JACKI LYDEN, host:
In the 1950s, a young man who'd been on the upward track of success as part of a quartet with his brothers performed alone in the seediest of nightclubs after the family act broke up. He sang the wrong kinds of songs for the wrong kinds of audiences, and he was continually stiffed by club owners. At one point, he got so hungry he ate dog food.
But he became iconic in American popular culture with more than 20 platinum and gold albums, 20 years in Las Vegas, a television run that surpassed ten years -seven decades of show business.
(Soundbite of song Moon River)
Mr. ANDY WILLIAMS (Singer): (Singing) Moon river, wider than a mile...
LYDEN: The singer was Andy Williams, of course. His career charts like a history of mid-20th century entertainment. At 82, Andy Williams still tours and performs year-round, often at his Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri.
He has a new memoir, "Moon River and Me," that's candidly fresh and very frank. And Andy Williams joins us now just seconds after you got off the stage at your Moon River Theater in Branson. Do you ever stop? You have a phenomenal amount of energy.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I try not to stop. If I stop I dont know whether I'll start again.
LYDEN: You have a big book because you've had a big, long career. Would you take us back to the era of live radio - live radio performance, I should say. The Williams Brothers got their start in the big city of Des Moines on the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic and later on the National Barn Dance out of WLS in Chicago. Did you guys sing all the jingles for products at the same time?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, we had a jingle that was on a show in Cincinnati, Ohio on WLW. We had a show called It's Time to Shine, sponsored by Griffin Shoe Polish. And we had a jingle every morning that went (Singing) It's time to shine, so shine your shoes anywhere with a smile, shine your shoes and you'll be in style, sun shines east and the sun shines west, Griffin Polish shines the best. Some folks are not particular how they look around the feet, but if they wore shoes up on their heads, they'd make sure their shoes looked neat. So, keep your shoes shined all the time, all the time is the time to shine. When you hear the familiar chime
(Soundbite of humming)
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) everybody gets theirs, it's time to shine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it wasn't an easy song to sing either, as you can tell by the way I was doing it.
LYDEN: I love the way I really had to twist your arm to get you to do that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: But it's interesting that your father envisioned you being in the movie business and you thought he had just lost his money and wanted to move you to Los Angeles.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, my brother Bob was always pessimistic about every move we made. You know, like, they'd say, well, we can't go on the radio in a big city like Chicago. And we'd go, and we'd get on the radio in Chicago. And when we moved to Cincinnati, we shouldn't be, we can't move to Cincinnati. That's a big station, WLW, and it's 500,000 watts. We can't ever do that.
Thats when he said: We're going to go to California, we're going to be in movies. He said, we can't be in the movies. We're not actors. Why would anybody want to buy a ticket to see us? You know, but my father, his vision for us was - it wasn't my passion to be a singer. It was really his passion to have his boys sing. And, you know, in the long run, I'm very glad that he instilled that in me and got me to do it.
LYDEN: You actually, once you got to Los Angeles, hooked up with Bing Crosby. Was that your big break?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, that was one of the first was that the first thing we did when we went to California, we met up with Bing and we made this record called "Swinging on a Star." It became a big, big hit for Bing Crosby and the Williams Brothers. And that was the first recording we ever made.
(Soundbite of song Swinging on a Star)
Mr. BING CROSBY and the WILLIAMS BROTHERS: (Singing) To fool a people is his only thought, and though he's slippery he still gets caught. But then if that sort of life is what you wish, you may grow up to be a fish.
LYDEN: So, so much of the Williams Brothers' early success is linked to performing with the entertainer Kay Thompson. Now, a lot of people may not know her name, but they certainly know her work. She's the author of the Eloise books, "Eloise at the Plaza," which she wrote while staying with you guys at the Plaza.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, she wrote that while we were working in the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel. But she was very influential in all of our careers. She's the one that got us interested in reading books and she's the one that got us interested in art. And me in particular, I went up and down 57th Street in New York every day when I was there and went in every art gallery and just to become familiar with Picasso and Braque and Juan Gris and all of those cats.
That's how I started getting interested in art. And then once I got interested in it, I was hooked. I became a collector.
