Staff writer Bo Emerson conducted this interview with Andy Williams in 2009.
In the 1960s, Andy Williams earned a reputation as the squeaky-clean host of television variety shows and Christmas specials.
His new memoir sheds a different light on the man in the white sweater.
He writes about using LSD during psychiatric treatment, carrying beer to school in his lunchbox and watching a live sex show in Copenhagen, Denmark.
"I am a different guy than a lot of people expect, " says the easy-listening giant. "The farm boy from Iowa. That's what they made me, but I have another side, which is a lot of fun."
Fun, and sometimes prickly. Williams gives some celebrities a spanking in "Andy Williams: Moon River and Me" and last month ruffled some feathers by criticizing President Barack Obama as a Marxist who "wants the country to fail."
Be that as it may, Williams, the staunch Republican, was better known in his heyday as a friend of the Kennedys. He played golf with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy and was staying at the Kennedys' suite in the Ambassador when Bobby was assassinated in 1968. He choked back tears to sing at Kennedy's funeral.
Williams' shining, resonant voice --- it seems to have his toothy smile built right in --- was once described by Ronald Reagan as a national treasure. Astonishingly, at 82 Williams still performs nightly at the Moon River Theatre he built in the middle-America tourist mecca, Branson, Mo. He will sing again, albeit briefly, when he visits Atlanta Thursday to sign copies of his memoir at the Atlanta History Center.
"So, " he said recently, turning the tables on the questioner, "tell me why I'm still at it? No, I know why I'm still at it. I've got my own theater, it's exactly what I want. I've got perfect lights, perfect sound, the perfect band, the perfect dressing room, the perfect wife, the perfect house, perfect dog, what's not to like? My dressing room is like a penthouse apartment."
That's a far cry from the walk-in cooler where he had to change clothes during one of the stops in his hungry years. During a recent conversation, Williams spoke about singing, writing and television work.
Days of Wine and Roses
Williams got his television start as a regular on Steve Allen's "Tonight Show, " where he sang underwater, jumped off the high dive and learned from a master. "I would do anything, " he said.
Knowing that he would sing the theme song from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" during the 1962 Academy Awards broadcast, Williams recorded an album of movie themes, including "Moon River, " and released it the day after the show. It sold 400,000 copies the first day, and "Moon River" became his theme song, even though he still finds the lyrics cryptic. He recites the full song, through to "Huckleberry friend, " then asks, "What does that mean? It's all parables, it's not reality. Johnny Mercer was a poet."
The strength of his success with "Moon River" led to his own variety show, which was canceled after the first season in 1962. The show was then was given a second chance when S&H Green Stamps came on as a sponsor, and lasted until 1971. A perfectionist, Williams could only relax on the set after he'd rehearsed every line, even the ad libs. "When I was doing my television shows I worked very hard to be natural and not be nervous, but I had to know exactly [what I was going to say.]"
I Can't Get Over Losing You
Williams said the hardest gig he ever performed was singing at Robert Kennedy's funeral --- made even harder by liturgical songs that the priest at St. Patricks suggested. Finally, FBI agent Bill Barry, who accompanied Kennedy on the campaign trail, suggested he sing "Battle Hymn of the Republic, " one of Kennedy's favorite tunes. It was perfect. And Williams nailed it. "There was no way I was not going to get through this, " he said. "I owed it to Ethel and I owed it to Bobby not to break down."
The Way We Were
When he started writing his memoirs, his literary agent told him his material was good, but seemed like a television script. Working with Britsh author Neil Hanson, Williams pulled out some memories that worried him. "I get the final OK on this right?" he told Hanson, worried that some stray scandals might get out to the supermarket tabloids. Hanson was as good as his word. "I told him things I wouldn't have told anyone else, " said Williams. "... He became like my priest."
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