In the 1950s, Andy Williams was a nobody, singing to small crowds in rinky-dink bars. But this boy from Iowa eventually went on to great things in show business.
He racked up several gold and platinum albums, performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, and hosted a weekly TV variety show. In the 1980s, President Reagan called Williams a national treasure.
In his 70 years in the business, Williams came to know everybody from Judy Garland to Bobby Kennedy to Frank Sinatra to Elivs. He shares his reflections on all of them in his new book, "Moon River and Me."
After reading the excerpt below, head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
I grew up in the hungry 1930s when the Great Depression threw millions out of work, and overfarming, overgrazing, and a seven-year drought turned land to dust from Texas to the Canadian border. I can remember days when the wind blowing from the south carried a fog of choking black dust that blotted out the sun and left us gasping for breath. It settled on every surface and drifted like snow against walls and fences. There were two early summer days when it never got light as an endless dust storm raged around us, and over the next few days we heard on the radio that the winds had carried it right across the country, blanketing even the streets of Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston with black dust.
With their crops dead, their soil stripped away, and their land worthless, millions of dispossessed farmers and sharecroppers abandoned their homes and began a long hungry trek in search of work. Even in Wall Lake we saw rickety trucks passing through, piled with the possessions of gaunt families in threadbare clothes. Every night Dad came home with tales of hobos dodging the railroad "bulls" in the freight yards and riding the boxcars from one coast to the other, seeking work or a new beginning.
Hollow-eyed figures also haunted the highways around us, some making for Des Moines and Chicago, others with their faces set to the west, heading for California. Their shoes—when they had any—were falling apart, and their clothes were so dust gray that they seemed to merge with the earth as they trudged slowly on. I can remember peeping from behind the shutters as they slowly shuffled past; it was like watching a parade of ghosts.
We were luckier than many in those long, hard years, but although we never were short of food, we were perennially short of money, and there was very rarely any to spare for new clothes. Mine were all hand-me-downs, but if our clothes were sometimes worn and threadbare, Mom made sure they were always clean. Any missing buttons were always replaced at once, and holes and tears were darned.
Our house in Wall Lake was always filled with music. Mom had the radio on from morning to night, tuned to a country music station, and she sang along as she did the washing, cooking, and ironing. I would often join in with her in my piping little treble voice. One of my earliest memories was of sitting on the kitchen floor, nibbling on a just-baked cookie, and clapping my hands as Mom sang a country tune and did a little dance just to make me laugh.
Dad was also very musical; he had learned to play half a dozen instruments at school and had a good singing voice. In those pre-television days our entertainment was homegrown: sitting around the piano in the evenings and singing together. When I was little, I'd stretch out on the worn, warm floorboards with my head under the piano stool and watch my father's feet on the pedals; for some reason that fascinated me. Our standard repertory was hymns, because my parents and my two older brothers formed the Presbyterian church choir; it had not even had one until Dad volunteered himself and his family. They rehearsed at home, and when Dick saw his mom, dad, and older brothers singing, he wanted to join in.
I didn't want to be left out, either, and tried to sing along with them as they practiced. At first I got black looks and demands to "hush up, Andy. We're trying to practice here." I'd let me shoulders sag and my head hang, stick out my bottom lip, and make my slow, mournful exit from the room, hoping that my dad would call me back and let me take part. It didn't happen, but the next day I'd be back, singing along until I got kicked out again. I used to vary my tactics. Sometimes I'd join in from the start and keep going until I was told to hush up; other times I'd sit silent in a corner while they sang the first couple of hymns, and then I'd join in, singing as quietly as possible. If any of my brothers cast an eye in my direction, I'd snap my mouth shut tight as a clam and put on a look of injured innocence.
Finally, when I was seven, I wore my dad down. He interrupted choir practice and said, "Andy, sing this verse on your own for me." When I had finished, my dad—never lavish with praise in case we got swelled-headed—just grunted, gave a brief nod, and then said, "All right, why don't you come and sit over here and practice with us?" From then on I was a full-fledged choir member.
