By Jim Bessman
More than any other traditional pop music stand-up singer, Andy Williams managed to transcend the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era and have consistent quality hits through the musically and culturally turbulent 1960s.
He had the songs, of course, like his signature “Moon River,” his 1957 chart-topper “Butterfly,” and such ‘60s hits as “Danny Boy,” “Can’t Get Used To Losing You,” “Hopeless,” “A Fool Never Learns,” “Dear Heart” and “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story.”
And he surely had the vocal gift: A warm, soothing tenor, rich as chocolate, handsome as his face. So winning, in fact, that even The Simpsons’ bully Nelson Muntz burst into tears when Williams, surprisingly his favorite singer, sang “Moon River” in Branson in the 1996 “Bart On The Road” episode. (Williams’ songs actually appeared in four Simpsons episodes, and he mentioned the show in his 2009 autobiography Moon River & Me when he noted that while President Ronald Reagan called his voice “a national treasure,” he also received “the accolade that every entertainer craves above all others: an appearance on The Simpsons.)
“He was one of the last of the iconic singers of his generation,” says Reader’s Digest senior music editor and producer John Alexander, who regularly includes Williams in Reader’s Digest pop music compilations and just released a comprehensive three-CD set of Williams’ Christmas and inspirational songs—which includes famous Williams renditions of “Ave Maria” and “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” along with “Moon River” and “Born Free.”
“In a way he transcended them all, with his TV show and his Kennedy legacy,” adds Alexander. “He was a symbol of his times.”
The Andy Williams Show, which ran from 1962 to 1971, most notably featured The Osmonds as regulars, but also starred his then wife Claudine Longet and the likes of Bobby Darin, Dick Van Dyke, Jonathan Winters, Professor Irwin Corey and the Lennon Sisters. A close friend of Robert F. Kennedy, Williams’ rendition of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” at Kennedy’s funeral was so stunning that his recording of the song became a hit immediately afterward.
“He made the crooning of pop standards cool,” continues Alexander. “But he was the youngest of that group of singers, so it was okay. He wasn’t like your father’s music back in the ‘60s—though not necessarily hip, he was relatively young and vibrant.”
In his notes to the new Reader’s Digest Williams CD set, Alexander calls him a “consummate entertainer whose warmth, charm and sincerity has appealed to generations of music lovers the world over.”
“I think that’s what it was: He was the accessible, relatable artist of that time,” Alexander adds. “My parents adored Perry Como and Nat “King” Cole, but they were before my time. Andy had longer hair and brought on pop acts like The Osmonds. He even recorded George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and sang Michael Nesmith’s ‘Joanne’ on The Andy Williams Show! He had a good ear in picking songs and wasn’t held to the old ‘Songbook,’ but appreciated contemporary artists—everything from ‘Danny Boy’ to ‘My Sweet Lord.’ He could do it all.”
Phil Ramone, the legendary music producer, salutes Williams as “a great interpreter of songs who could have gone in any direction and been well accepted.”
Williams, he says, was “kind of a crossover artist at the time. A lot of people thought he was mainly a jazz guy, and yet he sang some great pop songs on his show—which had Dave Grusin as conductor. He would have been iconic in a whole other way if he’d been exposed in the Mel Torme world as a jazz singer.”
Williams’ “musicality” brought him great respect, notes Ramone, who, as producer of the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame induction dinners, worked with him on a particularly memorable gala.
“‘Moon River’ was being honored as Towering Song, and Monica Mancini [daughter of Henry Mancini, who co-wrote it with Johnny Mercer] was singing it, and as a surprise Andy walked out and did the rest of the song. He was a very cool guy to deal with, and to sing the kind of songs he did, by people like Johnny Mercer and Hank Mancini at the height of their careers, that speaks to a lot of people.”
“Moon River” received the Towering Song award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, and Andy Williams received the Towering Performance award along with it.
“Of all the honorees and performers at the Songwriters Hall of Fame gala, he was one of the most revered,” says the organization’s president/CEO Linda Moran. “So many high-level execs had tears in their eyes when he came out and sang ‘Moon River’! The younger ones in their 40s and 50s said he reminded them of when they would watch his TV show with their parents—and made them miss their parents. And he was so wonderful to work with: After the event he sent me a personal letter—not an email—thanking me for one of the best experiences of his life.” Concludes Moran, “He was really a class act.”
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