- 03 Apr 01
Andy Williams may have a reputation as a bland M.OR. crooner but beneath the squeaky clean showbiz facade lurks an interesting man indeed, who reveals a knowledge of modern art, a past laced with drug use and an unhealthy interest in Shirley Temple. Joe Jackson travels to Branson, Missouri to hear his confessions.
Stepping from the foyer into the backstage area of Andy William’s Moon River Theatre in Branson, Missouri one could easily get lost in a cultural chasm. This one is as deep as the twilight zone. Behind me stand walls that may as well be positioned in any room in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as they display exhibits from the singer’s private collection of works by Abstract Expressionists. Yes, that is an original Jackson Pollock . . .
On the other hand, to my left stands Huggy Bear, a relic from those Andy Williams Christmas Specials RTE used to screen when many of us were children. He’s just shuffled off-stage leaving Andy to sing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and ‘America The Beautiful’ against the backdrop of a neon-lit stars and stripes flag before ending this afternoon’s show with, yes, you’ve guessed it, ‘Moon River.’
“What does the word ‘kitsch’ mean?” enquires Williams, a few minutes later. He’s trying to interpret what I just told him I thought of the performance. We’re walking together towards his backstage office cum apartment. When I explain, he laughs, begins to unbutton his tuxedo and says “yeah, that sure sounds like what’s happening during parts of our show.” Excusing himself, he then goes off to change into a T-shirt and track suit pants returns, still mulling over the exact meaning of the word ‘kitsch’. His charm is as obvious as his intelligence – Yet neither are as surprising, or refreshing, as his total lack of affectation and his honesty.
“The first part of the show is good though, where we do the songs by Leonard Bernstein, don’t you think?” he says, as he settles into a luxurious sofa and pours himself a mineral water. “Though I admit that at the end there we do go for the patriotism and all that stuff, because it’s what the audience wants here. And if ‘kitsch’ is, as you say, the most garish element of popular culture taken to its furthest extreme, that’s probably true not just of that part of my show but of Branson in general. The audience here is mostly an older audience, mostly middle America and this is what they are most comfortable with.”
Doesn’t Andy risk alienating middle America with the foyer in his theatre looking like the Museum of Modern Art, exhibiting what some must see as pretty “far-out” paintings?
“Perhaps. But those paintings and these works of art you see here in my office are too much a part of my life to deny it. This is what I’m most comfortable with,” he says.
“Part of the problem is that many people probably confuse the man I am in my private life with my public persona. I’ve always been a mainstream popular performer, in terms of even those television shows you mentioned that were broadcast not just in Ireland and America but right across the world throughout the 60s. Those television shows were new and fresh and fired by the latest technology, so people did tune in by the millions but the programmes were not, in any way, adventurous. That’s because I’ve always been a mid-American Johnny Carson type performer. Because of that I sold a hell of a lot of records around the world, particularly albums. But I never was trying to be Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jnr, that kind of highly-stylised artiste.”
So is Andy Williams saying he sold out, artistically, from the outset, when he started recording as a solo singer in 1956, with hits like ‘Butterfly’?
“Artistically I probably did yield a little from the beginning onwards, yeah,” he says, unhesitatingly. “Because you can’t just go about your business pleasing yourself and hoping that will please everyone else. I chose to please the public, by recording what I thought, and was told, would sell. At least most of the time.”
So what style of song would Williams have recorded if he wanted purely to please himself?
“More standards, more abstract type art-songs and more obscure songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen. And I certainly would have done songs by Alec Wilder. All in all, more of the stuff someone like Tony Bennett did. But I choose to be commercial , as you quite accurately identified about the show today. From the beginning I gave myself over to producers, even to pick the material for me. I wanted to have hit records. That’s why I went with the label that had the Everly Brothers, Cadence, which I later bought. So I now own all the Everly Brothers stuff which will show you just how commercial my approach is to music. But that doesn’t mean I have to be the same in my private life, when I buy abstract art or whatever.”
Andy Williams was born in Iowa in 1928 and began singing in the local Church choir, with his three brothers. The quartet soon had their own radio show in Cincinnati and backed Bing Crosby on the Oscar-winning song ‘Swinging On A Star’, from the 1944 movie Going My Way. Andy Williams himself dubbed Lauren Bacall’s singing voice in her first film with Humphrey Bogart, ‘To Have And Have Not’, before he and his brothers hit the night-club circuit, working with top pianist/singer Kay Thompson. So where on earth, with a childhood like this, did he develop his taste for Abstract Expressionism and so called ‘high-art’?
