BRANSON, Mo. —
“The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play, through a meadow land toward a closing door, a door marked ‘nevermore’ that wasn’t there before.”
— “Days of Wine and Roses”
By Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini
I wept on Wednesday morning when I heard the news of Andy Williams’ death.
I was at the Moon River Theatre last fall on the night Andy announced to the world he was facing a fight against cancer. He was strong but seemed a little angry about his diagnosis. I can’t blame him. My friends who have fought cancer say they felt the same way.
That night, he told the audience he was going to beat it. He pushed through with his signature style. Folks in the crowd sobbed, prayed and cheered him for his courage. On Tuesday night, Andy, Mr. Moon River, lost the battle, but he faced defeat in style.
Some people say performers who end up in Branson are “has-beens.” Some may be. In Andy’s case, those are fightin’ words — Andy Williams is an “always will be.”
The songs he immortalized — “Moon River,” “Music to Watch Girls By” and “Days of Wine and Roses” — will forever be played on jukeboxes, requested on radio stations and downloaded on digital devices.
Andy made no bones about it: He wasn’t a songwriter, actor or a musical composer — he was just a singer. A damn fine singer. Maybe the best.
By late Wednesday afternoon I‘d wrapped my head around Andy’s death. Fans of Elvis who lived through his death understand.
I met Andy in person only once. I saw his Branson variety and Christmas shows many times. I listened to his Christmas albums growing up. I interviewed Andy half a dozen times by phone for Globe feature stories. I’ve spent countless hours at Andy’s Moon River Grill, perched beneath his collection of gold and platinum records. I’ve tossed a casual wave his way when he walked in after a show.
My association with Andy and his staff gave me unique opportunities: I got to interview Ann-Margret (twice); parasail with American Idols; have dinner with Debbie Reynolds; and make friends with Bob Anderson.
During interviews, Andy was always funny. He was surprisingly candid and a great storyteller. He treated me as if I was a big-time reporter. He made time for me and his fans in Joplin.
I knew one person who could help me work my way through my grief. I needed to talk to Bob Anderson. Bob was a friend of Andy’s for 34 years. Bob, known around the world during the golden age of TV variety shows as “the singing impressionist,” is the only guy to have been asked to perform on Johnny Carson’s stage twice in the same week. His singing impressions of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles and Andy Williams bring down the house.
Whether at Andy’s 2,000-plus seat theater or in a one-drink minimum cocktail lounge in downtown Branson, Bob kills it. He admits he learned much of his crooning craft from Andy. That’s big praise from a guy who knew Merv, Frank, Dean, Sammy, Mel, Debbie, Steve and Eydie.
Most importantly to me, he knew Andy.
I called Bob on Thursday afternoon for a quick chat. Professional therapy would cost me thousands, but a quick session with Bob only cost me the price of a glass of Scotch the next time our paths cross.
Bob was with Don, Andy’s older brother, watching Jack Jones perform at the theater on Tuesday night, when Don got the news of Andy’s condition.
“I saw Don’s shoulders slump,” Bob told me. “They took him to Andy as quickly as they could, and he got there 10 minutes before Andy passed away.”
Don and another Williams brother, Dick, survive.
I asked Bob why Andy meant so much to his fans, to entertainment and to Branson. He was quick with his answer.
“He’s just another part of the golden age that we are losing,” Bob said.
“Performers today have lost touch with the greatness of the entertainment business,” Bob said. “Everybody gets a couple of records out and does a tour and they are called superstars.”
Bob has a little trouble with that kind of instant acclaim and the label with which it comes.
“Andy Williams, in the truest sense of the word, was a superstar,” he said. “When you have more Academy Award-winning songs than anyone and one of the longest-running variety shows in history, you are a superstar. He’s known around the world.”
Bob credits Andy for changing Branson’s image as a tourist destination.
“Branson was always a nice place to take the family camping and fishing,” he said. “Then the original shows — the Baldknobbers and the Presleys — took hold. When the town really took off was when Andy built his theater. Andy started the whole thing. Branson was strictly country (music) when Andy changed things. He built a magnificent theater and invested in the community.”
Andy spent half his time living in La Quinta, Calif., but his love was for the Ozarks, Bob said.
“He was always for the Branson community,” Bob said. “I think Branson is where he wanted to come back to. He could have stayed in California at his home in La Quinta, but he wanted to come back here. He just loved Branson.”
I asked Bob if there was anything he wanted to tell Andy but never had the chance. He paused a moment.
“I would thank him so much for the wonderful things that he laid out for the rest of us to follow in show business,” he said. “It’s so hard to walk in his footsteps. He was a legend and superstar. I don’t think we will ever have anything like him again.”
I asked Bob what he thought Andy would like his fans around the world to know. A longer pause followed.
“He would want them to know that his life was like the ‘Days of Wine and Roses,’” he said. “And that’s what it’s about. He knew his fans are what it was all about.”
I don’t think I will cry about Andy any more. He wouldn’t want it that way.
Dave Woods is the market development manager for The Joplin Globe.