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Diane talks with legendary entertainer, Andy Williams, about his seven decades in show business, his Emmy-winning variety show, and performing live at the age of 82.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm and you are listening to one of the most beautiful songs in the world, "Moon River." Singing it is one of the most beautiful voices in the world, declared a national treasure by President Ronald Reagan. Andy Williams' voice still works magic. It oozes romance. And when we listen the world seems to turn just a bit slower. Andy Williams joined me in the studio in December of 2009. He died last September. His book is called "Moon River and Me." So on this New Year's Day we're bringing you a rebroadcast of that interview.
MS. DIANE REHMAndy Williams, it's so good to meet you.
MR. ANDY WILLIAMSIt's very nice to meet you too.
REHMThank you. You've been singing that song for a long time.
WILLIAMSA long, long time.
REHMDo you remember the very, very first time you sang it?
WILLIAMSWell, the first time I sang it in, you know, public was on the Academy Awards. It was in 1962. It had just been in the movie called "Breakfast at Tiffany's" with Audrey Hepburn. And I ran into Mancini and Mercer, the writers in a restaurant called La Scala in Beverly Hills. And they had just come from recording and they had the music with them. So I went over to say hello to them. I had known them for a long time. And they said this is -- I think it was Johnny Mercer that was saying, this is absolutely perfect for you.
WILLIAMSAnd I took it back to New York and played it for Archie Bleyer who was the head of the record company, Cadence Records. He said, I don't think it's a hit.
WILLIAMSHe had guided me into a lot of hit songs before and he said, I just don't think the kids will buy the line my huckleberry friend. It's too sophisticated. I just don't think it -- so I never recorded it. It was a hit by Henry Mancini as an instrumental. It was a hit by a vocalist named Jerry Butler. And then the next year I was asked to sing on the Academy Awards. And I knew that it would be -- well, it's going to be six weeks before I sang it.
WILLIAMSSo I called Columbia -- I had moved to Columbia now, Columbia Records -- told them I was going to do it on the awards and everybody thought it was going to win. And I said, I think we ought to go in and record Moon River and other great movie themes, put it in an album, have it in the stores the day after I sing it. And I must say, Columbia did a terrific marketing job because they had it in every store.
REHMIsn't that wonderful?
WILLIAMSAnd the day after I sang it, the next day it sold 420,000 albums.
WILLIAMSAnd then I put it as the theme song on my television series, which had just started. And so for nine years -- on television I sang the first four bars of it...
REHMI love it.
WILLIAMS...for nine years. I became more associated with the song than either Henry Mancini who wrote it and recorded it or Jerry Butler who had a big, you know, vocal version of it.
REHMDo you recall...
WILLIAMSAnd I never put it out as a single. It was never out as a single.
REHMNever out as a single.
WILLIAMSNever ever was -- so it never charted but it -- you know, it was on the album charts for months and months and months.
REHMDid you ever go back to the person who said to you, I don't think it's going to be a hit?
WILLIAMSWell, I did. I mean, he was a friend of mine...
WILLIAMS...Archie Bleyer who was the head of the record company. And then a couple years later he -- I understood that he was going to sell the record company, Cadence, with all my stuff on it that I'd recorded before. And I didn't want my stuff being put in drug stores because they were selling it to Pickwick. And that's what they did is they sold -- they would take catalogs and put them in drugstores and reduce the price to like a dollar-and-a-half or something.
WILLIAMSSo I said, how much are you asking for your company? And he told me and I said, okay I'll buy it. So I bought the company and then I -- so now I own all the Everly Brothers records, all of the Coronets records, everything that was on Cadence.
REHMIt's really amazing to hear that story because life for you started out in Wall Lake, Iowa.
REHMTell me about Wall Lake, Iowa.
WILLIAMSWell, Wall Lake was a small town, 749 people. I say that includes the cemetery, which of course isn't true but 749 people. There are several churches. Our Presbyterian Church didn't have a choir and my father formed the choir, which was my mother, my father and my two older brothers.
REHMAnd you later.
