Andy Williams, Huckleberry Friend

It’s difficult to imagine how influential Andy Williams was in American cultural life, and not just because kids like me had to growup wearing matching red sweaters with his brother at Christmastime.

Andy Williams owned Christmas back when his TV specials were Yuletide staples. But his signature holiday song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was also popular enough to be sung by local choirs nationally every year. One of our prized videos of our youngest daughter has her singing the boundless happiness of the songs with a complete frown.

My other daughter, though, got to be on stage with Williams when he did one of his Christmas shows I was covering about 15 years ago. He did a bit where he called all the kids down to the stage where he read a story about the night before Christmas and though this was a matinee with so many elderly people it looked like the white hair was part of an indoor snow decoration.

There may not have been a ton of kids there, but they all got on stage to sit at his feet and wait around for the candy cane prize. She didn’t know who Andy Williams was  before then and was a little mad she didn’t get a candy cane. She spent the whole time on stage considering getting up and grabbing one on her own, but she didn’t.

But when I was her age then, he was about as popular as Ryan Seacrest today.

He hosted a variety show for nine years running in the 60s, winning an Emmy for it three times. He was host of the first televised Grammys in 1971 and continued to host it for seven years running. He was a showbiz institution.

And yeah, he was a kind of personification of bland in some ways, a one man easy listening section. But he was smooth.

And later, after the TV, he came to Branson, Mo., a place of mostly country theaters and opened one of the most popular places, the Moon River Theater, where he held court most of the year until he went on his Christmas tours and decorated it with some remarkable pieces from his extensive modern art collection featuring Jackson Pollock, Richard Diebenkorn, and Paul Klee among others.

And he just played with an awful lot of other musicians.

There’s that killer collaboration on the song Stevie Wonder first recorded, “Heaven Help Us All,” with Ray Charles, Mama Cass and a very young Elton John on a 1971 telecast.

Here’s Williams at the height of his Grammy hosting career, introducing the most auspicious pair of presenters in the history of the show, Paul Simon and John Lennon. And most of the patter has to do with Williams’ failed marriage to Claudine Longet.

“Moon River” was his signature, of course, and he’d sing it at every concert, including the Christmas ones. Henri Mancini wrote it for Audrey Hepburn to sing in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Williams first stab at it was when he was asked to sing it at the Oscars. It was so popular it became a hit.

It’s a bold song of yearning, perfect for the start of the 60s. And it held up through the years, so that when Michael Stipe of R.E.M. played shows he liked to sing it too (but mostly because he thought the “huckleberry friend” part referred to Huckleberry Hound.

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