The very first time he heard his four sons harmonize together, my dad became a man with a dream and a mission in life, convinced that we had a future as professional singers. The Williams Brothers were formed on the spot with my dad as manager, impresario, agent, PR man, and factotum. From that moment on, just like the main character in Death of a Salesman, my dad—the Willy Loman of Wall Lake—fulfilled his dreams through us. We all loved singing at home, in school, at church, or anywhere, and Dad encouraged, trained, and nurtured us, forever pushing us to practice harder and longer. He wasn't really a clichéd, pushy "showbiz" parent, but I think he genuinely believed that singing might be a passport for us out of Wall Lake, Iowa, getting us out of the rut and giving us the chance to improve our lives in a manner that would never be open to us if we stayed where we were. And he was very cunning in some of the ways he went about keeping us in line with his vision.
Although Dad was our driving force, his idea of the right way to get us motivated had lasting effects. Time and again he would tell us, "You have to practice harder, because you're not as good as the others out there." It wouldn't have been so bad if he had said, "Come on. You're not as good as you think you are. You have the talent, but you still have to put in the work." The way he phrased it was a real body blow to our self-assurance. Whether as a result of this or not, my oldest brother, Bob, always had a negative outlook and never thought we were talented enough to perform professionally, and perhaps because I was the youngest, my dad's comments seemed to affect me even more than the others. I really took them to heart. I don't hold this against my dad—he was doing what he thought was best—but it crippled my self-confidence. I worked as hard as I could, but I still didn't think I was good enough, and even now, seventy years later, despite all the success that has come my way, I still think I have to work harder because I'm not as good as the others out there.
I felt very proud the first Sunday that I followed my parents and brothers up onto the platform in the church as a member of the choice, even if it was composed only of members of my family. As I looked up, for the first time in my life I found myself facing an audience—the congregation—but they were people I had known all my life. The familiarity of the setting and the faces looking up at me meant that I didn't really feel and nerves at all. At the end of the service my dad gave me another of those curt nods of approval: I had passed the test.
The Williams Brothers' first professional performances were also pretty low-key. We sang at a church social and then at an Iowa Farmers' Association picnic, and didn't get paid for either of them. Our first paycheck came when we sang at the wedding of the daughter of one of the neighboring farmers. After we had serenaded her with "The Belle of the Ball" and "If You Were the Only Girl in the World," her father, teetering between smiles and tears as he gazed at his only daughter in her white wedding dress, allowed his emotions to overcome his normal prudence and pressed a $10 bill into Bob's hand, saying, "Here. Share this with your brothers."
My share turned out to be $1, which didn't seem a very fair division of the spoils to me, but since Bob was ten years older and very much stronger, it was pretty much take it or leave it, so I took it. It would be nice to think that the first dollar bill I ever earned was framed and hung on the wall as an inspiration, but in fact I spent it on sodas and candy in the café before I got home that afternoon.
One day in the spring of 1936 the sleepy familiar rhythm of our lives was broken when Dad announced that we had outgrown Wall Lake, and if we were every going to amount to anything as professional singers, we had to move. He had applied to the railroad for a transfer to a new job in the big city, Des Moines, and he was certain we would soon be singing on the radio station there. Bob heard Dad out in silence and then said, "Are you out of your mind? We're not good enough to sing on the radio. It'll be a disaster."
Dad just told him, "You wait and see."
A week later I said a tearful good-bye to my school classmates and friends in Wall Lake. My best friend, George, the son of the hotel owner, came over to the house just before we left. "You will come back sometimes, won't you Andy?" he said, his eyes shining with tears.
I was too choked to speak, and Mom answered for me: "Of course he will, George. You know Des Moines really isn't so far away."
After George had gone, a forlorn little figure trudging back across the dirt road, I took a last look around the house. I wanted to capture in my mind's eye a snapshot that I could always recall, but the furniture, our possessions, and our precious piano had been loaded into a truck earlier that morning. Without them the house already seemed remote from me, a cold and empty shell, not the warm and happy home I had known.
Dad and Bob carried the battered family trunk between them while the rest of us straggled down the hill behind them, carrying a ramshackle collection of bags and boxes. We crossed the railroad tracks and lined up on the platform as the train that would take us to Des Moines rounded the shoulder of the hill. In my misery the train whistle sounded even more plaintive and desolate than usual.
We boarded the train, and as it pulled away from the platform, Dick and I pressed against the window for our last view of the little wooden house on the hill, the only home we had ever known. Then smoke and steam swirled around the railcar, and by the time it had cleared, our house and Wall Lake were lost to sight. It would be many years before I would see them again.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from MOON RIVER AND ME by Andy Williams, 2009.