An Exclusive Interview
By Bill Miller
Andy Williams career began in his hometown of Wall Lake, Iowa, singing with his three brothers in a church choir. At age 8, Williams made his professional debut with The Williams Brothers Quartet. The brothers became regulars on radio station WHO in Des Moines, performing on The Iowa Barn Dance Show, and continued their radio days on major stations like WLS in Chicago and WLW in Cincinnati.
Radio exposure brought the boys a considerable following which caught the attention of Bing Crosby. With Crosby, Williams and his brothers made their first professional recording in 1944, Swinging On A Star, which became a hit. In 1947, Williams and his brothers teamed up with comedienne Kay Thompson, a successful, nightclub performer. They spent the next few years performing all over the United States and in Europe. In 1951 the group disbanded. Williams moved to New York to continue his music career.
While in New York, Williams regularly performed on Steve Allen's Tonight Show. In 1962, he began his 28-year association with Columbia Records and almost immediately scored his first Top 10 hit, Can't Get Used to Losing You. Many more hits were to follow, but none would become more associated with Andy Williams than Moon River, the Oscar winning song from the film Breakfast at Tiffany's, which became his theme song. The Andy Williams Show, debuting on NBC in 1963, lasted nine years and won three Emmy Awards. This show began his classic Christmas specials that featured the entire Williams family.
In 1991, Williams traveled to Branson, Missouri, to visit his friend Ray Stevens, who had just opened a theater in the growing country music town. The amazing talent the town featured impressed Williams. He soon began plans for becoming a part of the small Ozark community. The Andy Williams Moon River Theater opened its doors on May of 1992, as Williams successfully became Branson’s first non-country performer. Williams and his wife, Debbie, live on a golf course in a private community overlooking Lake Taneycomo just a few miles from his theater.
Bill Miller: Andy Williams is speaking with us today from his home is Branson, Missouri. Good morning, Andy. How many years have you been performing in Branson?
Andy Williams: This is our tenth season. I used to work from April to December, but now I’m working September through December. This gives me time to do other things.
Bill Miller: How did your new album Andy Williams Live, Treasures From His Personal Collection come about?
Andy Williams: My son Bobby was listening to material I had recorded in the 60’s and 70’s, and said, “my gosh dad, this stuff is really alive…listen to this stuff.” He played Moon River. It was just completely different than what I had recorded in the studio. Besides it being a different arrangement, when I performed it live, it just sounded different. It has a completely free, wonderfully fresh sound. I think people will really enjoy this album. It’s the only album I will actually listen to myself. I don’t play it myself, but occasionally my wife will play it when we’re in the car…and I don’t mind. Usually, I don’t like to listen to my own stuff.
Bill Miller: It’s a double album too.
Andy Williams: Yes it is, and I like all the songs. They sound alive. They don’t sound like songs produced in a studio.
Bill Miller: It seems to me that you’ve really captured the essence of a live performance on this new album.
Andy Williams: My studio records had always been popular, but it’s kind of nice to hear things done differently.
Bill Miller: Could there be more albums like this from you?
Andy Williams: There could be, but this is just something my son really wanted me to do. If there’s a reason to produce another, we will.
Bill Miller: You’re a keystone part of the Branson experience. I don’t think anybody goes down there without making plans to see your show. It’s a must.
Andy Williams: I’m a citizen of Branson. We’re doing a show this year with Glen Campbell, just as we did last year. People feel as they have seen two shows when they come to my theater. Glen does the first half, I do the second half, and then we do about twenty minutes together. It’s fun.
Bill Miller: When did you first decide to check out Branson?
Andy Williams: My brother Don was managing Ray Stevens when Ray was working in Branson. I came down to visit both Don and Ray, and see Ray’s show. Many people asked if I would come to Branson and perform. They explained they seldom got to New York or L.A. to see me, and Branson would be perfect for them. They made me realize that folks who come to Branson just aren’t country music fans…they’re music fans…they like everything. I figured just because most venues are country, that doesn’t mean people haven’t heard of me. I thought, “I’ll take a shot at it.” And they came. I have been working here in Branson for ten years. Besides, Bill, I like living here. I just love the area…it’s beautiful.
Bill Miller: How much has Branson changed since you moved there ten years ago?
Andy Williams: Quite a bit. We had about four million tourists in my first year, and all the other entertainment was country. I was the first to build a theatre that didn’t feature a country performer. Now there’s gospel, country, pop…all kinds of shows. Last year, over seven million people visited Branson. There are now more than forty theatres here.
Bill Miller: What are your feelings about Johnny Mercer?
Andy Williams: I love Johnny Mercer. I’ve known him since I was a kid. When I was 14 or 15 years old, my family moved to California and I became friends with Johnny through The Skylighters, a group I was singing with. We recorded at Capitol Studios, which he had just started, and I just loved him. His music and lyrics are timeless…wonderful. We became very good friends. I asked him once to write some lyrics from a Curt Vile song from Three Penny Opera. He agreed, and the result was the Bill Bower Song. It was somewhat of a hit, and he wrote those lyrics.
Bill Miller: Weren’t there some Williams twins in the entertainment business.
