Andy Wil­liams: Mem­o­ries from a na­tional trea­sure

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

One of Amer­ica’s most beloved en­ter­tain­ers, singer Andy Wil­liams has long pos­sessed the im­age of be­ing a whole­some, clean-cut, all-Amer­i­can boy — al­though he is now in his 80s. “And that voice!” ex­claimed nov­el­ist and screen­writer Earl Ham­ner, a long­time ad­mirer, on one oc­ca­sion. “It has been de­scribed as cham­pagne honey, gold and sil­ver, but without ques­tion it is smooth and ro­man­tic and unique.”

In­deed so. Renowned for his stylings of such Amer­i­can clas­sics as “Moon River,” “The Most Won­der­ful Time of the Year,” and “Can’t Get Used to Los­ing You,” Mr. Wil­liams has lived the Amer­i­can Dream, ris­ing from ob­scu­rity and poverty through hard work, a de­sire to ex­ceed his own ex­pec­ta­tions and wise busi­ness de­ci­sions to be­come a world-fa­mous en­ter­tain­ment icon. In “Moon River and Me,” he de­scribes a long life filled with tri­umphs and joy — though one not without some re­grets and heartaches.

He takes the reader from his De­pres­sion-era up­bring­ing in ru­ral Wall Lake, Iowa, through his early years of tri­umph as a mem­ber of the singing Wil­liams Broth­ers. From there, he tells of his years of su­per­star­dom as a solo act, his high-liv­ing suc­cess in Las Ve­gas, New York and Los An­ge­les, his mar­riage to Clau­dine Longet, his years of doubt and spir­i­tual strug­gle af­ter his worka­holism ended his mar­riage. The mem­oir car­ries the reader on to the present time and Mr. Wil­liams’ years of con­tent­ment in his sec­ond mar­riage (to the out­doorsy, beau­ti­ful Debbie Haas) and as the proud owner of the Moon River The­atre in Bran­son, Mo.

“As I look back over my life, I re­al­ize more and more that one of the most im­por­tant things about achiev­ing suc­cess is that fa­mous dic­tum of Win­ston Churchill’s, ‘Never give up. Never give up,’ and, as Churchill also said, ‘When you’re go­ing through hell, keep go­ing,’ ” Mr. Wil­liams writes. It may come as a sur­prise to some read­ers that at one point early in his ca­reer he was re­duced to liv­ing in fleabag ho­tels and eat­ing Alpo dog food from the can. Stickto-it-iveness has served him well through­out his life; and he notes that to achieve suc­cess as a singer or any­thing else, “You’ve got to be good enough, but while some of it is luck and tim­ing, it is also be­ing ready when op­por­tu­nity comes along.”

In “Moon River and Me” it is plain that the story of Andy Wil­liams’ suc­cess is not en­tirely the singer’s own story, but the story of his kindly mother and es­pe­cially his blue-col­lar, en­tre­pre­neur­ial fa­ther, Jay Emer­son Wil­liams. This gen­tle­man, the hard-charg­ing “Wil­lie Lo­man of Wall Lake,” rec­og­nized a unique singing tal­ent in his four sons (Andy was the youngest of the four) and moved his fam­ily from the dusty plains of Wall Lake, to Des Moines, to Chicago, to Cincin­nati, and even­tu­ally to Hol­ly­wood in search of a bright fu­ture for his sons. He drove them to per­fect their singing, for­ever urg­ing, “You have to prac­tice harder, be­cause you’re not as good as the oth­ers out there.”

In each city where the fam­ily set­tled, the for­tunes of the Wil­liams Broth­ers surged a lit­tle higher, in large part be­cause of their tal­ent, but also be­cause of Jay’s re­mark­able abil­ity to ca­jole and con­vince ra­dio sta­tion man­agers and the­ater own­ers to give his boys a chance.

At the very least, he had an un­canny tal­ent for putting the Wil­liams Broth­ers in the right place at the right time so that they would be no­ticed. In 1944, the boys man­aged to land a re­cur­rent gig singing on the “Mail Call” ra­dio show, hour­long pro­grams recorded for Amer­i­can ser­vice­men over­seas in World War II. In this venue, they came to the at­ten­tion of Bing Crosby, who hired them to pro­vide backup vo­cals (at $25 apiece) on what be­came a hit sin­gle and en­dur­ing pop stan­dard, “Swing­ing on a Star.”

