Andy Williams: A Farewell Song for the “Moon River” Man

Launching top-10 easy-listening hits, or crooning in a sweater on TV, Williams was a smooth sedative in a volcanic era of pop culture

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Lennox McLendon / File / AP

This Feb. 23, 1978 file photo shows performer and host Andy Williams at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

One night in 1961, Andy Williams heard a ballad that Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini had written to be performed by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The singer loved the song, but Archie Bleyer, who ran the Cadence record label, wouldn’t release it as a single, fretting that homespun phrases like “my huckleberry friend” would baffle the kids. (Instead, the hit single went to the R&B stylist Jesse Butler.) So Williams moved to Columbia Records and put the number on a 1962 album: Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes. The song won an Oscar; the LP perched on the Billboard charts for more than three years; and Williams, who died Tuesday at 84 of bladder cancer at his Branson, Mo., home, had a life-long signature tune.

Hardly a one-hit wonder — no matter how huge or defining the hit — Williams was a performer, and a minor cultural treasure, for three quarters of a century. He peaked as a recording artist in the decade from the mid-1950s to the mid-’60s, withstanding the first age of rock and finding a niche as the period’s most amiable pop baritone. Williams’ pleasant presence, as comfortable as the cashmere sweaters he wore, proved equally suitable for TV. The Andy Williams Show charmed and soothed viewers from 1962 to 1971. His Christmas specials invited America’s family to join his, establishing a jovial, much-parodied tradition for other TV celebrities desperate to prove they too were just folks.

(PLAYLIST: Listen to some of Andy Williams’ favorite songs)

Born in Wall Lake, Iowa, Howard Andrew Williams was soon singing in public with his three older brothers in the Presbyterian choir. “The very first time he heard his four sons harmonize together,” Williams wrote in his autobiography Moon River and Me, “my dad became a man with a dream and a mission in life, convinced that we had a future as professional singers.” More gently urging than the notorious Murray Wilson, father of three of the Beach Boys, Jay Williams coaxed his youngest son on stage at the age of eight to join the Williams Brothers. They toured country fairs, performed on the radio, sang backup to Bing Crosby on the Oscar-winning “Swinging on a Star” (from the 1944 Going My Way) and appeared with Kay Thompson in her nightclub act. (The rumor persists that teen Andy provided the vocal when Lauren Bacall performed the Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael song “How Little We Know” in her 1944 debut movie, To Have and Have Not. He didn’t; Bacall sang it herself.) When the brother act broke up in 1953, Andy went solo.

(READ: Corliss on Brian Wilson and his dad)

In short order, he got a gig as the house vocalist for Steve Allen’s new 11:30 gig, The Tonight Show. Thinking he’d be around for only a few weeks, he said, he stayed for two-and-a-half years because nobody told him to leave. He also signed with Cadence Records. Bleyer, like Columbia’s Mitch Miller an orchestrator who became a music mogul (the vocalist in Bleyer’s group in the ’30s was the young Mercer), had left his job as the band leader on Arthur Godfrey’s TV shows to found Cadence and record Godfrey’s femme quartet The Chordettes, for whom he produced the perky hits “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop.” No musical snob, he also signed the Everly Brothers, the Nashville boys who pioneered country rock and gave Bleyer a string of top-20 perennials, and guitarist Link Wray, whose “Rumble” was pure teen threat set to music.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Steve Allen and the early Tonight Show)

Williams, Cadence’s biggest potential star, was also a moderate risk. The rockers had pushed the crooners from the middle of the road to the shoulder; from 1956 on, MOR was less. Compared with other white singers, Andy hit the charts by bringing a warmer approach to even blander material. While the balladeer Pat Boone issued toned-down cover versions of songs by such black artists as Fats Domino and Little Richard, Williams had a No. 1 hit covering white singer Charlie Gracie’s “Butterfly.” Andy might admit a little rhythmic zest and playful sexuality into “I Like Your Kind of Love” (with backup singer Peggy Powers cooing, “That’s good, baby, that’s good”). But his more durable Cadence singles were sentimental torch songs that tapped Williams’ wider dramatic range and allowed him to reach a tenor crescendo for the big finish. Among these were “Canadian Sunset,”  “Are You Sincere” and his top-five hit “Lonely Street,” which Bleyer first heard at Don and Phil Everly’s home, and which became the title track for Williams’ first album to make the Billboard charts.

