The voice that crooned “Moon River” and serenaded Christmas shoppers with “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” originated in a house on the south side of Wall Lake, Iowa.
Andy Williams lived in the Sac County town for the first eight years of his life where, as he said in his 2009 autobiography, “everybody in town knew everybody else.” It was in the house on First Street where he was born that he first started singing with his brothers while rehearsing for choir at the local Presbyterian Church.
Williams, a singer famous for his easy-listening style and his middle-America appeal died Tuesday night at his home in Branson, Mo., after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 84.
Over the years, he spoke often to audiences about Wall Lake, invoking his small-town roots as part of his all-American persona.
Williams told The World-Herald in 1998, just before his birthplace opened as a museum, that he was proud to be from Wall Lake. He said he hoped that the museum would aid the small town's economy.
“Maybe they can get some bus tours. I know they'd like that,” Williams said.
Bus tours are indeed a big part of the traffic at his birthplace, said Betty Brotherton, president of the Wall Lake Historical Society. Between 700 and 900 people visit each year, but that number is decreasing as Williams' older fans become unable to travel.
“Once in a while we get a young (fan), but most of them are older,” she said.
Brotherton said the Wall Lake of 2012 is a far different place than it was in the late '20s and early '30s.
“When Andy lived here, there were lots of stores downtown. There were small businesses. There are (few) of those any more, but we do have more people here. It is just a different era,” she said.
As Williams and his brothers — Bob, Don and Dick — were developing their vocal chops, the Great Depression and drought were getting worse.
“Rickety trucks” passed through town, “piled high with the possessions of gaunt families in threadbare clothes,” he wrote in the autobiography, “Moon River and Me.” “Hollow-eyed figures also haunted the highways around us.”
Williams' father saw his sons' talents as the family's ticket out of it all. His father transferred to Des Moines, and as soon as the family settled in, he blustered his way into the office of WHO radio and arranged for an audition. Later the brothers appeared on WLS in Chicago and WLW in Cincinnati.
The brothers joined Bing Crosby in recording the hit “Swinging on a Star” in 1944 for Crosby's film “Going My Way.” Andy, barely a teenager, was picked to dub Lauren Bacall's voice on a song for the film “To Have and Have Not.” His voice stayed in the film until the preview, when it was cut because it didn't sound like Bacall's.
Williams initially struggled as a solo act and was so broke at one point that he resorted to eating dog food.
“I had no money for food, so I ate it,” he recalled in 2001, “and it actually was damned good.”
He became a major star in 1956, with the Frank Sinatra-like swing number “Canadian Sunset.”
“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.
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 and three platinum, was nominated for five Grammy awards and hosted the Grammy ceremonies for several years.
After leaving TV, Williams headed back on the road, where his many Christmas shows and albums made him a huge draw. But Williams gave up most touring after a snowstorm in Des Moines kept away much of the audience and the band's equipment failed to reach Chicago for the next night's show.
He decided to settle in Branson, with its dozens of theaters featuring live music, comedy and magic acts.
When he arrived in 1992, the town was dominated by country music performers, but Williams changed that, building his $13 million Moon River Theater in the heart of the entertainment district and performing two shows a night, six days a week, nine months of the year. Only in recent years did he begin to cut back to one show a night.
He and his second wife, the former Debbie Haas, divided their time between homes in Branson and Palm Springs, where he spent his leisure hours on the golf course when Branson's theaters were dark after Christmas.
Retirement was not on his schedule. As said in 2001: “I'll keep going until I get to the point where I can't get out on stage.”
In Wall Lake, the Historical Society has almost finished restoring the old railroad depot where Williams' mother would meet his father as he worked the railroad, where the family left Wall Lake nearly 80 years ago. It's a shame the project wasn't completed while Williams was alive, Brotherton said. He would have liked to have seen it.
This report includes material from the Associated Press and the New York Times.
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