Thursday September 27, 2012

ST. LOUIS -- With a string of gold albums, a hit TV series and the signature "Moon River," Andy Williams was a voice of the 1960s, although not the ‘60s we usually hear about.

"The old cliche says that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren't there," the singer once recalled. "Well, I was there all right, but my memory of them is blurred -- not by any drugs I took but by the relentless pace of the schedule I set myself."

Williams' plaintive tenor, boyish features and wholesome, middle-America appeal helped him outlast many of the rock stars who had displaced him and such fellow crooners as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. He remained on the charts into the 1970s, hosting hugely popular Christmas TV specials, and continued to perform in his 80s at the Moon River Theatre he built in Branson, Mo.

Vowed to return

In November 2011, when Williams announced that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, he vowed to return to performing the following year: His 75th in show business.

Williams died Tuesday night at his home in Branson following a yearlong battle with the disease, his Los Angeles-based publicist, Paul Shefrin, said Wednesday. He was 84.

He became a major star the same year as Elvis Presley, 1956, with the Sinatra-like swing "Canadian Sunset," and for a time he was pushed into such Presley imitations as "Lips of Wine" and the No.


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1 smash "Butterfly."

But he mostly stuck to what he called his "natural style," and kept it up throughout his career. In 1970, when even Sinatra had given up and (temporarily) retired, Williams was in the top 10 with the theme from "Love Story," the Oscar-winning tearjerker. He had 18 gold records and three platinum, was nominated for five Grammy awards and hosted the Grammy ceremonies for several years.

Sang movie songs

Movie songs became a specialty, from "Love Story" and "Days of Wine and Roses" to "Moon River." The longing Johnny Mercer-Henry Manci ni ballad was his most famous song, even though he never released it as a single because his record company feared such lines as "my huckleberry friend" were too confusing and old-fashioned for teens.

The song was first performed by Audrey Hepburn in the beloved 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's," but Mancini thought "Moon River" ideal for Williams, who recorded it in "pretty much one take" and also sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards. Although "Moon River" was covered by countless artists and became a hit single for Jerry Butler, Williams made the song his personal brand. In fact, he insisted on it.

"When I hear anybody else sing it, it's all I can to do stop myself from shouting at the television screen, ‘No! That's my song!"' Williams wrote in his 2009 memoir, titled, fittingly, "Moon River and Me."

"The Andy Williams Show," which lasted in various formats through the 1960s and into 1971, won three Emmys and featured Williams alternately performing his stable of hits and bantering casually with his guest stars.

Jarring interlide

His wholesome image endured one jarring interlude. In 1976, his ex-wife, former Las Vegas showgirl Claudine Longet, shot and killed her lover, skiing champion Spider Sabich. The Rolling Stones mocked the tragedy in "Claudine," a song so pitiless that it wasn't released until decades later. Longet, who said it was an accident, spent only a week in jail. Williams stood by her. He escorted her to the courthouse, testified on her behalf and provided support for her and their children, Noelle, Christian and Robert.

Also in the 1970s, Williams was seen frequently in the company of Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's widow. The singer denied any romantic involvement.

He was born Howard Andrew Williams in Wall Lake, Iowa, on Dec. 3, 1927. In his memoir, Williams remembered himself as a shy boy who concealed his insecurity "behind a veneer of cheek and self-confidence."

Williams began performing with his older brothers Dick, Bob and Don in the local Presbyterian church choir. Their father, postal worker and insurance man Jay Emerson Williams, was the choirmaster and the force behind his children's career.

When Andy was 8, Williams' father brought the kids for an audition on Des Moines radio station WHO's Iowa Barn Dance. They were initially turned down, but Jay Emerson Williams and the young quartet kept returning and they were finally accepted, their show bringing them attention from Chicago, Cincinnati and Hollywood. Another star at WHO was a young sportscaster named Ronald Reagan, who would later praise Wil liams as a "national treasure."

Lifelong Republican

Williams was a lifelong Republican who once accused President Obama of "following Marxist theory." But he acknowledged experimenting with LSD, opposed the Nixon administration's efforts in the 1970s to deport John Lennon, and, in 1968, was an energetic supporter of Robert Kenne dy's presidential campaign.

After leaving TV, Williams headed back on the road, where his many Christmas shows and albums made him a huge draw during the holidays.

He decided to settle in Branson, the self-proclaimed "live entertainment capital of the country," with its dozens of theaters featuring live music, comedy and magic acts.

He and his second wife, the former Debbie Haas, divided their time between homes in Branson and Palm Springs, where he spent his leisure hours on the golf course when Branson's theaters were dark during the winter months following Christmas.

Retirement was not on his schedule. As he told the AP in 2001: "I'll keep going until I get to the point where I can't get out on stage."

Williams is survived by his wife and his three children, Robert, Noelle and Christian.