WILLIAMSAnd Dick and I later started singing with -- at home, you know, learning those hymns. And then we went and sang in the choir for a year. And then my father's big dream was that his boys would get on the radio and become radio stars.
REHMYou know what surprised me most was, you know, you were born in 1927. And here you all were living in the midst of the depression...
REHM...living in the time of the dustbowl...
REHM...living in the time of a three-hole outhouse.
REHMYou had virtually nothing except your music but you had that music and it was so important to your mother and to your father, and eventually to you.
WILLIAMSYeah, that's true. And my father was an amateur musician. He played several instruments. He played the piano. My mother played a little piano. And there was always music in the house. We were poor but none of us knew it -- none of the kids knew it.
REHMYour dad had a job.
WILLIAMSHe did have a job. He was a railway mail clerk, which is a man that sorts mail on a train as it's moving and then drops bags off on each little town as they go through without the train stopping. It just -- an arm swings out with a sack of letters for that town. And the beginning of my book starts that way, that my father used to take me occasionally on the train with him. And when we'd come through Wall Lake he'd put me in the sack (laugh) and an arm would swing out and the sack would catch onto a hook at the railroad station. And then the station master would generally come down and open it up and take the mail back to the post office. And my mother would come down and open it up and I would pop out and say, surprise.
REHMSurprise. Your dad really did have ambitions for you and your brothers. He felt that you three, you could all be the ticket to some kind of fortune, some kind of fame. And he was absolutely convinced he was right.
WILLIAMSYeah, he was. He had four boys and wanted us to become well known in radio because television wasn't around. Radio was the big thing.
WILLIAMSYeah, well it is for you, yeah. (laugh) It is for millions and millions of people.
WILLIAMSBut at the time it wasn't even -- television wasn't around and the -- I mean Bing Crosby was the big thing on the radio as far as singers in the early years. And it was great when my father finally took us to Los Angeles to get us in the movies. My father was very much like the Osmond Brothers' father. You know, he was strict but very kindly. He was much different than Michael Jackson's father who was tough, mean kind of guy. But my father was gentle but he was very strict about what we would do and what we wouldn’t do.
REHMAnd what he wanted to do was to move to a place where you and your brothers could perform on radio.
WILLIAMSRight, and have a better life than we were having in Wall Lake.
REHMCourse you hated leaving that home in Wall Lake.
WILLIAMSWell, I left there I was in the third grade so...
WILLIAMS...it wasn't as instilled in me, you know, with schoolmates and all that because I was still only about eight years old. So it wasn't that hard for me to leave. I didn't want to leave the few friends that I had but families do move, you know, and children do go through different schools. And we did. We went in Des Moines, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles. So as it ends up I didn't really have school friends that I keep now today because I moved around too much -- a little too much.
REHMAndy Williams. His new books is titled "Moon River and Me." We're going to hear "Swinging on a Star."
REHMAnd we'll take just a short break in our conversation with Andy Williams. You're hearing of course Bing Crosby with his "Swinging on a Star." And we'll talk about that relationship when we come back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, the great entertainer, the wonderfully melodious voice of Andy Williams is in this hour. He's here in the studio with me. His new autobiography or memoir, whichever you prefer, is titled "Moon River and Me." We talked in the last segment a lot about "Moon River." I'd like to hear about your relationship with Bing Crosby.
WILLIAMSWell, my father, when he took us to Des Moines -- to Los Angeles we all thought he was crazy. I mean, even I thought he was crazy then. (laugh) , you know. You know, my brother Bob was very pessimistic all the time about every move we made. Well, we can't be -- you know, we can sing maybe her in Des Moines but we certainly aren't good enough to go to Chicago or -- you know, there was always a negative thing.
WILLIAMSAnd so when my father said he was going to take us to California, we're going to get in the movies, we all thought he was nuts, you know, that he just...
REHMHow did your mother react to all of this?
WILLIAMSWell, she's a -- you know, she was a very kindly loving mother that believed strongly in her husband and what he could do and what he couldn't do. And so she went along with everything very happily. And we got out to California and within a couple months we met Bing Crosby. And we had sung at a Hollywood canteen for servicemen. And I was still, you know, like 14 -- 13 or 14 years old. And then John Scott Trotter who was the orchestra leader and conductor and worked with Bing on all of his records, heard us there and told Bing about us.