“Right there, in the setting you’ve just described,” he says, laughing. “Everything I developed along these lines was self-taught. As children my brothers and I had no ‘culture’ to speak of, as such, no formal education other than High School. But when we teamed up with Kay Thompson, from 1947-1952, we did play the most sophisticated night clubs in America and people like Noel Coward would come and see us and as a result of all that, we were exposed to a different world, a world where people were genuinely passionate about art, reading, plays and so on. I myself just took it from there. And almost immediately I developed an interest in abstract art, more than anything else.And in folk art, like English folk art. And Pre-Columbian. I keep all that stuff in my home in Palm Springs. What speaks to me above all else in those forms of art is colour, for whatever reason.”
Was the teenage Andy Williams also ‘exposed’ to Noel Coward’s homosexual longings?
“No. And I was very upset that never happened,” he says, smiling impishly. “At the time Noel had a boyfriend named Graham. But my brothers and I did have our share of getting hit on by gay guys but we just weren’t interested because we walked the other side of the street, so to speak! But it was part of the showbiz tradition at the time, in America to a slight degree but far moreso in Britain, particularly in terms of the early rock ‘n’ roll stars over there in the late 50s, many of whom were gay. But then that whole tradition probably goes back to the British upper class schools, where homosexuality was never frowned upon too severely. But that isn’t the way things were at the time in America.”
Nevertheless, America had the very gay Johnny Mathis in the late 50s. He recently revealed that he and Elvis Presley used to communicate in the late 50s in relation to upcoming record releases. If Elvis was about to release a raucous rocker like ‘Jailhouse Rock’, Mathis would balance that out with a dreamy-tune like ‘Chances Are’. So where did Andy Williams fit into this context during the early days of rock ‘n’ roll?
“At first I had the young, pop audience with hits like ‘Butterfly’, ‘Lonely Street’ and ‘Are You Sincere’ but that changed as we moved into, and through the 60s” he recalls. “In fact I knew Elvis and tried to get him to record ‘Are You Sincere’, which would have been perfect for him. And he did say that I’d helped him get through a tough time in the army after his mother died, claimed he played my hit ‘Lonely Street’ every day. But although I know he was a fan of mine I remember when he was making that ‘68 Comeback Special he started out by saying to the producers ‘I can’t be an Andy Williams in this show so let’s do something different’.
“It was some of the guys who worked in my show that talked him into doing that great, sit-down jam session in that Special. That, to me is where Elvis was at his best. He was a great, American folk artist, no doubt about that. His artistic talents came to the fore in the early songs, like those he recorded at Sun, but he tapped into all that energy again during that section of the ‘68 television Special which really blew me away at the time and showed a lot of us that the style of production we’d been doing was, in ways, passé. That was Elvis being adventurous and highly creative in terms of television and his own music.”
Though aware that Elvis was a fan of his, Andy Williams didn’t know until I told him that, according to Larry Geller’s book If I Can Dream he was Elvis’ favourite ballad singer. Nor was he aware that Elvis did finally record ‘Are You Sincere’ and another of Williams’ hits, ‘Solitaire’ in the 70s. However, the latter Presley recorded when he was too drugged, too depressed and too self-conscious to move out of Graceland. And it shows. The melody of the song clearly matters less to Elvis than the need to weep through the lyric, his belief that he was ‘the king of hearts’ well-concealed.
“I’d love to hear that but the point is that when you’re out-of-it on drugs you can’t sing really well and you do start screwing up something like the melody of a song. I felt very bad about the way Elvis deteriorated over that period from the ‘68 Special until his death in 1977 and I’m sure that at the time he recorded ‘Solitaire’ he was not of much value as an artist.”
Did Andy Williams ever record when he was out-of-it on drugs?
“No, never” he says.
Yet aren’t there rumours that he, at one point, used LSD?
“I did LSD in a hospital, I never did it on my own” Andy explains.
“I did it in a controlled environment to try to find out things about myself, about why I was breaking up my marriage, why I wasn’t happy with fame although I was extremely successful. That was maybe the late 60s after I got divorced and a psychiatrist recommended I do that. He just said ‘I think you should take some LSD trips’ and I went ‘what!’ And he said ‘I’ll do it with you. I went through medical school in UCLA studying LSD and taking LSD and feel it can help people find themselves a lot quicker than to go through 20 years of analysis, or whatever’. I said okay and my wife was going to do it with me. So we were all set up to do it in the little apartment we had set up next to our big house then he called a week before it was to happen and said ‘I can’t do it, because of Timothy Leary getting us into all this trouble. I’ve been doing it, but I’ve been told I can’t anymore. But I can send you to a hospital in Canada where they do it, because it’s legal’.”
Williams pauses, laughs at the memory, pours some more mineral water then continues.
“So I went up there and under those specific, controlled conditions I did the LSD. I couldn’t have told you, at the time, what I got out of it exactly, except that when I got through with it I really began to feel that not too many things were really that important. Just a few things like your children, honour, integrity and faith. But all the rest suddenly struck me as bullshit and learning that, through LSD, did help me a lot. So at this stage in my life nothing bothers me very much. I don’t get upset when people gossip about me, don’t like my work. Things like that just aren’t that important.”