LYDEN: You know, you had such success as a quartet with your brothers that it was shocking to read how utterly miserable you were as a solo act out on the road in the 1950s.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, and when I went out on my own, when my brothers decided they wanted to do other things, I was already 24 years old and never thought of being a soloist. But I didn't know how to do anything else but sing. So, I went out and Kay helped me with an act. And so the material that she had me do was really should've been in the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel. Instead, I was working these dumps, you know, in Cleveland, in Pittsburgh, in Philadelphia and Akron, you know, any place that I could get a job, you know, with coal miners watching me and not caring what they were seeing at all.
Because I was doing "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and I was a song-and-dance man and did old George Gershwin songs. And I kept at it for about three years until I finally, finally decided, you know, this thing isn't working at all. You know, I'm a little slow. It took me about three years to figure out that what I really should be doing is try and sing songs like Perry Como and Frank Sinatra and be a pop singer.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Gliding along, floating through space...
LYDEN: You were fortunate to come along with the rise of television variety shows. And you really took to it. And it is really quite amazing to see how the timing comes together here, because you're starting out just as Steve Allen is starting out with "The Tonight Show." And then later you get your own show. Some of the people that debuted on your show - Elton John, the Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett and of course, the Osmonds.
Mr. WILLIAMS: That's right. You know, when you have your own show and it's a popular show, people want to get on it for one reason or another. Like, Elton John had just recorded his first record. His agent was my agent, and he pleaded with me to put him on. I said, I really don't want this guy on there even though I don't know him. And he said youve got to do this for me. So, I said all right.
(Soundbite of song, Your Song)
Mr. ELTON JOHN (Singer): (Singing) It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside, I'm not one of those
Mr. WILLIAMS: We recorded one three weeks before it was going to go on the air and then that gave NBC time to promote and publicize it. So, by the time that show went on, his record was in the top ten or top 20 at least and it was a big coup to have him on.
(Soundbite of song, Your Song)
Mr. JOHN: (Singing) Id buy a big house where we both could live. If I was a sculptor
LYDEN: Now, I know that you're a lifelong Republican, so I was moved to read about your very close friendship with Bobby Kennedy - I hadn't realized how close you were.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, we were friends, very good friends. And it wasn't a political friendship. I mean, I had been brought up a Republican, and it didn't make any difference to me. I just loved Bobby. I just thought he was great, and I did a little work for him. I did some campaigning.
LYDEN: You were actually with Robert Kennedy on the night that he was assassinated. That you were, in fact, at the hotel in California where he was shot.
Mr. WILLIAMS: I was. And we were supposed to meet him right after he left the stage, right after he left the podium at the Ambassador Hotel. Then he was shot and, of course, we went to the hospital right away. We stayed with the body, came back on Air Force One, looked up the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the Encyclopedia Britannica. And the next day or the day after, I sang that at his funeral.
LYDEN: Andy Williams, you work at a relentless pace. You're talking to us just seconds after you got off the stage in Branson. Once you passed the age of 60, why did you decide to open your own theater in Branson, Missouri and not just retire?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I was just, I was really burnt out about doing the same things that I had been doing. Doing all the touring, working at Caesar's Palace again, working all the gambling casinos. And about that time, my brother Don called me and he said he was in Branson, Missouri. He said you ought to come down and see what this is like down here. He said, there are four million people come to see these country people perform in the theaters. He said, I think you'd do really well.
And I decided to build a theater that was different than the others and make it more like a theater and gallery, art museum. And I was newly married and I was in New York City with my new wife, Debbie - and we've been together now 23 years - and I said, honey, we're going to go to Branson, Missouri. And she said, you're absolutely crazy. Why do you want to go down there? I said, I just, I want to start a new life with you. And we built this theater, built a beautiful home on the water. And weve got three great dogs that I love - all rescue dogs - and we're happy as clams.
LYDEN: Is it at all possible to ask you, sir, to sing a song for us?
Mr. WILLIAMS: To sing a song for you? Well, I'll sing
(Singing) Moon river, wider than a mile. I'm crossing you in style, someday.
That's about it for a dollar and a half.
LYDEN: Thank you so much for being with us.
Mr. WILLIAMS: You're welcome. I enjoyed talking to you.
(Soundbite of song Moon River)
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Wherever you're going, I'm going your way
LYDEN: Andy Williams' new memoir is called "Moon River and Me." You can listen to more of our conversation online. Andy Williams recounts his days as a young, truly starving artist, and he even sings another song for us. That's on our Web site NPRMusic.org.