In a May 12, 1961 file photo, Andy Williams performs a song on a television show. Emmy-winning TV host and “Moon River” crooner Williams died Tuesday night at his home in Branson, Mo., following a year-long battle with bladder cancer. He was 84.
BRANSON, Mo. — For many Americans, particularly those on the older — OK, squarer — side of the generation gap, Andy Williams was part of the soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s, with easy-listening hits like “Moon River,” the “Love Story” theme and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” from his beloved Christmas TV specials.
The singer known for his wholesome, middle-America appeal was the antithesis of the counterculture that produced rock and roll.
“The old cliche says that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there,” Williams 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.”
The entertainer, who died Tuesday night at his Branson home following a yearlong battle with bladder cancer, had a plaintive tenor, boyish features and clean-cut demeanor that 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 and continued to perform into his 80s.
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 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 cherished 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. In fact, he insisted on it.
“When I hear anybody else sing it, it’s all I can to do stop myself from shouting at the television screen, ‘No! That’s my song!’” Williams wrote in his 2009 memoir titled, fittingly, “Moon River and Me.”
“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. Four decades later, the Osmonds and Williams would find themselves in close proximity again, sharing Williams’ Moon River Theater in Branson.
Williams did book some rock and soul acts, including the Beach Boys, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson. On one show, in 1970, Williams sang “Heaven Help Us All” with Ray Charles, Mama Cass and a then-little known Elton John, a vision to Williams in his rhinestone glasses and black cape. But Williams liked him and his breakthrough hit “Your Song” enough to record it himself.
Williams’ act was, apparently, not an act. The singer’s unflappable manner on television and in concert was mirrored offstage.
“I guess I’ve never really been aggressive, although almost everybody else in show business fights and gouges and knees to get where they want to be,” he once said. “My trouble is, I’m not constructed temperamentally along those lines.”
He was born Howard Andrew Williams in Wall Lake, Iowa, on Dec. 3, 1927, and began performing with older brothers Dick, Bob and Don in the local Presbyterian church choir. Their father, postal worker and insurance man Jay Emerson Williams, was the choirmaster and the force behind his children’s career.