Andy Williams dead at age 84
The Aspen Times and The Associated Press
Aspen, CO, Colorado
BRANSON, Mo. – Fans worldwide of the easy-listening style of crooner Andy Williams are mourning his Tuesday death following a yearlong battle with bladder cancer. He was 84.
In Aspen, though, some people who were around in the mid-1970s are remembering how he stood at the side of his ex-wife Claudine Longet during her January 1977 trial at the Pitkin County Courthouse following the shooting death of her live-in boyfriend, champion alpine ski racer Spider Sabich.
Throughout his long career, Williams maintained a wholesome image. He was, after all, the guy whose middle-America appeal was the antithesis of the counterculture that produced rock ‘n’ roll. Today, he is best known as the voice behind the Henry Mancini composition “Moon River, ” the theme from “Love Story” and the Christmas classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” He also hosted a successful TV show and several holiday TV specials through the 1960s and early ’70s.
Though the aftermath of Longet’s fatal shooting of Sabich proved to be a jarring interlude for the squeaky-clean Williams, he is said to have endured it with the calm demeanor that marked his life and career.
Williams married the Paris-born Longet, a former Las Vegas showgirl, in 1961. She was a dancer, actress and singer and during their marriage often appeared on Williams’ TV shows. They had three children together, Noelle, Christian and Robert, who attended schools in Aspen.
By most historical accounts, the marriage had soured by the late 1960s. In 1972, she met Sabich, an up-and-coming athlete, and they fell in love. He was 31, and she was 34.
According to a story by David Krajicek for truTV.com, Sabich invited Longet to move to Aspen and live with him.
“Separated from Williams, Longet began splitting time between Sabich’s chalet in Aspen and her own home in Malibu – no mean feat when raising three children. After a year or so, Sabich invited Longet and her kids, then ages 10, 9 and 4, to move in with him. It was a sobering change of lifestyle for the swinging bachelor, and naturally there were conflicts. … Friends of the skier said Longet could be needy and demanding. Once, she hurled a wine glass at Sabich at a nightclub because he wasn’t giving her enough attention.”
By 1976, that relationship also began to sour. It ended, tragically, when Longet shot Sabich with a knockoff of a German Luger pistol given to Sabich as a gift. He died in the ambulance en route to the hospital.
According to Krajicek’s story, Williams rushed to Aspen to support Longet, who spent the night of the killing at the home of John and Annie Denver in Starwood.
Reached for comment by The Aspen Times on Wednesday, Annie Denver, ex-wife of the late popular singer-songwriter, said she didn’t know Williams and had no comment on his life or death.
“John knew him. He stayed at our guest house,” Annie said.
Krajicek recalled that the shooting – which Longet claimed was an accident – and subsequent trial created a huge stir in Aspen when friends of Sabich began whispering that the skier had grown weary of Longet.
“Public opinion in laid-back Aspen turned against the Frenchwoman,” he wrote.
Former Mayor Helen Klanderud remembers that the shooting was a heated and divisive issue in Aspen.
“That was not a pleasant time here,” she said.
During the trial, Williams escorted Longet to the courthouse, testified on her behalf and provided support for her and their children.
The trial was noted for what it didn’t contain: evidence that might have harmed Longet’s case but was not allowed because of mistakes by the investigators.
Though Longet had been charged with a felony, reckless manslaughter, the local jury ended up returning a verdict of misdemeanor criminal negligence. A judge ordered her to serve 30 days in jail – on days of her own choosing – and to pay a small fine.
Not long after the trial, Longet and her Aspen defense attorney, Ron Austin, began a relationship. They married in 1985 and still live in the Aspen area, on Red Mountain.
Neither Austin, who is retired, nor Longet could be reached for comment Wednesday about Williams’ death.
Williams was born Howard Andrew Williams in Wall Lake, Iowa, on Dec. 3, 1927, and began performing with older brothers Dick, Bob and Don in the local Presbyterian church choir. Their father, postal worker and insurance man Jay Emerson Williams, was the choirmaster and the force behind his children’s career.
