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Andy Williams dies at 84; 'Moon River' singer

Andy Williams parlayed his silky voice and casual style into a long career as a hit recording artist, star of an Emmy-winning TV show and live performer.

September 27, 2012|Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Time

Andy Williams' signature hit song from the early 1960s was no accident of timing.

Audrey Hepburn sang it first in the 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and it was nominated for an Oscar. But when the producers of the Academy Awards show asked Williams to perform "Moon River" on the 1962 broadcast, his record label hatched a plan.

With four weeks till air time, Williams recorded an album featuring "Moon River" and other "great movie themes." It was rushed into stores on Oscar day and by the next morning was on its way to being a hit.

Williams, 84, whose soothing baritone and laid-back style made him one of America's top vocalists from the 1950s into the 1970s, died Tuesday at his home in Branson, Mo., his family said. Late last year, he announced he had bladder cancer.

When rock music was stirring up the 1960s and 1970s, Williams and his silky voice soothed the masses hankering for the familiar rhythms of a bygone era. "The Andy Williams Show" aired weekly from 1962 to 1967 and again from 1969 to 1971, with occasional specials in the interim, and was reassuringly old school, at least in its early years.

For his part, Williams was much like other popular television personalities of the day such as Dinah Shore and Johnny Carson. Williams was a relatable and reassuring presence, often wearing his trademark sweaters as he sang such hit songs as "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Born Free."

"The Andy Williams Show," which was taped at NBC in Burbank, won three Emmy Awards, and its casual host received two Emmy nominations.

Williams said he never tired of singing "Moon River," whose melody he considered "beautiful" and whose lyrics he called "timeless."

"You wouldn't believe how 'Moon River' became a hit," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. "I was having dinner with [songwriters] Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, who had just finished recording the movie 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' with Audrey Hepburn singing 'Moon River' out on the balcony with a guitar.

"So Mancini and Mercer played this song for me, which I thought was great," he said, but his record company at the time "was really into singles then, and they said: 'I don't think phrases like "my Huckleberry friend" will make it with the kids — they won't know what it means.'"

His next record label, Columbia, hurriedly sent him to the studio to record "Moon River."

The singer hosted "The Andy Williams Show" on NBC from 1962 to 1967, then did occasional specials before again taking the series weekly from 1969 to 1971.

"In some cases, people who go on television, their record sales drop off; mine seemed to go up," Williams told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991.

"I think it's because the music is kind of soft and easy and it's not jamming down anybody's throat. It's just there and people find it pleasant and like it, and they go out and buy the albums."

"The Andy Williams Show" featured established entertainers such as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Jonathan Winters and Phyllis Diller as well as newer talents such as Linda Ronstadt, the Mamas and the Papas, Elton John and the Jackson 5.

Williams also regularly showcased the Osmond Brothers, who were billed as "a youthful barbershop harmony group from Ogden, Utah" when they debuted on the show in 1962.

A popular feature of the TV program was the annual Christmas special, which invariably showed Williams surrounded by his family.

The Christmas shows were so popular that when the weekly series went off the air, "we got thousands of pieces of mail" asking us to come back, Williams later said. He returned annually to host Christmas specials for many years and later presented Christmas shows in theaters around the country.

The Iowa-born Williams began singing professionally as a boy with his three older brothers in the 1930s, and he went solo when the quartet broke up in the early 1950s.

After becoming a regular featured singer on Steve Allen's "Tonight" show in 1954, Williams had hits with songs such as "Canadian Sunset" and "Butterfly."

He continued to turn out hits in the 1960s and '70s, including "Can't Get Used to Losing You," "Dear Heart," "Charade," "Music to Watch Girls By" and "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story."

The son of a railroad mail clerk, Williams was born Dec. 3, 1927, in Wall Lake, Iowa. As a boy, he began singing with his three older brothers — Bob, Don and Dick — in the local Presbyterian church choir.

"The very first time he heard his four sons harmonize together, my dad became a man with a dream and a mission in life, convinced that we had a future as professional singers," Williams wrote in his 2009 memoir "Moon River and Me."

With their father as their manager and "driving force," the Williams Brothers landed a 15-minute show every weekday morning on a Des Moines radio station in 1936 when Andy was 8. They had similar success after moving to Chicago in 1941, and later Cincinnati.

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