Later, singing at the Hol­ly­wood Can­teen for re­turn­ing ser­vice­men, Mr. Wil­liams re­calls, “we had one of those life-chang­ing chance en­coun­ters that could never have been pre­dicted by any­one — ex­cept pos­si­bly my dad. Louis B. Mayer’s ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary, Ida Kover­man, hap­pened to be in the Hol­ly­wood Can­teen one night when we were singing. She went back and told her boss about us, and within a week we were signed to a con­tract by MGM.”

Thus, be­fore he had reached the age of 20, Andy and his three broth­ers — Bob, Don, and Dick — were un­der con­tract to one of Amer­ica’s most sto­ried film stu­dios, where they made a half­dozen fairly for­get­table films. But it was there that they met Kay Thomp­son, the stu­dio’s in­flu­en­tial vo­cal and choral di­rec­tor, who took the Wil­liams Broth­ers to the next level of star­dom, work­ing up well-re­ceived shows that taught the youngest Wil­liams brother how to be not only a singer but an en­ter­tainer: to de­light audiences with song, move­ment, hu­mor, and ef­fer­ves­cent pres­ence.

Af­ter the breakup of the Wil­liams Broth­ers in the early 1950s — it was sim­ply time for a change, with the boys, now men, hav­ing worked to­gether for 17 years — Andy set out to make it on his own. There fol­lowed sev­eral years of strug­gle and then mod­est suc­cess for him, but af­ter he recorded “Moon River,” from the film “Break­fast at Tif­fany’s” in 1961, there was no looking back.

Many read­ers will per­haps find the best bits of the book in th­ese chap­ters on the high point of Mr. Wil­liams’ ca­reer, the 1960s, and its short por­traits of var­i­ous pub­lic fig­ures he came to know. It was dur­ing the ’60s that he landed his own suc­cess­ful tele­vi­sion pro­gram, en­joyed a steady string of hit songs and be­came a mem­ber of the show-busi­ness elite. It is also the time when he learned first­hand the con­se­quences of up­stag­ing Johnny Car­son on “The Tonight Show,” the truth be­hind Frank Si­na­tra’s as­so­ci­a­tion with leg-break­ers, the tow­er­ing self-re­gard of ag­ing co­me­dian Joe E. Brown, the es­sen­tial de­cency of Bing Crosby and the quirks and foibles of many close friends.

Many read­ers will also be fas­ci­nated by Mr. Wil­liams’ ac­count of the ugly or­deal he and his exwife en­dured dur­ing the 1970s af­ter Clau­dine ac­ci­den­tally shot and killed her lover, skier Vladimir “Spi­der” Sabich. The writer loy­ally and con­vinc­ingly ar­gues that the shoot­ing was a hor­ri­ble ac­ci­dent and noth­ing more, though it was re­lent­lessly por­trayed as a cold-blooded mur­der by cer­tain cit­i­zens of Aspen, Colo., where it occurred.

How­ever, per­haps the most mov­ing part of th­ese mem­o­ries of the fa­mous are those of his friend­ship with Robert and Ethel Kennedy. Mr. Wil­liams pro­vides an af­fec­tion­ate por­trait of the mid­dle Kennedy brother and records his soul-shak­ing sor­row upon learn­ing of RFK’s as­sas­si­na­tion and the honor­able or­deal of singing at the late se­na­tor’s fu­neral.

“Those of us who per­form and record or make movies and tele­vi­sion shows are seen and heard by peo­ple over and over again,” he writes in con­clu­sion. “In a small way we be­come part of their lives, and the legacy of our work gives us some sort of im­mor­tal­ity, if only in flick­er­ing black-and-white films and tele­vi­sion re­runs on ob­scure ca­ble chan­nels. If I’m re­mem­bered at all, I hope to be thought of as a good man who brought much joy to many peo­ple, but above all I want to be re­mem­bered for my mu­sic. What­ever hap­pens to me, I hope the mu­sic lives on. And fi­nally, I’m beginning to ac­cept the fact that maybe I re­ally am as good as the oth­ers af­ter all.”

He is right about that, and about much in this well-crafted, most read­able mem­oir. As long as peo­ple en­joy lis­ten­ing to mem­o­rable songs sung by a voice like cham­pagne honey, gold and sil­ver, the mu­sic will en­dure.

James E. Per­son Jr. is the au­thor of “Earl Ham­ner: From Wal­ton’s Moun­tain to To­mor­row” (Cum­ber­land House Books) and has com­pleted a novel.


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