When Williams was 8, his father arranged for the kids to have an audition on Des Moines radio station WHO’s “Iowa Barn Dance.” They were initially turned down but kept returning until they were finally accepted. The show attracted attention from Chicago, Cincinnati and Hollywood. Another star at WHO was a young sportscaster named Ronald Reagan, who would later praise Williams as a “national treasure.”
The brothers later worked with Kay Thompson, a singer who eventually became famous for the “Eloise” children’s books. She had taken a position as vocal coach at MGM Studios, working with Judy Garland, June Allyson and others. After three months of training, Thompson and the Williams Brothers broke in their show at the El Rancho Room in Las Vegas, drawing rave reviews in New York, Los Angeles and across the nation and as much as $25,000 a week.
After five years, the three older brothers, who were starting their own families, had tired of the constant travel and left to pursue other careers.
Williams initially struggled as a solo act and was so broke at one point that he resorted to eating food intended for his two dogs.
A two-year TV stint on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” and a contract with Cadence Records turned things around.
Williams became a major star in 1956, the same year as Elvis Presley, with the Sinatra-like swing number “Canadian Sunset.” For a time, he was pushed into such Presley imitations as “Lips of Wine” and the No. 1 smash “Butterfly.”
But he mostly stuck to what he called his “natural style” and kept it up throughout his career. In 1970, when even Sinatra had temporarily retired, Williams was in the top 10 with the theme from “Love Story,” the Oscar-winning tearjerker. He had 18 gold records, three platinum and five Grammy award nominations.
Williams was also the first host of the live Grammy awards telecast and hosted the show for seven consecutive years, beginning in 1971.
Movie songs became a specialty, including his signature “Moon River.” The longing Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini ballad was his most famous song, even though he never released it as a single because his record company feared that such lines as “my huckleberry friend” were too confusing and old-fashioned for teens.
The song was first performed by Audrey Hepburn in the cherished 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but Mancini thought “Moon River” ideal for Williams, who recorded it in “pretty much one take” and also sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards. Although “Moon River” was covered by countless artists and became a hit single for Jerry Butler, Williams made the song his personal brand. In fact, he insisted on it.
“When I hear anybody else sing it, it’s all I can to do stop myself from shouting at the television screen, ‘No! That’s my song!”‘ Williams wrote in his 2009 memoir titled, fittingly, “Moon River and Me.”
“The Andy Williams Show,” which lasted in various formats through the 1960s and into 1971, won three Emmys and featured Williams alternately performing his stable of hits and bantering with guest stars.
It was on that show that Williams – who launched his own career as part of an all-brother quartet – introduced the world to another clean-cut act – the original four singing Osmond Brothers of Utah. Four decades later, the Osmonds and Williams would find themselves in close proximity again, sharing Williams’ Moon River Theater in Branson, Mo.
Williams did book some rock and soul acts, including the Beach Boys, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson. On one show, in 1970, Williams sang “Heaven Help Us All” with Ray Charles, Mama Cass and a then-little-known Elton John, a vision to Williams in his rhinestone glasses and black cape. But Williams liked him and his breakthrough hit “Your Song” enough to record it himself.
Williams’ act was, apparently, not an act. The singer’s unflappable manner on television and in concert was mirrored offstage.
“I guess I’ve never really been aggressive, although almost everybody else in show business fights and gouges and knees to get where they want to be,” he once said. “My trouble is, I’m not constructed temperamentally along those lines.”
Williams later settled in Branson with its dozens of theaters featuring live music, comedy and magic acts. He was among the first wave of national entertainers to perform there regularly.
When he arrived in 1992, the town was dominated by country music, but Williams changed that with his classy, $13 million theater in the heart of the entertainment district, where he did two shows a night, six days a week, nine months of the year. Only in recent years did he cut back to one show a night. His most popular time was Christmas.
Not everyone in Hollywood accepted his move to the Midwest.
“The fact is most of my friends in L.A. still think I’m nuts for coming here,” he told The Associated Press in 1998.
He and his second wife, the former Debbie Haas, divided their time between homes in Branson and Palm Springs, Calif., where he spent his leisure hours on the golf course when Branson’s theaters were dark during the winter months following Christmas.
Retirement was not on his schedule. As he told the AP in 2001, “I’ll keep going until I get to the point where I can’t get out on stage.”