Crooner Andy Williams Dies at 84

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Andy Williams in 1968

UPDATED: The stylish singer had hits with "Moon River" and "Where Do I Begin," hosted an Emmy-winning NBC variety show in the '60s and was a tireless performer in Las Vegas and Branson.

Andy Williams, the stylish and suave entertainer famous for melting hearts with his easy-listening hits “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Where Do I Begin?” during a remarkable seven decades in show business, has died. He was 84.

Williams died Tuesday of bladder cancer at his home in Branson, Mo., his family said Wednesday. Months ago, he left a rented house in Malibu, where he was close to his doctors, to return home.

During a Nov. 5 performance at his Moon River Theatre in Branson -- his first time onstage in weeks -- Williams told his audience that he had cancer but was determined to beat it. 

Except for a 10-month break in 1999 to deal with a polyp on his vocal cords, Williams had regularly appeared in Branson for two decades, typically performing two shows a day, six days a week, for nine months a year.

In the 1960s, Williams was one of the most popular vocalists in the country and was signed by Columbia Records to what was then one of the biggest recording contracts in history. He hosted a highly rated network TV variety show for the better part of 12 years; founded a record label that signed Jimmy Buffett and released albums from The Everly Brothers; and in 1966 began a headlining stint at the spanking-new Caesars Palace in Las Vegas that would span two decades.

“Moon River” became Williams’ signature song after he performed the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer composition from Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the 1962 Oscars, where it won best song. Star Audrey Hepburn sang it in the film. (It also won three Grammys, including song and record of the year, though none went to Williams.)

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At the next Academy Awards, Williams performed “Days of Wine and Roses," another tune written by Mancini and Mercer that would go on the win the Oscar, and his version of the film’s title song would reach the pop Top 30 as the B-side of his huge hit "Can't Get Used to Losing You." And “Where Do I Begin?” his melodramatic song from the 1970 blockbuster tearjerker Love Story, would become a Top 10 sensation.

Williams recorded numerous other movie theme songs. He sang "Speak Softly Love," the vocal version of "Love Theme From The Godfather," which dented the Top 40 in 1972. He also recorded the themes from such films as Charade, My Fair Lady, Born Free, Wake Me When It's Over, Let's Get Married, Dear Heart and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?

His breakthrough came with the swing-styled 1956 single "Canadian Sunset," which reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Along with “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” which spent four weeks at No. 2 in 1963, the other Top 10 hits crafted by the native Iowan were “Butterfly" -- which in April 1957 gave Williams his only No. 1 song the Hot 100 -- "I Like Your Kind of Love," “Are You Sincere," The Village of St. Bernadette" and “Lonely Street.” He just missed the Top 10 with "The Hawaiian Wedding Song," “Hopeless," “A Fool Never Ends" and "Lips of Wine."

Williams 1967 version of "Music to Watch Girls By" was used in a Fiat commercial in the U.K. and, when released as a single, hit the Top 10 there.

He had 18 gold albums during his career, including 14 that reached the Top 10. His most popular LP by far was 1963's Days of Wine and Roses, which spent 16 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. His only other chart-toppers were two of his eight Christmas sets. The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963) spent nine weeks in the top spot and spawned his most famous holiday recording, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," the Edward Pola-George Wyle original that went on to become a Christmas standard. The album also featured Williams' popular version of "White Christmas." His album Merry Christmas hit No. 1 in 1965.

Williams was nominated for five Grammys but never won, though he did host the show for seven consecutive years, beginning with its first live telecast in 1971 from the Hollywood Palladium.

"Andy Williams' smooth voice and casual style turned the songs he sang into timeless classics and made him one of America's top pop singers," Recording Academy chief Neil Portnow said Wednesday. "The entertainment industry has lost a giant piece of its living history."

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With the good-natured crooner performing and sparring with the costumed character Cookie Bear in comedy bits, The Andy Williams Show collected Emmy Awards for best variety show in 1963, 1966 and 1967. The show debuted in 1958 with a summer run on ABC, moved to CBS for the following summer, then began a nine-year regular stint on NBC in 1962, when "Moon River" became its theme song. Regular performers included Jonathan Winters, Charlie Callas, The Lennon Sisters and The Osmond Brothers, who were billed as "a youthful barbershop harmony group from Ogden, Utah." They first performed on the show in December 1962 -- with a 6-year-old Donny Osmond debuting the following year -- and remained as regulars through the 1960s.

Later, the cardigan-wearing Williams cut back to three specials a year, with his Christmas shows airing intermittently from 1971 into the 1990s.

Fans of The Simpsons should be familiar with Williams: His songs were heard in four episodes, and he is the unlikely idol of the neighborhood bully Nelson Muntz. In the 1996 episode "Bart on the Road," Bart Simpson makes a fake driver's licence and takes a road trip with Nelson, Milhouse and Martin. Nelson insists that they stop in Branson so he can see Williams perform. After the show, a moved-to-tears Nelson says, "I didn't think he was going to sing 'Moon River,' and then -- BAM! -- second encore!"

Howard Andrew Williams was born Dec. 3, 1927, in Wall Lake, Iowa. Williams and his three older brothers formed The Williams Brothers in 1938, and they performed on radio in the Midwest and later with Bing Crosby on the 1944 hit “Swinging on a Star.”

Singer-actress Doris Day knew Williams since they were kids growing up in Cincinnati.

"He and his brothers sang, and of course, so did I. Often I would go over to their house, and we would sing together," she recalled. "They asked me to join their group, but my vocal coach thought I should be out on my own, and so that’s what I did.

"Andy and I kept in touch over the years and just recently, even when he was so sick, he wrote to congratulate me on my new CD. He was such a sweet, thoughtful man, and I will miss him dearly."

After a nightclub act with entertainer Kay Thompson led to a three-year gig as a regular on The Tonight Show hosted by Steve Allen, Williams signed with small New York label Cadence Records, which released “Butterfly,” a cover of a Charlie Gracie rockabilly record. Williams moved to Columbia in 1961 and would remain there for almost three decades.

Williams became the owner of the Cadence master tapes, which he occasionally licensed to Columbia, and soon formed Barnaby Records to handle the Cadence material for The Everly Brothers and new artists like Buffett. Barnaby also had several hits in the ’70s with Ray Stevens, including the No. 1 singles “Everything Is Beautiful” and “The Streak," the latter a novelty song inspired by the 1970s streaking fad.

Williams co-starred in the 1964 screwball comedy I’d Rather Be Rich -- in which he sang and memorably engaged in a fistfight with Robert Goulet for the affections of Sandra Dee. From 1968-88, he hosted golf's Andy Williams San Diego Open, the PGA Tour’s annual visit to Torrey Pines.

In 1991, Williams built the 2,000-seat, $12 million Moon River Theatre and became among the first noncountry artists to put down performing roots in Branson.

He was involved in a juicy scandal in 1976 when he came to the aid of his ex-wife, France-born singer Claudine Longet, who was charged with fatally shooting her boyfriend, Olympic skier Spider Sabich, at his home in Aspen. Longet. a former Las Vegas showgirl, claimed the gun discharged accidentally. Williams escorted her to and from the courtroom, testified on her behalf and provided legal assistance. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail but served only a week.

Williams and Longet had three children, Noelle, Christian and Robert, who survive him. His survivors also include his second wife, Debbie, six grandchildren and brothers Don and Dick.

Watch Williams sing "Moon River" on his variety show in 1962 below.