EXCERPT: 'Moon River and Me'

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."

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