williams opened the Moon River Theatre in Branson, MO. Inspired by the success that comic performer Ray Stevens, who was managed by Williams' brother Don, had found there, he decided to launch his own venue, despite the area being a haven for country acts. The Moon River Theatre soon became the jewel of the popular tourist town, thanks to its lavish design, which featured pieces from Williams' own art collection, and inspired other non-country acts like Bobby Vinton, Tony Orlando and Wayne Newton to establish their own headlining theaters there.
The year 1999 saw Williams return to the Top 10 in the U.K. after his single "Music to Watch Girls By" shot to No. 9 on the strength of its usage in television commercials for both Fiat and Diet Pepsi. The newfound success inspired Williams to tour England, where he was met with sold-out shows and rave reviews. In 2003, he recorded "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" as a duet with singer-actress Denise van Outen which broke the Top 40, and he would continue to command huge audiences in Europe and Asia into the new millennium. In 2009, he performed "Moon River" on the BBC's "Strictly Come Dancing" (2004- ), which helped to propel his Very Best of Andy Williams CD to No. 10. In November 2011, Williams announced to the press that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments. He had missed several performances at the Moon River Theatre's pre-Christmas celebration due to treatment in Texas, which had prompted the announcements. On Sept. 25, 2012, Williams passed away at his home in Branson at age 84.
By Paul Gaita
Music (Feature Film)
Music (TV Mini-Series)
Formed the quartet The Williams Brothers with his brothers Don, Dick and Bob; father managed the group
Moved to Los Angeles with his brothers; landed a film contract with MGM
Made feature debut with brothers in ""Janie" and "Kansas City Kitty"
The Williams Brothers disbanded
Began regularly performing as a solo act on NBC's "Tonight Starring Steve Allen"
Signed with Cadence Records and released his first Top 10 single "Canadian Sunset"
Landed his first and only No. 1 with a cover of Charlie Gracie's "Butterfly"
Scored numerous Top 10 hits including "Are You Sincere," "The Village of St. Bernadette," and "Lonely Street"
Hosted the music and variety program "The Andy Williams Show" (CBS, 1959; NBC, 1962-71)
Signed with Columbia Records
Recorded Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini's classic composition "Moon River"; track originally performed by Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"; Williams performed song at the 1962 Oscar ceremony
Married French singer and "The Andy Williams Show" regular Claudine Longet
Released the album <i>Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes</i>
Received first Gold certification from RIAA with the album <i>Days of Wine and Roses and Other TV Requests</i>
Feature acting debut in the comedy "I'd Rather Be Rich" opposite Sandra Dee and Robert Goulet
Began a 20-year stint as a headliner at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, NV
Sang at the funeral of his close friend Robert F. Kennedy, for whom he had campaigned during his presidential run, and whom he had seen assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in June of that year; Columbia released the two singles Williams performed at the funeral, "Ave Maria" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"
Recorded the theme song to the drama feature "Love Story"
Began a multi-year hosting stint for the Grammy Awards
Starred in his first televised holiday special "The Andy Williams Christmas Show" (NBC), also executive produced
Starred in and executive produced "Andy Williams' Early New England Christmas"
Opened the Moon River Theatre in Branson, MO
Returned to the U.K. Top 10 with "Music to Watch Girls By"; single was used in television commercials for Fiat and Diet Pepsi
Recorded a duet of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" with singer-actress Denise van Outen that reached the Top 40 in Europe and Asia
Featured in the PBS special "Andy Williams: My Favorite Duets"
Landed a multi-episode guest appearance on "As the World Turns" (CBS)
Compilation album <i>Moon River: The Very Best of Andy Williams</i> released on Columbia Records
Featured in the musical documentary "The Lennon Sisters: Same Song, Separate Voices"