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Singer Andy Williams’ mellow style flourished

- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 26, 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 singer known for his easy-listening style and his wholesome, middle-America appeal was the antithesis of the counterculture that gave rise to rock 'n' roll.

"The old cliche says that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren't there," he 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."

Mr. Williams' plaintive tenor, boyish features and clean-cut demeanor helped him outlast many of the decade's rock stars and fellow crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. He remained on the charts into the 1970s, hosting hugely popular Christmas television specials and becoming closely associated with the holiday standard "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

Mr. Williams, who continued to perform into his 80s at the Moon River Theatre he built in Branson, Mo., announced in November that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and vowed to return to performing the following year, his 75th in show business.

The 84-year-old entertainer died Tuesday night at his Branson home following a yearlong battle with the disease, his Los Angeles-based publicist, Paul Shefrin, said Wednesday.

Mr. Williams became a major star in 1956, the same year as Elvis Presley, with the Sinatra-like swing number "Canadian Sunset." For a time, he was pushed into such Presley imitations as "Lips of Wine" and the No. 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 temporarily retired, Mr. Williams was in the top 10 with the theme from "Love Story," the Oscar-winning tearjerker. He had 18 gold records, three platinum and five Grammy Award nominations.

Mr. Williams also was the first host of the live Grammy telecast and hosted the show for seven consecutive years, beginning in 1971.

Movie songs became a specialty, including his signature "Moon River." The longing Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini ballad was his most famous song, even though he never released it as a single because his record company feared lines such 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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!' " Mr. 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 Mr. Williams alternately performing his stable of hits and bantering with guest stars.

It was on that show that Mr. Williams — who launched his own career as part of an all-brother quartet — introduced the world to another clean-cut act — the original four singing Osmond Brothers of Utah. Their younger sibling, Donny, also made his debut on Mr. Williams' show, in 1963, when he was 6 years old. Four decades later, the Osmonds and Mr. Williams reunited at his theater in Branson.

Mr. Williams did book some rock and soul acts, including the Beach Boys, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson. On one show, in 1970, Mr. Williams sang "Heaven Help Us All" with Ray Charles, Mama Cass and a then-little known Elton John, a vision to Mr. Williams in his rhinestone glasses and black cape. But Mr. Williams liked him and his breakthrough hit "Your Song" enough to record it himself.

Mr. Williams' act was, apparently, not an act. The singer's unflappable manner on television and in concert was mirrored offstage.

"I guess I've never really been aggressive, although almost everybody else in show business fights and gouges and knees to get where they want to be," he once said. "My trouble is, I'm not constructed temperamentally along those lines."

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

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. When Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, just after winning the California Democratic primary, Mr. Williams sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at his funeral.

After leaving TV, Mr. 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, with its dozens of theaters featuring live music, comedy and magic acts, and was among the first wave of national entertainers to perform there regularly.

When he arrived in 1992, the town was dominated by country music performers, but Mr. Williams changed that, building his classy, $13 million theater in the heart of the entertainment district and performing two shows a night, six days a week, nine months of the year. Only in recent years did he begin to cut back to one show a night.

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