Did Andy Williams use LSD often after that experience?
“Not really. Partly because despite what I learned from it I was also terrified of the experience. I went through a whole re-birth process, shit in my pants, cried and cried. It was terrible. I got nauseous and threw up and lost 20 lbs over that week or so. Yet that’s also where I realised what I love about paintings. You see colours more vividly and hear music more sharply.”
Particularly when they play music as part of the process, Andy explains.
“They play all different kinds of music to get you to emote in certain ways. Heavy, Wagnerian music to get you dark and moody so they can ask you “what happened there, what are you feeling?” Then they play Ravel to try and get you into a romantic mood, to find out where your head lies as far as sexual fantasies are concerned. My only fantasy was of screwing Shirley Temple! That’s enough to turn everyone off the damn therapy!”
Williams pauses again, and glances towards the tape recorder. “I hope you don’t take that to mean that the only thing I could think of was screwing little girls like Shirley Temple. That wasn’t it all. That was just the one fantasy that came to the fore as a result of using LSD. Maybe we should get back to the music!”
Despite his earlier disclaimer in relation to his music Andy Williams has recorded some beautiful ballads that can help as much as maybe LSD helped him in relation to the break-up of a love affair. Best among these is the late 50’s Jacques Brel-like ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’.
“I do love that song, it was on the first album I ever made and I guess all that stuff, plus ‘Lonely Street’, which Elvis loved, was all recorded at the same time before I decided to go for the purely commercial market,” he says. “ That’s like white blues, with Dave Gruisin playing piano and that’s the kind of music I wish I could have gone on recording. That’s exactly the kind of song I wanted to do, not ‘Butterfly’. And that first album on Columbia was perfectly titled Danny Boy and Other Songs I Like To Sing. And you’re right to compare it with Jacques Brel who, to me is not that different from Leonard Cohen, who I mentioned earlier. That album probably contains some of my best work.”
Apart from hit singles such as ‘Almost There’, ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’, ‘Born Free’ ,’Charade’ , ‘The Days Of Wine And Roses’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, Andy Williams was one of the biggest-selling albums artists in the world throughout the 60s, 70s and into the 80s. His Top 10 albums included Love, Andy, Happy Heart, Home Loving Man and Raindrops Keep Fallin On My Head. Five of his albums also won much-coveted Grammy Awards. Among all these is there any album of which he is as proud as that first one?
“I like some of the stuff on Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head but then there’s a story behind that,” he says. “We didn’t want to call it that but Columbia Records insisted on calling the album after the most popular title it contained. In fact they made me include that song and call the album that. But the other side of that album had a suite of songs that ran together and told a story through the words and music of people like Joni Mitchell and Tim Hardin, things like ‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Reason To Believe’ and ‘If Wishes Were Horses’. That’s one of my favourites but the down side of all that is that the concept side only sold because we had the hit songs on the other side. The point about being commercial is that the record industry continually reminds you that if you don’t sell enough records you won’t be able to record anything at all. And that is absolutely true. Though maybe I could have gotten the balance better down through the years.”
That said, Andy Williams has no regrets about maybe beginning to end his career in Branson, Missouri, a city clearly built in honour of mammon. Just before talking with Williams I’d been told by Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin, country singer Mickey Gilley, that he takes in on average over $2 million a season.
“Branson sells to older audiences, as I said earlier. These people don’t know who Alan Jackson is, or maybe even Garth Brooks. And if Nashville is mad at what’s happening here in Branson that’s only because they were stupid and didn’t build up this live concert circuit themselves. It’s the 29 theatres here in Branson that do pull in the kind of money you mention, no problem to them. Whereas Nashville didn’t let the stars buy into their own establishments like they can here. Like I have. I’m here simply because I wanted to build my own theatre in a place where there would be enough people to come fill the shows. And as you saw today, even on a Thursday afternoon, the theatre is full.”
With that kind of financial turnover per day, let alone the five million paying customers who come to Branson per year, is there any fear that the Mafia will move in, as they originally did in Las Vegas?
“There’s no gambling so they wouldn’t be attracted to the place. But then, who can tell what will happen in Branson, which is growing at a phenomenal rate every day. And with the arrival of people like myself and Wayne Newton I think the net is going to spread to include more pop stars and less country. Who knows, maybe even Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen will end up here in ten years. In thirty years we may even see U2 in Branson!”
Asked if he is “the Godfather of Branson” Andy Williams just laughs. He’s a little more forthcoming in relation to the question of whether or not his “kitsch” T-shirt slogan “optimistic, bright and good in bed” is true. He pauses before answering, saying “I used to be – but there are no complaints!”
Nevertheless, the interview ends because Andy Williams has been reminded by his secretary that he must take a nap before the next performance. To cull a phrase from the song with which he used to sign off that old TV show ‘May each day of the year be a good day/And Good night.’