If you're under 50, you probably have no idea what a big star Andy Williams was in the 1960s and 1970s. The ultra-smooth singer and TV personality hosted the first seven Grammy Awards telecasts. In fact, producer Pierre Cossette was only able to sell the concept of the Grammys as a live telecast when he assured ABC that he could deliver a big star like Williams as host.
Williams, who died Tuesday at his home in Branson, Mo. at age 84, was in the vein of such crooners as Bing Crosby and Perry Como. He was just about the last singer in that traditional pop style to become a major star—not counting latter-day revivalists such as Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Buble.
Williams had a long string of hit albums: Twelve of his albums made the top 10 on what is now called The Billboard 200; 17 went gold or platinum. His 1962 album Moon River & Other Great Movie Themes spent more than three years (176 weeks) on the chart. His 1963 album Days Of Wine And Roses logged 16 weeks at #1. (It was #1 the week that Billboard combined its separate mono and stereo charts into one comprehensive chart.) It later received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year (but lost to Barbra Streisand's debut album.)
Williams' eight top 10 singles spanned nearly 15 years, from "Canadian Sunset" in 1956 to "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story" in 1971. His biggest hit was "Butterfly," which spent three weeks at #1 in 1957. His other top 10 hits were "I Like Your Kind Of Love," "Are You Sincere," "Lonely Street," "The Village Of St. Bernadette" and "Can't Get Used To Losing You." (Little-known fact: Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who have both been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as non-performers, co-wrote "Can't Get Used To Losing You.")
And Williams was just as a big a TV star as he was a recording star. The Andy Williams Show ran on NBC from 1962 to 1967. In those five years, it won three Emmys as Outstanding Variety Series. Williams was nominated twice for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Music Program, in 1963 and 1964. Williams headlined a second variety show on NBC from 1969 to 1971.
Though Williams was instrumental in getting the Grammys on TV, he never received a Grammy Award. He received six nominations through the years, including in 1958, the first year of the awards, when "Hawaiian Wedding Song" was nominated for Best Vocal Performance Male. He was also nominated for "Danny Boy" (1961), "The Days Of Wine And Roses" (1963, in two categories), "Call Me Irresponsible" (1964) and "The Shadow Of Your Smile" (1966).
Neil Portnow, The Recording Academy's President/CEO, said in a statement, "Andy Williams' smooth voice and casual style turned the songs he sang into timeless classics and made him one of America's top pop singers…The entertainment industry has lost a giant piece of its living history today, but Williams' legacy will forever be enshrined in the annals of music and television."
In 2008, Williams recounted the origins of the Grammy telecast in a Q&A with Recording Academy executive David Konjoyan. "The only way the show got on the air is because I would do it," he said. "The network said to Pierre Cossette, 'If you can get Andy Williams or Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra to host it, you can do it.' Pierre said, 'I can't get Dean or Frank to do it.' I don't know why they didn't want to do it. Maybe because it was new, maybe because they didn't think it would be a success, maybe because they were busy. But I said, 'Yes, I'd like to do it.' I thought it would be great. The Grammys were important before they went on [live] television. It had a reason to be on, and I thought it was a good idea to have it on."
Reflecting on the experience, Williams said, "It makes me feel proud to be a part of the beginning of it, and to see what it's become worldwide. It is now comparable to the Oscars. I'm really very proud to have been able to host it for seven years."
(The entire Q&A is posted at Grammy.com.)
Williams charted with three hit Christmas albums: The Andy Williams Christmas Album in 1963, Merry Christmas in 1965 and The New Andy Williams Christmas Album in 1994. "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year," a sprightly waltz from his first Christmas album, remains popular. The song has sold 362,000 digital copies, which puts it #26 on Nielsen SoundScan's running tally of the top-selling holiday hits of the digital era.
Williams was frequently called on to perform Oscar-nominated songs on the annual Academy Awards broadcasts (at a time when that was a big deal). He sang "Moon River" and "Call Me Irresponsible," both of which won the award, as well as "Charade" and "Dear Heart."
Williams was a close friend of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He sang "Battle Hymn Of The Republic" at Kennedy's funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral on June 8, 1968. The recording of that live performance was released as a single and cracked the top 40 on Billboard's Hot 100 that November.
Williams showcased the Osmond Brothers on his weekly TV show starting in 1962. The Osmonds exploded in 1971 with the Jackson 5-style smash "One Bad Apple." Williams' various variety shows from 1958 to 1971 also featured, in recurring roles, such notable performers as Dick Van Dyke (in 1958), the New Christy Minstrels, Jonathan Winters and Ray Stevens.
Williams' later hits included 1967's "Music To Watch Girls By" (the tune was lifted from a popular Diet Pepsi commercial of the era) and two songs from blockbuster movies: "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story)" and "Love Theme From "The Godfather" (Speak Softly Love)." (Even though Al Martino played singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, Williams' recording of "Speak Softly Love" became a bigger hit. It reached #34 on the Hot 100. Martino's version stalled at #80.)
Williams hosted the Grammys through the show that aired in February 1977. John Denver took over from him in 1978. Time had moved on, and Williams' style of singing and performing was becoming dated.
Moon River And Me was the inevitable title of Williams' 2009 memoir.
Williams announced in late 2011 that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. Survivors include his second wife, Debbie; his three children, Robert, Noelle and Christian; six grandchildren; and brothers Don and Dick.