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'Moon River' singer Andy Williams dies at age 84

Nary a story was written about singer Andy Williams that didn't include the words "clean" and "cut." During a time of great societal upheaval — a.k.a. the '60s — the singer's cardiganed croon, Midwestern values and, of course, Moon River provided an old-fashioned stability.

Howard Andrew Williams died Tuesday after battling bladder cancer for the past year. He was 84, a gold-standard showman whose handsome face, smooth baritone and Ward Cleaver fashion sense extended beyond his seven-decade music career. He also soothed his large fan base with an Emmy-winning variety show, Christmas specials and his Moon River Theater in Branson, Mo., the town where he died.

In Mr. Williams' '60s heyday, while the kids went bonkers for the Beatles and the encroaching counter-culture movement, frazzled parents clung to the Iowa-born star, who got his showbiz start in the 1930s when he was just a boy singing with his three older brothers back home in Wall Lake. Besides Moon River, Mr. Williams would sell millions of albums thanks to such hits as Days of Wine and Roses, Charade and Can't Get Used to Losing You.

Mr. Williams was so respected for his calming demeanor and status quo strength he was asked to perform The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the funeral of his friend Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

He is also credited with discovering a Mormon family band that was so goody-goody it made Mr. Williams look like Mick Jagger. That would be the toothy Osmond Brothers, who were regulars on the wildly popular Andy Williams Show, his NBC variety smash that ran from 1962-1967 and came back for 1969-1971.

He doesn't get much credit for it — taking artistic chances wasn't exactly his bag — but Mr. Williams often used his variety show to celebrate both pop peers like Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald and wild-haired newcomers such as Elton John, the Mamas and the Papas and the Jackson 5.

Of course, when it came to his Christmas specials, which started running regularly in 1974 and still popped up in the 1990s, the conservative son of a railroad mail clerk was all carols and cozy fireplace hugs, Norman Rockwell in melodic form. People loved it, and to this day, Mr. Williams is synonymous with the Santa season for many people.

"He was the cool uncle," says Bobby Rossi, director of entertainment at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall, where Mr. Williams played a Christmas show a few years ago. "He was someone we always wanted way more than he was able to come. These old school guys, when they go, it feels like part of you goes with them."

For all Mr. Williams' success, nothing would top the enduring legacy of his signature song, 1961's Moon River. The Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini classic is from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Star Audrey Hepburn sang it in the film. Mr. Williams wouldn't perform the ballad until the 1962 Academy Awards, where it went on to win best original song.

After that, Mr. Williams flat-out owned the dreamy adult lullaby about that "huckleberry friend." Interestingly enough, Mr. Williams' version of Moon River was never released as a single, although it became a staple at the start of every episode of The Andy Williams Show.

"I was invited to sing Moon River on the Oscars show, and Columbia Records decided we ought to rush a Moon River album into the stores, because that tune looked like a shoo-in for the 'best song' Oscar," Mr. Williams told the Chicago Tribune in a 1989 interview. "So they quickly put out an album, had it in the stores on the day of the Oscars, and the next morning it sold 500,000 copies."

Mr. Williams' life was not totally without edge. He too was touched by celebrity scandal when then-ex-wife Claudine Longet was charged with fatally shooting boyfriend Spider Sabich, an alpine ski racer. Mr. Williams testified to her characterduring her trial. Longet was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

But scandal didn't stick to Mr. Williams. He will ultimately be remembered not for his cool but his calm. Even he knew the secret, if not exactly thrilling, ingredient to his success. His music was "kind of soft and easy and it's not jamming down anybody's throat," he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991. "It's just there and people find it pleasant and like it."

Mr. Williams is survived by his wife, Debbie, whom he married in 1991, and his three children with Longet.

Times researcher Natalie A. Watson contributed to this report. Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

'Moon River' trivia

Moon River may have been the unofficial theme song of the late Andy Williams and all his endeavors — even though his version was never released as a single — but the song has a life of its own. Here are five pieces of trivia, according to songfacts.com, that you may not have known:

• Henry Mancini wrote Moon River with lyricist Johnny Mercer, though the original title was "Blue River." Mercer changed it when he discovered another songwriter was using that title.

• Moon River is a real river in Savannah, Ga., where Mercer grew up. His home overlooked the river, known as the Back River, but was renamed Moon River in honor of the song.

• The line "My huckleberry friend" is often thought to be a reference to Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. However, in his autobiography, Johnny Mercer said it was in reference to a childhood friend. He used to pick huckleberries with him down by the river.

• Mancini wrote the tune within Audrey Hepburn's vocal range so she could sing it for 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's. However, the movie's soundtrack only has an instrumental version by Mancini's orchestra. Hepburn's version was not released until after her death in 1993; it's on the album Music From The Films of Audrey Hepburn.

• In the decades since it was written, Moon River has been recorded by more than 100 artists, including Paul Anka, Aretha Franklin, Sarah Brightman, R.E.M. and Elton John, who once appeared as a guest on The Andy Williams Show.

Compiled by Steve Spears, Times staff writer

'Moon River' singer Andy Williams dies at age 84 09/26/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 11:35pm]

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