WILLIAMSAnd so then we made this record with him. He had done it in a movie called "Going My Way" and he used a boys choir from Notre Dame.
REHMOh, I remember that.
WILLIAMSAnd whether they could get them or I don't know why we were called in to do it, but it was wonderful singing with Bing Crosby. I mean, we had idolized him. You know, he was -- at that point in his career they say that he had about 40 percent of all the music, all the vocal things on the radio were Bing Crosby. I mean, he was just the king of records. Well, he was kind of movies too at that time. He won an Academy Award.
WILLIAMSSo it was a big thrill for me 20 years later to have him on my show, sitting on a stool next to Bing Crosby and singing duets with him, you know, as an equal to this man that I idolized so much.
REHMCourse World War II got in the way.
WILLIAMSYes. My brothers were drafted. They all went in the service. I was too young. I still wasn't 17. And so I missed the war. I missed the war until I was 21. Then when I was 21 I was drafted. And at that point the war was over and they didn't need people. They didn't need young people in the service. And I had developed an ulcer and so I was rejected. So I never really went in the service. I was in the Merchant marine for about six months.
WILLIAMSBut then when we got back together after the war then we started this act with Kay Thompson.
REHMI want to hear about Kay Thompson. She really orchestrated your group's very successful nightclub act.
WILLIAMSIt was an absolutely wonderful, new kind of act, never been done before of a woman with four dancers and not using handheld microphones or anything. Because we moved around so much and did all kind of acrobatic kind of stuff.
REHMHow did you learn to do that?
WILLIAMSJust learned it from the choreographer, Bob Alton.
REHMAnd of course Kay Thompson was the author of the Eloise books.
REHMWe should say that.
WILLIAMSDid you read my book?
REHMI read a good part of it.
WILLIAMSYou must be the most well-read woman in the world.
WILLIAMSWell, I have an awful lot of help, Andy. I can tell you that but what I do know is what's in my heart because I grew up listening to your music.
WILLIAMSWell, I'm glad you did.
REHMSo that when I heard that Andy Williams was coming through I was absolutely delighted to think that after all these years I might meet you.
WILLIAMSWell, I'm delighted to meet you.
REHMThe trouble you had was in establishing yourself as a solo performer.
WILLIAMSThat was very hard for me. I had worked with my brothers for so long and I depended upon them. And when they decided that they wanted to do other things, and all family groups break up sometime. And it's usually the younger one that goes on, like in the case of Donny Osmond or Michael Jackson, I was the youngest. And I didn't know what else to do really. You know, that's all I knew.
REHMWhat did your brothers want to go on and do?
WILLIAMSMy brother Dick wanted to sing with a big band. He went with Harry James. My brother Don wanted to be an agent. He wanted to book people. Instead of getting up on the floor he wanted to be the one that booked the people.
REHMSo what was the hardest part for you? Was it to find the material that was right for you?
WILLIAMSWell, it was. That was one thing. And Kay Thompson was a very sophisticated woman. And our act was a very sophisticated act. And we were playing in very sophisticated places. And so when I asked Kay if she would help me with my act it was a very sophisticated act that she put together for me. Only I wasn't playing in sophisticated places. I was playing in dumps. (laugh)
WILLIAMSI was playing in places, you know, where the miners would come in after work with their helmets still on, you know. And they didn't want to hear "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and, you know, old obscure Rogers and Hart medleys and Gershwin things. They wanted to hear Pop (word?) . They wanted to hear something. I had no name. I had no record and it was very difficult.
REHMSo "Butterfly" became one of your early hits.
WILLIAMSWell, Archie Bleyer, you know, who picked the songs for me, he said, this is a hit song and I think you ought to do it. And I said, but this is not my style. He said, you don't have a style (laugh) . You haven't made a record yet. Nobody's knows you. So what do you mean it's not your style? And I said, well I, you know, I picture myself as more of a ballade singer, you know.
