Williams began his career as a kid in his native Iowa, as a radio singer in the 1930s. By 1944, he and his brothers were accomplished enough to back Bing Crosby on his hit “Swinging on a Star.” His brothers eventually got out of showbiz, but he persevered, eventually becoming a regular on the Steve Allen edition of The Tonight Show for three years in the early 50s. Williams notched his first Top-10 hit, “Canadian Sunset,” in 1956, and his lone #1, “Butterfly,” in 1957, which fit nicely into that early-rockin’ year.
Williams would place five more records into the pop Top 10 over the next six years, including the #2 hit “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” from the album Days of Wine and Roses, which reached #1 on the Billboard album chart in 1963. (Williams moved albums by the ton during the 1960s, with nine Top-10 album hits between 1964 and 1969.) He scored one last Top-10 pop single, a version of the theme from Love Story, in 1971. But over on the adult contemporary chart, Williams’ footprint was bigger: 19 Top-10 hits between 1962 and 1972, several of which more elderly members of the readership might know, including a great vocal version of “Music to Watch Girls By,” “Happy Heart,” and “Speak Softly Love,” from The Godfather, his final Top-10 AC hit. (Williams’ performance of the song is so evocative of the movie that it must have been heard in it, right? It wasn’t.)
Williams’ signature song never charted anywhere. “Moon River” wasn’t released as a single in 1962 because his record label feared its lyric was too un-hip for young listeners. Nevertheless, the album from which it came, featuring several famous movie themes, became his first Top-10 hit on the album chart. In 2009, Williams would title his autobiography Moon River and Me.
Williams was also a TV star during the 1960s and 1970s. His first series ran briefly in 1959, but he was on TV regularly for over a decade starting in 1962, with either a weekly series or regularly scheduled specials. His series is best remembered now for introducing the Osmond Brothers, the sort of family act Williams had been part of when he was a boy. Christmas episodes of his variety series were very popular; after leaving his regular network gig, NBC brought him back at the holidays for a number of years. It’s arguable that here in the new millennium, the single most-played and best-known Williams song is “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” first released in 1963.
From 1961 to 1975, Williams was married to actress Claudine Longet, famed in the 1970s for the accidental shooting of her skier boyfriend, Spider Sabich. Williams had his own theater in Branson, Missouri, which he shared with the Osmonds. He performed there until relatively recently. He’d been fighting cancer for about a year.
To a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s with parents who listened to the radio a lot, the voice of Andy Williams became as familiar as the weather. When I found myself working in easy-listening and nostalgia radio, the same thing was true. He’s not merely a superstar of easy listening, he might have been the superstar of easy listening, at least during its 1960s heyday.
Here’s a fabulous piece of video first seen on January 16, 1971, when Williams welcomed Ray Charles, Cass Elliot, and Elton John to his show, and they sang Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All.”