The tiny town of Wall Lake, in western Iowa, has one big claim to fame. The Williams Brothers (Don, Bob, Dick and Howard) were born there, but the singing siblings aren't exactly the big distinction I'm talking about. After a time in show business, the four became two and ultimately two became one. Andy Williams (first name Howard), the youngest and most accomplished family member, is the one who gave Wall Lake its footnote in music's history books.

In the late 1930s, the teenage brothers (in Andy's case, adolescent) made their name through radio appearances. The family made a few moves, resulting in a live-microphone stint on WHO in Des Moines, followed by similar jobs in Cincinnati (at WLW) and Chicago (at WLS). Loftier goals were realized after a move to Los Angeles in 1943 landed them in the studio with Bing Crosby, backing him on the biggest hit of 1944, "Swinging on a Star," as the Williams Brothers Quartet. Movie opportunities opened up, giving the brothers a chance to sing onscreen in Kansas City Kitty, then Dick and Andy played soldiers in Janie starring Joyce Reynolds. Coming off a strong rookie year in Hollywood, the act was reduced to three when Bob received his draft notice; the others did session work and sang backgrounds on a few film soundtracks. Andy had a small singing role in the 1947 film Ladies' Man with Eddie Bracken. When Bob returned, the brothers resumed as before, performing that same year in the Deanna Durbin vehicle Something in the Wind.

Singer and actress Kay Thompson took the quartet under her wing around that time, giving them second billing in her Las Vegas nightclub act; the combination was so successful they toured America and many foreign countries over the next few years. Later Andy admitted to having a fling with the late-thirty-something Thompson while he was still a teenager. The group broke up in the early '50s when Don and Bob decided to leave show business, while Andy and Dick each set out to become solo stars.

In 1954, Andy landed a regular spot as a singer on The Tonight Show Starring Steve Allen, staying until 1957. This led to a recording contract with "X" Records, an RCA Victor subsidiary, but only two singles resulted. Late in 1955, he and Kay Thompson joined Archie Bleyer's Cadence Records as solo artists; his first release was the seasonal "Christmas is a Feeling in Your Heart," while Kay's debut for the label, "Eloise" (a novelty where she played the role of an annoyingly playful little girl in New York City's high-rise Plaza Hotel), featured Andy's backing vocals and hit the top 40 in March of '56, as Bleyer was plotting his next move. His second single was "Walk Hand in Hand," already making a move up the chart for Tony Martin; Andy's cover peaked in May and fell off while Martin's recording made it to the top ten a month later.

Williams wasn't too enthusiastic about doing cover versions of current records, but Bleyer insisted he would have hits with this approach. "Canadian Sunset," an instrumental by orchestra leader Hugo Winterhalter and pianist Eddie Heywood (the song's composer) had been climbing the chart for two months when Andy's version (with added lyrics by Norman Gimbel) came out; it was a fast mover and the two versions shared space in the top ten during September and October with Winterhalter's the bigger seller. Still, it was an accurate prediction on Archie's part...Andy had scored his first major hit.

Bleyer called the shots on the material while arranging and conducting all recording sessions. Next came "Baby Doll" (the title song from the film that gave seductive starlet Carroll Baker her one and only Oscar nomination, for Best Actress), a song Andy didn't want to do...but Bleyer had his way and it reached the top 40. Rolling into 1957, Andy bristled at the suggestion he cover Charlie Gracie's rock and roll song "Butterfly," the hit record that was in the process of putting the newly-formed Cameo Records on the map. Bleyer twisted his arm, telling him to "Sing it like Elvis." After many weeks of battling with Gracie's original, each record leapfrogging the other week after week, Andy's pop cover hit number one. The biggest hit of his career, he considered this half-hearted attempt at reaching America's teenagers a personal embarrassment.

Peggy Powers (real name: Carmen Montoya) had broken into the big time, or so it seemed, in the fall of 1952 as a singer with Sammy Kaye (the "Swing and Sway" bandleader). The job led mainly to off-and-on session work, culminating in her role as "Andy's Girlfriend" on Nashville-based songwriter Melvin Endsley's cute-and-cuddly "I Like Your Kind of Love," top ten in July '57. Immediately after the one-shot pairing, she backed The Kirby Stone Four on the group's only single for Cadence, "Raven" (playing the Poe-inspired title bird, her main vocal contribution was...what else? 'Nevermore!') After that she sang with the Dick Jacobs orchestra and later made her living as a voice coach in New York City.

As a hitmaker, Andy's career peaked during his time with Cadence Records. He drew from a variety of sources, including country and western; his top ten pop versions of Wayne Walker's "Are You Sincere" and Carl Belew's "Lonely Street" were closer to a style he was comfortable with. Songs like "Lips of Wine" and "Promise Me Love" (the latter penned by Kay Thompson) were pleasant midtempo offerings. His recording of "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" (written in 1926 by Charles E. King with lyrics added later by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning) has become one of the most popular romantic songs of all time; it brought him a nomination for Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male at the very first Grammy Awards (his first of six in two categories a nine year span, though he was never a winner). Eula Parker's "The Village of St. Bernadette," his final top ten hit on Cadence in January 1960, spawned an album of inspirational-themed music under the same title. He adapted country music once again when he covered "(In the Summer Time) You Don't Want My Love," already a hit for one of 1960's bright new singer-songwriters, Roger Miller.

