Andy Williams: Hitting the High Notes

Singer Andy Williams, performing at his theatre in Branson, Mo.
He's pushing 82, but still pounding out the melodies. After almost 75 years as a professional, Andy Williams knows a thing or two about putting on a show.

And it all begins with a tried-and- true ritual: He warms up his pipes in the shower. . .

"Mooooooon Reiver …. la de da de da . . . "

He dresses, always looking sharp, burns off a little energy back stage, a quick check of the fly, and then . . . show time!

"It really is a good show. It's just, it's fun, it's family-friendly, without being hokey, you know?" said CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

"Good. That's what we want," Williams said.

He's pushing 82, but still pounding out the melodies. Williams does six shows a week at his own theater in Branson, Mo. Over the years, Williams has made scores of albums (including his new "Best of" CD) and recorded hundreds of songs, so there are plenty to choose from - but he always includes "Moon River."

It's been his signature song ever since he used it to open the TV show that made him a star.

From 1962 until 1971 "The Andy Williams Show" aired on NBC.

"The show was very popular," Williams said. "And then when you have a really popular television show, everybody wants to get on it."

From Basie to Bennett to Bing, the biggest stars of the time appeared aside Andy, including Judy Garland in 1965.

It's an appearance Williams remembers most fondly for a comedy sketch they performed . . .

"She started to show me how to put on makeup, drawing on a mustache. All crooked, you know, and eyebrows were funny," he laughed. "And then put a little powder on. We're getting more powder on, and eventually she ends up putting powder on a big pillow, you know, a great big pillow, and whacking me with it. Anyway, it was really funny. It really was funny. She's such a great actress."

"Well, and it was a side of her that people really didn't get to see," said Bowers

"No. And it was a great bit. It really was."

Andy Williams was a natural for TV it seemed, able to play the straight man in comedy sketches, dance a little, and sing a lot. His musical range allowed him to seamlessly duet with any singer, whether singing R&B with Ray Charles, rock 'n' roll with the Beach Boys, or pop standards with Vic Damone, Tony Bennett and Bing Crosby.

The show made Andy Williams a household name, and helped launched other careers, like Elton John.

And then there were the Osmonds, who charmed the audience when they debuted as children in 1963. "Everybody wanted to see 'em again," Williams said. "So, I said, 'Would you like to come back next week?' And they said, 'Oh, yeah.' And so they did. They came back for six years, every week."

And they virtually grew up before America's eyes.

The Osmonds reminded Williams of another family . . . his own.

"It seems like some of your earliest memories involve singing, wither listening to your mom or wanting to be a part of the action with your brothers," said Bowers.

"My two older brothers and my father and mother were the church choir," Williams said. "That was it. This little Presbyterian church. And I wanted to sing in the choir, too."

"In Williams' new memoir, "Moon River and Me" (Viking), he details how he began his singing career as a boy to fulfill a dream - his father's dream.

"That wasn't my passion to sing, you know; it was his," he said. "It was his passion to do something with us."

Williams grew up in a modest clapboard house on a hill in a tiny Iowa town called Wall Lake. His father, a railroad worker, had big plans for his four singing sons.

"I think he would do anything he could to get out of Wall Lake, Iowa, and to move on, and do something a little better."

The family moved to Des Moines, and before long, the Williams brothers landed a radio job. Andy was seven.

"We were on "The Iowa Barn Dance Frolic" for about six years," William said.

The boys' father would urge them to practice, to do better, with a tough message:

"'You're not quite as good as the rest, so you've got to work harder,' which for a little kid, that stuck in my mind."

"It worked?"

"Well, yeah, it did. Because we did work harder. And I did all my life. I couldn't get that out of my head, ever."

The brothers' big success came when they teamed with singer-song writer Kay Thompson after the family had moved to Los Angeles.

"The act was so exciting, and it was just jam-packed all the time," Williams said. "And so we were suddenly making more money than anybody. I mean, it was just phenomenal."

