His very name brings to mind Squaresville—thanks to that pressed white collar worn over the ubiquitous sweater, his Midwestern, nice-guy demeanor and songs that are never going to burn down the house. But give Andy Williams credit: he’s worked long and hard to make things look, feel and sound so darn easy.
The man with the mellow tenor tells how it was done—charting the good times and the bad—in the impressively detailed and introspective Moon River and Me.
It’s no milquetoast memoir. Anecdotes are candid: Sinatra’s cruelty; Lawrence Welk’s puritanism; those innocent young Osmonds; Judy Garland forgetting the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”; Williams’ affair with the much older Kay Thompson. Owning up to his failings, Williams was such an absentee husband and father that one of their kids didn’t even notice when he and wife Claudine Longet divorced. Longet was later embroiled in a scandal involving the shooting death of her skier lover; Williams stood by throughout the ordeal. That’s the closest he’s come to negative press, though he’s been in the presence of tragedy: he was at the Ambassador Hotel the night close friend Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Now 81, he’s been performing since childhood, when his determined father created the Williams Brothers quartet. He was eight when the group segued from church socials and weddings, in their hometown of Wall Lake, Iowa, to a Des Moines radio show.
Williams and his brothers went from radio to movies (bit parts at MGM, in the heyday of musicals) to ritzy Manhattan club dates. Finally, Williams went solo, playing small clubs, the county fair circuit, gigs in Vegas and Tahoe, before moving to the recording studio (shrewdly, Williams even became a label owner), television, concerts, and on to Branson, Missouri, where today he entertains audiences at his own theater, named for his signature tune, “Moon River.” Now that’s a career. No wonder Williams suddenly seems very cool. Even when he’s wearing those sweaters.
Journalist-biographer Pat H. Broeske’s favorite Williams tune is “Dear Heart,” from the 1964 movie of the same name.
Our house in Wall Lake was always filled with music. Mom had the radio on from morning to night, tuned to a country music station, and she sang along as she did the washing, cooking, and ironing. I would often join in with her in my piping little treble voice. One of my earliest memories was of sitting on the kitchen floor, nibbling on a just-baked cookie, and clapping my hands as Mom sang a country tune and did a little dance just to make me laugh.
Dad was also very musical; he had learned to play half a dozen instruments at school and had a good singing voice. In those pre-television days our entertainment was homegrown: sitting around the piano in the evenings and singing together. When I was little, I’d stretch out on the worn, warm floorboards with my head under the piano stool and watch my father’s feet on the pedals; for some reason that fascinated me. Our standard repertory was hymns, because my parents and my two older brothers formed the Presbyterian church choir; it had not even had one until Dad volunteered himself and his family. They rehearsed at home, and when Dick saw his mom, dad, and older brothers singing, he wanted to join in.
I didn’t want to be left out, either, and tried to sing along with them as they practiced. At first I got black looks and demands to “hush up, Andy. We’re trying to practice here.” I’d let me shoulders sag and my head hang, stick out my bottom lip, and make my slow, mournful exit from the room, hoping that my dad would call me back and let me take part. It didn’t happen, but the next day I’d be back, singing along until I got kicked out again. I used to vary my tactics. Sometimes I’d join in from the start and keep going until I was told to hush up; other times I’d sit silent in a corner while they sang the first couple of hymns, and then I’d join in, singing as quietly as possible. If any of my brothers cast an eye in my direction, I’d snap my mouth shut tight as a clam and put on a look of injured innocence.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from MOON RIVER AND ME by Andy Williams. Copyright © Andy Williams, 2009.