Andy Williams: Yes. They’re my nephews, my brother Don’s boys. They were big during their teen years. They had a short-lived career, but they did shine brightly for a few years. After they grew up they began writing songs and producing records for other people.
Bill Miller: You’re from Wall Lake, Iowa. What area or town is that near?
Andy Williams: Well, it’s close to Storm Lake, about 120 miles from Des Moines, near Boone. It's a nice little town of 750 people.
Bill Miller: How did you get from Wall Lake to Cincinnati and beyond?
Andy Williams: We went to Des Moines, and performed on radio station WHO, and then moved to Chicago and sang on WLS. Then we moved to Cincinnati and I performed on WLW. All were big stations. Then my father decided we should get into movies so we moved to California. I was 14 then. That’s when I met Bing Crosby and made the recording Swing On A Star.
Bill Miller: What was your experience with Bing Crosby…recording that song…and later on?
Andy Williams: He was terrific to us. We idolized him. He was a big big star…you couldn’t get any bigger than Bing Crosby. We just worshipped him…and I still do. Later on, when I had a television series, he appeared on my show several times. He was just a terrific guy. I loved him.
Bill Miller: Are you doing a Christmas show again this year?
Andy Williams: Yes. The show starts in November and runs through December 17th. We make it as similar as we can to the television show with set changes, and kids, and dancers, and snow, and Christmas trees….it’s quite a production. We do not go on the road with it anymore; we stay in Branson. It makes for a much better show.
Bill Miller: You’re described as hard working and exacting. Does that definition fit as far as you’re concerned?
Andy Williams: When I look back at the work I’ve done, I think I have been pretty exacting; making my music be the way I wanted it…making it as perfect as it could be…especially the studio work. I do work hard.
Bill Miller: And it shows in your live performances. You can’t do “overs” when you do it live.
Andy Williams: No, you can’t. It’s one time through…so I try to pick the best songs, and the best orchestral arrangements.
Bill Miller: Do you remember Kay Thompson?
Andy Williams: Kay was the greatest influence in my life, not only in my musical life, but also in my whole life. My brothers and I worked with her for 5 years on the road. I was very young, about 19 or 20. Through her I became interested in art, literature, and all kinds of things that I really had not thought much about before. Musically, she helped me develop my style and arrangements.
Bill Miller: How about Steve Allen?
Andy Williams: When I began on my own, it was a scary time. I was very uncomfortable. During that time I was on The Steve Allen Show. I became familiar with cameras, television, and studio audiences. I had the opportunity to work in comedy sketches, and learned how comedy does and sometimes doesn’t work. I learned a great deal from Steve. He was always great to me and treated me very well. I’m very grateful to him for helping me early in my career.
Bill Miller: Perry Como?
Andy Williams: He was my favorite television singer. There’s nobody that I admired more in terms of how he handled performing on television. He was able to take time…he wasn’t afraid to let the orchestra play for half of a chorus as he stood quietly without becoming nervous about it.
Bill Miller: The Osmonds?
Andy Williams: I feel very fortunate that my father discovered The Osmonds when they were about the same age as my brothers and I. Donnie wasn’t with them. He was still too young. Back then, there were just four of them. My father talked me into putting them on my show. I figured we needed Roy and Dale or Ella Fitzgerald, or Tony Bennett or Cary Grant to boost our ratings, but my father insisted.
When they first appeared, they were terrific, so we asked them back for the next week…and they just kept coming back. They stayed for 6 years. They’re the most talented family I have ever been around, not only in their singing, but also in their dancing and their ability to play musical instruments.
Bill Miller: Archie Blyer?
Andy Williams: Archie Blyer was one of the greatest record company owners and producers I have ever known. He was very generous with me…and supported me at the beginning of my recording career.
He taught me what makes a hit record. According to Archie three things can make a hit record, the song, the performance, or the arrangement. Any one of these can make a hit record. For example, in my recording of Can’t Get Used To Losing You, the orchestral arrangement, particularly with the pizzicato strings in the beginning made that record a hit. And if you can get two out of those three in one record, you’ve surely got a hit. Archie knew how to make hit records. He was a very nice, kind, and generous man.
Bill Miller: Tony Bennett?
Andy Williams: Tony Bennett is a great singer and a man of great character and integrity. He has done it all. He’s done pop and jazz singing. He’s an all-around great performer. He’s one of a kind.
Bill Miller: Steve and Edie?
Andy Williams: I’m very lucky to have met them at the time I was on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show. I alternated with Steve Lawrence. One week I would be on two nights, and the next week I would be on three nights. Many nights I would work with Edie when we were all on the show at the same time, which happened occasionally. Edie, I think, is one of the great female singers of all time. She, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and Linda Rhondstat are all great pop singers. There are just a handful of great pop singers, and Edie is one of them.
Bill Miller: Thank you so much, Andy, for being our guest. I know your new album will be a great success.
Andy Williams: It’s always a pleasure, Bill.
Bill Miller is host of the nationally syndicated Bill Miller Show. Locally, his program can be herd on KCXL 1140 AM (check with them for exact times) and KFEQ 680 AM in St. Joseph from 7:00 to Midnight Sunday evenings. Miller’s show can also be heard on the Internet at www.waby.com