It's tempting to say "they don't make 'em like they used to," but truth to tell, they never made 'em quite like Andy Williams. Howard Andrew Williams, the favorite son of Wall Lake, Iowa, died yesterday at the age of 84, having valiantly fought bladder cancer. But Williams leaves behind a rich and reassuring legacy of music and entertainment that recalls a gentler time in American life, of huckleberry friends and caroling out in the snow.
If any popular singer defined Christmas in the 1960s, it was Andy Williams, whose style blended the intimacy of Bing Crosby and the relaxation of Perry Como with a soaring tenor that was all his own. 1963's The Andy Williams Christmas Album began a close association with the holiday music genre for Williams, who recorded a string of perennial Christmas albums and extended his presence to television sets. His annual Christmas specials became a tradition, with the sweater-clad, blue-eyed vocalist warmly welcoming viewers for an evening of homespun entertainment dedicated to "the most wonderful time of the year." His variety show ran from 1959 through 1971 (taking a break in 1968), introducing viewers to the Osmonds (not to mention the Cookie Bear!) as well as to Williams' favorite music. His impeccable vocals were often shared with his guests. Williams deftly blended with the likes of Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis, Jr., but also with The Association, Simon and Garfunkel, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Williams wasn't primarily known for his performances of standards, though he brought polish and confidence to those songs. He embraced many of the day's most successful songwriters and performers both on his TV show and on his Columbia Records albums, and was an outspoken defender of John Lennon when the U.S. government sought to deport the Beatle in the 1970s.
Williams, always true to his convictions, was an also an entrepreneur. He purchased the catalogue of his original label, Cadence, and ran the Barnaby label which scored hits for Ray Stevens and first signed the young Jimmy Buffett. His accomplishments were many; Williams opened Caesars Palace in 1966, and was once signed to Columbia for what was then the biggest recording contract in history. He scored three platinum records and eighteen gold ones, and popularized not only "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," but "Can't Get Used to Losing You," "Music to Watch Girls By," "Happy Heart," "Love Story (Where Do I Begin)," "Speak Softly Love," and of course, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's immortal "Moon River." His delicious, lounge-style 1970s reworkings of pop hits led to a surge in popularity in the 1990s and particularly in the U.K., where a greatest hits album reached the Top 10 as recently as 2009.
Every year, Andy Williams' holiday recordings reappear on radio in November and December, ready to hook a new generation on the man and his music. Look deeper in his catalogue, though, and you'll be richly rewarded, whether you find his stirring "Battle Hymn of the Republic" released in tribute to his dear friend Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.; his sunshine-pop duet "Small Talk" with then-wife Claudine Longet; or his truly groovy take on the Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye." Hearts have long been happier for the time we've known Andy Williams. Thanks, Andy, for always reminding us, with uniquely American optimism and spirit, that we all can strive to reach what's waiting for us at that same rainbow's end.