With a desire to resume his film career, Andy scratched the acting itch in 1960 with the lead role in a TV movie written by Mel Brooks, The Man in the Moon. Over the next few years he popped up infrequently in small screen dramas and a theatrical film, I'd Rather Be Rich, before resuming focus on what he was best at. Brother Dick Williams, meanwhile, had been struggling in his attempts at a solo career; he was signed by Capitol Records, but it was tough going and he was dropped by the label after a couple of albums. For Andy, on the other hand, he shifted gears when he signed with Columbia Records in 1961, gaining more control over song selection and the public image he wanted to project.

His long-running variety series had begun on ABC in 1958 as a summer replacement program, The Chevy Showroom starring Andy Williams (replacing Pat Boone's variety show), then resumed as The Andy Williams Show (its permanent name) in the summer of '59 on CBS. When NBC picked it up as a full time series in the fall of 1962, his already high visibility gained added clout. The show won three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Variety Series (in '63, '66 and '67) while introducing viewers to The Osmond Brothers, a group he had discovered performing at Disneyland; after several years on the Williams show, the Osmonds (later expanded to include younger sis and kid brother) displayed staying power as a hitmaking dynasty of the 1970s.

Andy Williams

Over a span of more than ten years, Andy's albums were highly visible on record store shelves as he supplied the soothing sound many adult listeners preferred, typified by "Moon River," an album cut more associated with him, perhaps, than either of the artists who had hits with the song (cowriter Henry Mancini and R&B star Jerry Butler). His success with Mancini songs represented a long-distance partnership of sorts for the otherwise unconnected artists; "Moon River," performed by Andy at the 1962 Academy Awards, was the first of three Mancini songs he sang for Oscar's worldwide audience (the other two being "Charade" in '63 and "Dear Heart" in '64, both hits for Williams).

Of the many singles he recorded for Columbia aimed specifically at pop radio, his peak came in the spring of 1963 with the chart-topping "Can't Get Used to Losing You," which featured an attention-grabbing staccato string arrangement. Written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, it was a departure for Andy, as the talented team normally functioned outside the usual circle of his contributing songwriters; the duo had built a reputation writing hit songs for youth-oriented acts like The Drifters, Connie Francis, Dion and the Belmonts and Elvis Presley. The record's success at top 40 upgraded his status as an album seller; it was included on the LP The Days of Wine and Roses (a Mancini movie song on the B side of "Can't Get" and a top 40 hit in its own right), which spent more than three months on top of the album charts from May through August '63.

Andy continued to court adult album buyers throughout the decade, selling millions in the process, while pitching singles to radio from a variety of sources. "A Fool Never Learns," penned by Sonny Curtis (latter-day leader of The Crickets), and "Wrong For Each Other," another Pomus-Shuman oeuvre, were among his hits in '64. In 1965, as pop acts were beginning to rock a bit harder, he reclaimed his earlier pop stance with "......And Roses and Roses" and "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars." The next few years signaled a slump in his hitmaking ability, though he topped the Easy Listening chart in '66 with "In the Arms of Love," written by Mancini with prose pros Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. "Music to Watch Girls By," the instrumental hit by The Bob Crewe Generation interpreted as a lyrical diorama, kept him vital in 1967. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," an odd choice, landed him in the top 40 in 1968 (it had been an even bigger hit for The Mormon Tabernacle Choir in '59) and in 1969 he scored with "Happy Heart," his biggest hit of the decade's latter half.

In the 1970s, Andy's white-hot star cooled considerably. His TV series (which had gone on hiatus from '67 to '69 with only a handful of specials, then returned full time in the fall of 1969 with an updated format) came to an end in July 1971. Two more hit singles added to his string, both originating from his film score comfort zone. They were, not surprisingly, vocal versions of the instrumental themes from two of the era's most popular films: "Where Do I Begin" from Love Story in 1971 and "Speak Softly Love" from The Godfather in 1972.

His 13-year marriage to Claudine Longet (the French-born actress and singer who achieved a marginal level of success in the late 1960s) came to an end in 1975 after a lengthy separation. The following year she shot and killed her boyfriend, alpine skier and former 1968 Winter Olympics competitor Spider Sabich. Andy publicly supported her during the trial; ultimately she served just 30 days in prison for what she claimed was an accident. With his hitmaking days behind him, Andy Williams continued recording and performing for more than three decades, often appearing at the theater he opened (among several others owned by popular musicians) in Branson, Missouri, the entertainment hot spot in the heart of the Ozarks, boasting millions of visitors every year.

- Michael Jack Kirby



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