Christmas Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without Andy Williams

It’s kind of perfect that Andy Williams’ birthday falls during the Christmas season, isn’t it? My prime-time TV watching days started after he stopped doing his weekly variety series The Andy Williams Show (1962-1971), so I knew him primarily from his periodic specials, in particular the ones he did every Christmas season. And his recordings of Holiday songs remain annual classics, even if younger people don’t know who’s singing them!

Howard Andrew Williams (1927-2012) grew up in the midwest four letter vowel states of Iowa and Ohio. Given the pivotal role he was to play in the career of the Osmond Brothers, it will perhaps not shock you to learn that he himself had started out in a singing brother act. The Williams Brothers  were Bob, Don, Dick and Andy — Andy was the youngest. After singing in church choirs they began to get radio spots in the late 1930s, first locally in Des Moines and Cincinnati, and then the midwest’s biggest market, Chicago. In 1943, they made the seismic move to the show biz capital of Los Angeles. They backed up Bing Crosby on his hit “Swinging on a Star” in 1944 (again, not a surprise — Andy’s TV personality owed more than a little to Bing). They sang in the films Janie (1944), Kansas City Kitty (1946), Something in the Wind (1947), and Ladies Man (1947). (One way Williams was unlike Bing was that he was no actor. He sang in movies, but he never tried to star in them, apart from one forgotten example in 1964, I’d Rather Be Rich).

In 1947, the Williams Brothers became the back-up act for singer Kay Thompson, and they toured with great success through 1949 and again from 1951 through 1953. Thompson was a key figure in Williams’ career. As head of the MGM vocal department she’d hired him and his brothers to sing on the soundtracks of movies. When the act broke up in ’53 she remained very involved in his solo career. coaching him, writing arrangements (and some of his material), and helping him land TV jobs and recording work. That the two were romantically involved undoubtedly played a role. Thompson was two decades older, but it must be admitted Williams was a good looking cat, one who was obviously on the way up. From 1954 through 1957, largely with Thompson’s help he became the featured singer on Tonight with Steve Allen. And hit records started coming: “Canadian Sunset” (1956); “Butterfly”, “I Like Your Kind of Love”, “Lips of Wine” (all 1957); “Are You Sincere?”, “Promise Me Love”, “Hawaiian Wedding Song” all 1958); “Lonely Street” and “Village of St. Bernadette” (both 1959).

Thompson and Williams parted ways in the early 60s, when he met and married Claudine Longet, a dancer with the Folies Bergère. (The two divorced in 1975; her famous murder trial happened the following year). And his popular television show launched in 1962, the same year he became associated with “Moon River”, which became his signature song thereafter. In 1963 he released the first of his many Christmas albums.

After he ended the weekly series in 1971, Williams continued to do three specials a year, a periodic tradition through the 1980s (and he continued to appear on other people’s specials long after that). In 1991 he opened his own venue in Branson, where he continued to perform throughout the remainder of his life.

To find out more about the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous