With a string of gold albums, a hit TV series and the signature “Moon River,” Andy Williams was a voice of the 1960s, although not the ’60s we usually hear about.
The singer known for his easy-listening style and his wholesome, middle-America appeal was the antithesis of the counterculture that gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll.
“The old cliche says that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there,” he once recalled. “Well, I was there all right, but my memory of them is blurred – not by any drugs I took but by the relentless pace of the schedule I set myself.”
Williams’ plaintive tenor, boyish features and clean-cut demeanor helped him outlast many of the decade’s rock stars and fellow crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. He remained on the charts into the 1970s, hosting hugely popular Christmas television specials and becoming closely associated with the holiday standard “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Williams, who continued to perform into his 80s at the Moon River Theatre he built in Branson, Mo., announced in November 2011 that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and vowed to return to performing the following year, his 75th in show business.
The 84-year-old entertainer died Tuesday night at his Branson home.
Williams became a major star in 1956, the same year as Elvis Presley, with the Sinatra-like swing number “Canadian Sunset.” For a time, he was pushed into such Presley imitations as “Lips of Wine” and the No. 1 smash “Butterfly.”
But he mostly stuck to what he called his “natural style” and kept it up throughout his career. In 1970, when even Sinatra had temporarily retired, Williams was in the top 10 with his version of the theme from “Love Story,” the Oscar-winning tearjerker. He had 18 gold records, three platinum and five Grammy award nominations.
Williams was also the first host of the live Grammy awards telecast and hosted the show for seven consecutive years, beginning in 1971.
Movie songs became a specialty, including his signature “Moon River.” The longing Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini ballad was his most famous song, even though he never released it as a single because his record company feared such lines as “my huckleberry friend” were too confusing and old-fashioned for teens.
The song was first performed by Audrey Hepburn in the beloved 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but Mancini thought “Moon River” ideal for Williams, who recorded it in “pretty much one take” and also sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards. Although “Moon River” was covered by countless artists and became a hit single for Jerry Butler, Williams made the song his personal brand.
“The Andy Williams Show,” which lasted in various formats through the 1960s and into 1971, won three Emmys and featured Williams alternately performing his stable of hits and bantering with guest stars.
It was on that show that Williams – who launched his own career as part of an all-brother quartet – introduced the world to another clean-cut act – the original four singing Osmond Brothers of Utah. Their younger sibling Donny also made his debut on Williams’ show, in 1963, when he was 6 years old.
Williams’ wholesome image endured one jarring interlude.
In 1976, his ex-wife, former Las Vegas showgirl Claudine Longet, shot and killed her lover, skiing champion Spider Sabich. Longet, who said it was an accident, spent only a week in jail. Williams stood by her. He escorted her to the courthouse, testified on her behalf and provided support for her and their children, Noelle, Christian and Robert.
After leaving TV, Williams headed back on the road, where his many Christmas shows and albums made him a huge draw during the holidays.
Eventually, he decided to settle in Branson, with its dozens of theaters featuring live music, comedy and magic acts, and was among the first wave of national entertainers to perform there regularly.