WILLIAMSAnd he had given me "Canadian Sunset" which was a, you know, wonderful record, melodic. And was sort of a hit for me, not a big one but a pretty good hit. And then he came up with this one and I said, this isn't -- I just can't do this. And he said, well then I'll give it to somebody else if you don't want a hit. I said, well I do want a hit but -- he said then do this song. So I got an Elvis Presley record and took it home and listened to it. And I didn't mean to imitate Elvis Presley but I wanted to get an idea of how this kind of a song would be done.
WILLIAMSSo I went in the studio and said, you told me you loved me, you say you'll be true and you, you know, in that same sort of style that Elvis would do. And Archie Bleyer was right. It was the biggest record I ever had, single record.
REHMI know we have a lot of callers waiting but I want to hear a little more about the turning point for you. And I know that 1962 when you recorded "Moon River" made a big difference. But there was another piece of music that also was part of a movie, "Days of Wine and Roses."
REHMTell us about that.
WILLIAMSWell, after I had "Moon River" was a big hit then naturally all of movie publishers of the movie song would come to me either through -- to me directly or to the producer or in that case it would be Robert Mercy. And the minute that I had a big hit with "Moon River" then I got the "Days of Wine and Roses, which was also a Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer song.
REHMDid you like it right away?
WILLIAMSOh, I loved it. Yeah, I loved it.
REHMI love it even now.
REHMYour mother thought you had won the Academy Award.
WILLIAMSWell, after I sang "Moon River" on the Academy Award Show she called me and she said, congratulations. I said, on what? She said, on winning your first Academy Aware. (laugh) I said, mother, I didn't win it, you know. It was just for the song. It was a song writer award. She said, don't tell me. She said, four other people got up and sang songs and you were the best one and you won.
WILLIAMSSo then the next year I did "Days of Wine and Roses on the Academy Awards and that one won too. So she called me again and said, (laugh) two in a row. I don't believe anybody has done that before. Not even Walter Brennan has won two in a row, you know. I said, mom -- well, she didn't want to hear. So the next year the Academy asked me if I'd sing "Charade," also written by Mercer and things. And so I said yes, I would do that.
WILLIAMSThen the day before the show they said to me that Debbie Reynolds was supposed to do -- excuse me -- "Call Me Irresponsible" and she was ill and could I do that too. I said, yeah I could do that. So I sang two songs of the five being nominated. And "Call Me Irresponsible" won. (laugh) So my mother, until the day she died she thought I had won three Academy Awards.
REHM(laugh) I love that story. And Andy Williams is with me. His new memoir titled "Moon River and Me." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show. We've got a lot of callers. Shall we...
REHM...hear what they have to say? Let's go first to Norman who's in Palm City, Fla. Good morning to you, sir. You're on the air.
NORMANHello, how are you?
REHMI'm fine, thanks.
NORMANI wanted to ask Andy Williams why "Moon River" has become such a popular hit at Christmastime. It's not a Christmas song. It has nothing to do with Christmas.
WILLIAMSNo, it doesn't. You know, I hadn't thought about it being particular popular at Christmastime but I guess it's just such a pretty melody. It's such a beautiful song.
REHMAnd I think it has to do with dreams and sort of imagination and...
WILLIAMSAnd possibly because I am so known for Christmas that maybe people play that too, you know.
REHMAbsolutely. Andy Williams, how does it feel to sit here and hear that voice of yours from those years ago?
WILLIAMSWell, when I made them, you know, I didn't think too much about them. Years and years later, you know, I listen to them occasionally like today. I don't play my records at home so I don't hear them unless I'm on a show like yours or if I happen to hear it on the radio. And I like it. You know, I like the sound of it. I like the arrangements and I like the sound of my voice. But I didn't particularly like them when I did them. (laugh) I mean, I didn't think they were that outstanding.
REHMYeah, yeah. Did you have, a little later on, some difficulty with your voice? You talked with Julie Andrews at that time.
WILLIAMSI did talk to Julie Andrews because she had a vocal problem...