Though Mitch Miller’s Columbia didn’t issue “Moon River” as a single, Williams found his standing at the label elevated when he performed the song on the 1962 Academy Award ceremony. For a while he was back on the pop charts. Another Mercer-Mancini movie ballad, “Days of Wine and Roses,” gave him a No. 1 album; and the Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” a clash of whispering verses and turn-’em-loose choruses, went to No. 2. In 1964 Williams made his only credited appearance in a movie, costarring with Sandra Dee and Robert Goulet in the anodyne romantic comedy I’d Rather Be Rich.

(READ: a 1942 profile of Johnny Mercer by subscribing to TIME)

When TV replaced records as the most welcoming medium for genial entertainment, it recruited many pop singers, including Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole and Perry Como, to host their own shows. The handsome, modest Como was the crooner king of variety TV, and once or twice in ’50s polls he topped President Eisenhower as America’s favorite person. Williams, still in his twenties when he got a CBS summer-replacement show in 1959, was a younger Como with a slightly lower emotional temperature; and having been on stage since childhood, he was an expert at playing himself in people’s homes each week.

(READ: TIME’s 1965 story on Andy Williams at midwest fairgrounds)

After “Moon River” he got his own weekly show on NBC, running from 1962 to ’67, then from 1969 to ’71, with three specials in each of the two intervening years. The early shows went heavy on the singing, with Andy hitting the Nice button and, on many episodes, showcasing the talents and teeth of a clean-cut sibling singing group, the Osmonds, who might have been second-generation Williams Brothers. In the late ’60s, following the lead of the Smothers Brothers, the show had interludes of zany comedy, and Williams sang duets with rock artists such as Linda Ronstadt and Elton John. He also formed Barnaby Records to reissue some of the Cadence classics and to promote his own stable of singers: Ray Stevens (whose “Everything Is Beautiful” won Song of the Year at one of the seven Grammy shows Williams hosted), Jimmy Buffett and the French chanteuse Claudine Longet.

(SEE: Ray Stevens’ 2010 musical video on illegal immigration)

Married to Longet from 1961 to 1970, Williams stood by his ex-wife in 1976 when she was tried in the fatal shooting of her boyfriend, Olympic skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. Longet was convicted on the lesser charge of misdemeanor criminal negligence, and sentenced to 30 days in prison, but the more stinging punishment was meted out on Saturday Night Live, then in its first season. Dan Aykroyd and Jean Curtin are announcers at “the Claudine Longet Invitational,’ which shows footage of male skiers being picked off by rifle as they cruise down the slopes. “Uh-oh!” Aykroyd barks at each fatal tumble. “He seems to have been accidentally shot by Claudine Longet!” They conclude by adapting the sport of skeet-shooting to ski-shooting.

(READ: TIME’s coverage of “Andy & Claudine & Spider & Co.”)

This one eruption of sensation in an otherwise placid career did not dent Williams’ popularity one whit. He continued to make records (in 2002 his version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” made the British top 25), show up on TV and do one-man concerts before benevolent audiences. In 1992 he became Branson’s first non-country-singer attraction when he built the 2,054-seat Moon River Theatre. On stage as a kid, he remained the same eager-to-please Andy in his eighties — crooning to his fans and their grandchildren, and reminding lovers of classic pop that mellow could be marvelous. Andy Williams may have died in Branson, but his poised, relaxed spirit is making one more visit to Moon River. We suspect he’s crossing it in style.