Crossing in Style

A blog that has a recurring feature called Superstars of Easy Listening had damn well better find time to write about Andy Williams, who died last night at age 84.

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.”

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5 responses

  1. “Wrong For Each Other” was the only Andy Williams single I ever bought as a current. In hindsight, that seems hard to believe, coming like it did at the height of the British Invasion, when scarce allowance money couldn’t possibly satiate one’s bottomless top-40 appetite. But it turned out to be a wise choice, after the non-LP 45 quickly vanished and remained off the market for decades. “Wrong” had a great orchestral arrangement and Andy’s trademark double-tracked lead vocal. The teens probably couldn’t dance to it on ‘Bandstand,’ though, and all the Invasion groundswell likely kept it from nudging beyond number 34.

    The “crooner” tag is showing up in many of today’s obits for Andy, but that description never once occurred to me. Perhaps it was due to having been first exposed to his more teen-oriented output for Cadence (which, itself, largely went out of print in ’64.) Or maybe it was his silky-smooth voice soaring over the lush production on his latter ’60s hits that were making the top-40 (“Ain’t It True,” “Happy Heart”) or MOR (“A Woman’s Way”) airwaves. Andy’s records always sounded more contemporary than most of the other “adult” artists of the day.

    Thanks for the “Heaven Help Us All” clip. That was a hell of a lot of talent in the room.

  2. My mom was a huge Andy fan and was fortunate to see him in Branson. He loved his theater and, having been subject to playing in places with crummy acoustics, oversaw its design for optimum sound quality.

    Yah Shure may know more about this but I heard that he was not fond of his Cadence output and bought the master tapes to have more control over their re-release, tying up the Everly Brothers and others in the process. Barnaby (Ray Stevens etc) eventually became the re-issue label of Cadence.

    1. It wasn’t that Andy wasn’t fond of his Cadence material; he just didn’t want someone putting out low-budget reissues to compete with his current recordings for Columbia. Archie Bleyer had given him an all-or-nothing deal for the entire Cadence catalog. But you are partially correct: it did take many years before he warmed to the idea of putting “Butterfly” back on the shelves. In 1965, Andy leased two of his Cadence albums to Columbia, which were reissued with new covers. Columbia also reissued a Don Shirley LP and Lenny Welch’s ‘Since I Fell For You’ that year, with the title track from the latter reissued as a current-line single. Meanwhile, the Everlys had already re-recorded six of their Cadence hits for inclusion on their ’64 ‘The Very Best Of The Everly Brothers’ longplayer, which remained in print for years.

      Shortly after Barnaby was up and running in late ’69, the Everly reissues began, with the first double-LP coming just as Don and Phil began their summer fill-in for Johnny Cash’s TV show. The irony was that their Cadence catalog, which had been out of print nearly six years, was suddenly competing with *their* new material, easily winning that battle at the cash registers.

      The Chordettes, Johnny Tillotson and other Cadence mainstays would have an even longer wait; their Cadence classics didn’t begin to resurface until the mid-’70s.

  3. Another obscure fact of Andy’s career: he discovered the band Loadstone, which was a psychedelic horn rock band of the late 60s

  4. […] as I thought it might. Posts about the Beatles’ impact on the Easy Listening chart and after the death of Andy Williams are representative. And on the subject of death, we noted the passing of Sammy Johns by listening […]

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