WILLIAMS...and had an operation that didn't really work too well for her. So I called her and I said, what do you think I should do because I have the same -- I have a node on my throat and I know that's what you had. And I'm just calling you for some advice. And she said, don't use my doctor. (laugh) So I said, okay. She said, go see a guy at UCLA in California, gave me his name.
WILLIAMSAnd I'm very grateful to him still because he's the one that said, I wouldn't operate on it. He said, I'd give it three months of just rest. Don't use it, don't sing. And if it goes down some, if it goes away a little bit that means it will go away on its own. If it doesn't then maybe we should consider an operation on it. But I wouldn't do it now. And so after three months it has gone down a lot. And he said, can you stay off from singing -- away from singing for another say six months? And I said, yeah, I will. So I just didn't work for a year. And it went away completely. So I was very lucky that way.
REHMAnd she had great difficulty after the operation that she had.
WILLIAMSYeah, she did.
REHMBut are you still singing?
WILLIAMSOh, I sing every day. I should say every day. I just finished a Christmas show that I do in my theater in Branson, Mo., which is from November 1st until -- this year it was December 8th. Next year it'll be the 1st of November 'til December 13. But, yeah, and then before that working too.
REHMAndy Williams. "Moon River and Me" his memoir.
REHMIf you've just joined us Andy Williams is with me. We're talking about his new memoir. It's titled "Moon River and Me." Tell me about your relationship with Bobby Kennedy and the fact that you were there in Los Angeles when he died.
WILLIAMSYeah, we were -- Claudine and I were very close with Ethel and Bobby. We went skiing with them in Sun Valley. I went on a river trip with him. We stayed with them occasionally when we were in Virginia, McLean. We just became very good friends. I never talked to him about politics because I knew, you know, so little about it. And we talked about families and we talked about golf and we talked about tennis and we talked about anything except politics.
WILLIAMSAnd one time he asked me if I would become a delegate for him from the State of California. He said, I've asked Shirley MacLaine and I'd like you to be a delegate. And I said, sure I'd love it. And then about two weeks -- two or three weeks later I called him. I said, I hope I haven't embarrassed you or will embarrass you or anything or have done something really stupid, but I can't be a delegate for you. And he said, why not and I said, because I'm a Republican. (laugh)
WILLIAMSAnd he laughed and he said, well if you'll do it I would still like you to do it, if you'd just go down and become a Democrat until I get in. (laugh) And then go back to being a Republican if you want. That was as close as we ever got to talking about politics.
REHMBut then you were there.
WILLIAMSI was there -- Claudine and I were there with Ethel the night that he was killed at the Ambassador Hotel. And we were supposed to meet to have dinner after he left the stage there.
REHMYou were watching on television.
WILLIAMSYeah, we were watching on television. And then we went down and, you know, instead of going to dinner obviously we were going to go to the hospital where he was, which we eventually found out where he was. It was a madhouse. It was really a madhouse there after he was shot with panic and people screaming and yelling. It was, you know, a nightmare. And finally when we got to the hospital we stayed the night at the hospital.
WILLIAMSAnd then early the next morning we -- Claudine and I went in to see him because we thought he was right behind this door where we were waiting. And when we finally opened the door, knocked and nobody answered, opened the door it was a just a doorway to a hall. And then we walked down the hallway and there was a room with the door open and Bobby and Ethel were in there. Ethel was passed out, was lying on the cot next to him. And he had all kinds of tubes in him obviously. And he was red, absolutely red all over, his head and hair and everything was red and he was already gone.
WILLIAMSAnd then after it was announced that he was dead then we all -- we got on the plane that took him to New York City. We had no clothes or anything. We just got on it and we'd get some when we got to New York. And then a couple days later I sang at the funeral, sang the "Battle Hymn."
REHMFor a long while you couldn't listen to that.
WILLIAMSWell, I -- no, I couldn't sing it again but I can listen to it now. It's -- John Glen and I, the night before the funeral, went to where Jean Smith's, Bobby's sister's apartment in New York. And we looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica and I picked out three verses. I wrote them down. I didn't -- I hadn't memorized them so I read them. You know, I had a sheet in front of me looking at them, just my handwriting.
