Saturday, September 29, 2012

ANDY WILLIAMS DIES...and the short supply of nice

The nation's reserve of "Nice" was depleted with the death of Andy Williams a few days ago. Obits on him noted that his signature tune, the once-loved and now rather inane "Moon River" was never released as a single, that his lone #1 hit is the long-forgotten "Butterfly," and that he was "Mr. Christmas" for a whole bunch of holiday albums. His TV show lasted for a decade, and he was among the first and most successful non-country singers to move out to America's heartland and open a theater in Branson, Missouri.

Fans of "easy listening" would tell you that he was the last of the pleasant pop crooners. Which he was. But I think another sad thing about the death of Andy Williams, is he was one of the last of the nice guys.

There was a time when people turned on the TV or put on a record…just to enjoy something "nice." While most "easy listening" fans are just mutton-brains, quite a few simply preferred an Andy Williams album to Mozart, Brubeck or even The Beatles because they'd put in a difficult and boring day working at the general store, or teaching a class full of brats, or walking the postal route without going postal, and all they wanted was to get through the evening with some relaxing entertainment. Nobody, except Perry Como, was more relaxed as a singer than Williams.

His first taste of show biz success was as part of the Williams Brothers, who even turned up in some films, including backing Bing Crosby on the nauseating number "Swinging on a Star." Andy was the only one to try for a solo career, and for several years, he went nowhere, and even ate dog food to survive. A big break came courtesy of another nice guy, Steve Allen, who made him a regular on "The Tonight Show."

Andy began recording for Cadence, and put out an entire album of Steve Allen's songs. While there were quite a few affable fellows back then — Jerry Vale, Jack Jones, Vic Damone among them — and veteran inoffensives such as Eddie Fisher and Bing Crosby still around — Williams owned the 60's as the easy listening champ.

Through the late 60's and early 70's, he was still the go-to guy for a mild movie theme such as the theme for "Love Story." He was less effective on songs that required emotion. His take on the heartbreaking "Don't Go To Strangers" is pretty bland. No tramp stepping out on a guy would be dissuaded by such a pleasantly crooned plea. Likewise, Andy's pop-rock covers, from "Fire and Rain" to "Desperado" to, yes, "Every Breath You Take," are unconvincing, and not "easy" listening for anyone under the age of 70. His comfort zone had boundaries between "Ave Maria" and "God Bless America," and "Shadow of Your Smile" and "Hello Young Lovers." Fair enough…Joe Cocker couldn't sing "White Christmas" like Andy could.

You can make your own mind up on "MacArthur Park," which Andy cuts by a few minutes and softens quite a bit. Toward the end he uncharacteristically charges toward the high notes and either hits them, or the recording engineer did (there's definitely a strange bit of mixing at that climax). More than a nice try, Mr. W. The download section also includes something a lot rarer than "Moon River," a set of three of Steve Allen's songs. Yes, I do still have that Cadence album, even if it's not going to win converts to either Andy or to Steve Allen (whose songs here are, well, nice.)

Among Andy's other achievements: he stood by ex-wife Claudine Longet during her murder trial, and he started Barnaby Records, which gave refuge to quite a few acts that other labels had cut adrift. Andy sold over 100 million albums (fact-checking this could take some time!), he signed one of the first blockbuster contracts (with Columbia, calling for 15 albums), and his version of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" became a hit in 1998 when it was used in a Peugeot car commercial.

One persistent "fact" about Andy is that he dubbed Lauren Bacall's voice for "How Little We Know," her highlight song in "To Have and Have Not." There was even an episode of "Ripley's Believe it Or Not" that mentioned this. After Jack Palance and his daughter Holly debunked several Hollywood myths (such as Cagney never saying "You dirty rat" and Bogart never saying "Play it Again, Sam"), Jack asked, "Who's voice did you actually hear" dubbing Bacall. Holly: "Andy Williams!" The truth? There was some concern over whether Bacall should sing, and tests were made by several singers, including 17 year-old Andy. He was convinced that his take was ultimately used, and repeated the tale on an NPR broadcast as late as 2009. Truth: Bacall was ultimately deemed capable of singing the song herself, as well as the movie's other number, "Am I Blue." Despite Bacall singing in other films, and on stage, the Williams-dub rumor is still alive to this day.

I won't pretend that Andy Williams was a Sinatra or even a Patti Page in terms of having a distinctive voice and the ability to really make you feel the lyrics, but what he did, was just as valid. He put you at ease. He was like a friend, or a member of the family. What he did was...nice. I enjoyed his variety show enough to write in for an autographed photo, and caught up with him later in his career as well. Up until his cancer diagnosis last year, he was still performing in Branson for people who just wanted to to have a pleasant evening's entertainment...something more difficult than it sounds. Andy always made it seem easy.

That he brought smiles to the faces and warmth to the hearts of millions of people…thousands and thousands filling that "Moon River" theater in Branson all through these past decades…is a testament to just how special this average-looking, pleasant-voiced all-American from Iowa actually was.

There was nothing "huckleberry" about watching or listening to Andy Williams and thinking he was your friend.

Sapristi! Andy Williams takes a stroll in MACARTHUR PARK

Sapristi! Andy Williams - three songs written by Steve Allen: I'm Playing the Field, Impossible, and Young Love.


Ana Carolina Braz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ill Folks said...

Thanks Ana Carolina Braz.

Sorry I deleted the comment. Thought it was spam, because a word in it was a "hot link" to a pop-up ad.

Turns out this is just the latest Google trick in turning somebody's free thoughts into their profit.

Ana had written that she happened upon the blog, and enjoyed reading about all the odd, unusual and obscure people.

Which did seem a better compliment than the spam-posters who say "what informative blog me like" and if you click their name it takes you to a spyware page.

Anyway, thanks Ana, wish I could get your comment back but Google makes that impossible. But as you see, they've lit up several words in my post, for more pop-ups. This is just another of their "new improved" policies in their plan to take over the world and make sure you Google chrome, Google map, Google-pay, Google-e-mail, and end up with Big Brother Google knowing your ever movement, including ones in the privacy of your bathroom.

I guess Google stays the richest, most powerful company in the world, not only by spying with Google maps, ignoring copyright, and festooning ads all over the place, but now has to toss little pop-up ads by hot-linking certain words without a commenter's knowledge or approval.

In other words, a commenter who nicely writes something for free, actually becomes an unknowing employee for The Great Google.