The act broke up after a couple of years, and Andy struggled as a soloist, but he eventually landed his first TV job, singing on "The Tonight Show with Steve Allen" in 1954.

"You know, after two-and-a-half years, I had had two or three hit records. So I could go now into better places and sing, you know, pop songs and do a different kind of act."

Williams was becoming a star, and in 1960, he was featured on CBS' "Person to Person," where he was asked if he thought he'd ever settle down and get married.

"Well, I would like to get married someday, yes," he said.

Not long after that interview Andy met Claudine Longet, a young French dancer, in the most bizarre way:

"Well, she was pushing her car on the highway in Las Vegas," Williams laughed. "And my manager and I were driving down there. And we saw this lovely girl and her girlfriend, who was also quite pretty, pushing this car. And so, being gallant - and also because they looked very good - we stopped to see if we could help them."

Within a year, the couple was married. That was 1961. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. The whole family would often appear together on Andy's famous Christmas specials.

But the pressures of a performer's life would take their toll on the marriage. Andy and Claudine split in 1975.

"We just sort of grew apart. I was never home," Williams said.

"Do you regret that?" Bowers asked.

"Yes, I do," he said. "For the marriage, for the kids, for everything. You know? It was all my fault. I just didn't take care of my marriage."

The couple would be thrust together a year later when tragedy struck, when Longet shot and killed her new boyfriend, professional skier Spider Sabich, in Aspen, Colorado. Good looking and athletic, he was enormously popular in Aspen. Claudine claimed the shooting was an accident, but was put on trial for manslaughter.

Williams stood by her in the courtroom. "I did. I stood by her during that whole thing, because I thought it was unfair. I thought she was innocent. I thought it was an accident. My children were there. I wanted to make sure that I took care of them as best I could."

Claudine was found guilty of misdemeanor criminal negligence and served 30 days in jail.

It was not the first time Williams' life had been touched by violence. In the 1960s, he'd become close with Bobby Kennedy.

"I wasn't into politics or anything; the only time I got into politics was when he said, 'Would you be a delegate for me from California?' And I said, 'Sure.' And then about two weeks later, I called him. I said, 'I just thought about this. Hey, I hope I didn't just screw this all up, because I just realized I'm a Republican!'"

After Kennedy was assassinated, Williams sang at the funeral.

41 years later, Williams finds himself involved with politics in a very different way.

"Did you expect to be called out for your political views at this point in your life?" Bowers asked.

"No, I made a mistake in an interview to the press in London," Williams said.

A few weeks ago, as Williams set out to promote his new book, an article in a British newspaper said Williams accused President Obama of following a Marxist theory and wanting the country to fail.

"And so I had to backtrack a little there, because you know he is the most charismatic man we've ever had since John F. Kennedy in political office. But I should have just left it at that. You know, instead of saying I think he's taking our country in the wrong direction."

Usually Williams can be found far away from controversy, at home in Branson. He and wife Debbie (they married in 1991) live in a large lakeside house, just minutes from his Moon River Theatre.

They've filled the house with artwork, perhaps Andy's true passion, that he's collected over the years.

"I need to live with them, and I look at 'em every day," he said.

"He does," said his wife Debbie. "He walks through the house at night before we go to bed. And he truly loves his pieces. And he will switch them around. And that's what I love about it. He's just buying art."

He's also got his own restaurant here, the Moon River Grill, of course. His 18 gold and two platinum records line the bar.

His show still draws an enthusiastic crowd . . . so he'll keep on going.

"As long as I'm singing well. I don't wanna get out there and people say, 'Oh, he isn't, you know, like he used to be,' or, 'He isn't as good.'"

"Would you know? Or would someone tell you, do you think?" Bowers asked.

"When they start booing!" he laughed.

By that measure . . . Andy Williams ought to be crooning for a long time to come.

For more info:
"Moon River and Me" by Andy Williams (Viking)