WILLIAMSAnd, you know, Monsieur Duffy wanted me to sing Panis Angelicus and a couple other Catholic songs that I didn't know, because I wasn't brought up as a Catholic. And I didn't know these songs and I said, I just -- I can't do them by tomorrow. And then Bill -- what's his name -- Bill -- and he was with the FBI, he was always with Bobby on the trips -- said when Bobby was on the campaign he loved to sing and he'd get everybody singing, you know, in the bus or on the train or something. And he loved the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
WILLIAMSAnd Ethel said, can you do that? And I said, yeah, that I can do. She said, well that'll be it.
REHMPerfect choice. Perfect choice.
WILLIAMSBut as it turns out it was really perfect because so thrilling that outside the Cathedral all up and down Madison Avenue and all up and down Fifth Avenue, thousands of people, speakers were blaring. Everybody along those avenues were singing. It was just incredible. And everybody in the St. Patrick's sang along too near the end. There was obviously a choir that -- that was the other thing. I had to figure out the key from the music that was from before that. I guess I could've had a pitch pipe or something but I didn't.
WILLIAMSSo I figured out with the music beforehand what I had to do to get it in the right key to start singing because the choir didn't come in until later. Fortunately, I picked the right key. It could've been a disaster. It could've been a train wreck if they had come in a different key than I was started it.
REHMLet's go to Dayton, Ohio. Good morning, Jean. You're on the air.
JEANGood morning and thank you. My call is prompted by a memory of perhaps 40 years ago. I lived in a nice suburb of Dayton and I hope I'm correct in my memories about this. I think Andy Williams came to play in a golf tournament, a benefit called Bogey Busters. And there was a party hosted by the (sounds like) Lauters who lived in the same neighborhood as I did with my family. We were a young family and there were many, many dozens I think young grade school, junior high, early high school kids in that neighborhood. And we got word that Andy Williams was at the Lauters' house.
JEANSo it was a warm summer evening and I wondered what in the world these kids were doing riding their bikes up and down the street and wandering up and down the street. And they were all up there trying to get a glimpse of Andy Williams at the Lauters' house.
WILLIAMSI just talked to Cy (sp?) Lauter two days ago. And he and Audrey are doing all right. They're not in great health but they're still with us. And, yeah, I was there and I played in the Bogey Buster several years -- or at least two I know.
REHMYou know, there is the movie "Love Story" that another movie who's song you recorded, really an incredible song.
REHMAt first I thought that was an arrangement by Henry Mancini.
WILLIAMSI don't think he wrote it. I can't remember for sure.
REHMIt's so beautiful.
WILLIAMSIt is a gorgeous thing. It was the biggest record I ever had.
WILLIAMSBiggest single record. The movie was so popular around the world that I recorded it in six different languages.
REHMThe range of your voice.
WILLIAMSYeah, that wasn't an easy song to sing.
REHMAnd just to remind, Andy Williams is with me and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go finally to Nancy in Baltimore, Md. Quick comment, please.
NANCYThank you. What a gift to hear both of you. Ten years ago I went to Branson where my son was living and working. And it was Thanksgiving and we got tickets to see you, Andy Williams, at your show -- your Christmas show. The theater was so elegant. The kimono were beautiful. And your show is so wholesome and fine. And you are so down to earth. My impression of you is that you are a gentle man and a real gentleman.
WILLIAMSWell, that's very kind of you to say that. I'm glad you saw that show. I'm glad that you like the theater. It is a really lovely theater.
REHMAnd we should say that the kind of success you have achieved has not come without a lot of costs personally.
WILLIAMSWell, it's been a long journey and it hasn't been all ups. You know, there have been some downs. There's been some tragedy in my life with my ex-wife Claudine's trial and stuff for shooting and killing Spider Sabich -- the accidental shooting I should say. And then as I mentioned before, the Bobby Kennedy thing was -- but most of my life has been -- had some highs in it.
REHMI'm glad. I'm so glad you were here.
WILLIAMSWell, thank you. I'm glad I was here too. I'm delighted to have met you.
REHMThank you. Delighted to meet you. Andy Williams. His new memoir is titled "Moon River and Me."
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