I once saw Andy Williams shimmy with Charo on a stage in Branson, Mo.
He was well into his AARP years, closing in on 80, but there he was indulging Charo’s “coochie, coochie coo” shtick as if it was the first time he had ever seen or heard the jiggling star.
It was surreal, yes, but priceless for this child of the 1970s who grew up watching Andy Williams Christmas specials and Charo on cheesy game shows.
Williams, 84, died Tuesday night in Branson from bladder cancer.
For many generations, Williams is known as Mr. Christmas, a sweater-wearing crooner who ushered in every holiday season with his song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.” He was the man who sang “Moon River,” the timeless theme song to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” that introduced Audrey Hepburn as the now iconic waifish, eccentric Holly Golightly. He discovered Glen Campbell and the Osmond Brothers including 1970s teen idols Donny and Marie, helped Tony Orlando rise to fame and re-introduced the Lennon Sisters, a singing sibling quartet, to an entire new audience on his variety show.
It’s rare especially in these days of short attention spans for an entertainer to cross such generational and global lines.
“He was the personification of style, grace, dignity and class to me,” Tony Orlando told me in an interview Wednesday morning. “He was an American treasure that might be gone but not forgotten.”
Williams was good friends to Bobby and Ethel Kennedy. In 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Williams had plans to take the Kennedys out on the town. Instead, he gave the Kennedys a tie for Bobby to be buried in and ended up singing “Ava Maria” and “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” at Kennedy’s funeral.
“By the time I got to him, he was already dead... there was blood all over Bobby's clothes, on everything,” Williams said in an interview with a music magazine in 2007. “So I went back to the Beverly Hills Hotel where he was staying, and got him a shirt and suit. But there was no tie. So I took off my own - a black one - and they dressed him in the fresh clothes and my tie for the flight back to New York on Air Force Two.”
Often outspoken, Williams, a life-long Republican, stood up for Beatle John Lennon in the early 1970s when the Nixon administration attempted to deport Lennon.
In the 1970s, as my generation was discovering KISS, Donna Summer and Blondie, Williams was the silver-haired host of the Grammys. He was the grandfatherly figure linking the soon-to-be MTV generation to its musical past.
“He looked so great and sounded so great with that beautiful distinctive voice that he was the soundtrack for so much of our lives,” Debby Boone said.
He ended up in the rural town of Branson in 1991 where he decided to live while transforming the small Missouri town from a destination for country singers to an entertainment mecca for Vegas stars. Fans from across the world still travel to Branson to visit his $12 million Moon River Theater.
Williams’ theater shows were reminiscent of a nostalgic variety show. He invited Ann-Margaret, Petula Clark, Johnny Mathis and a host of other stars to the Ozark Mountains hamlet. Many of them like the Lennon Sisters and Orlando decided to move there to live.
“We came in 1994 for one year, but Andy said you belong here,” Kathy Lennon said Wednesday. “So we moved here and this will be our 19th Christmas season in Branson. He was definitely a mentor.”
The Charo memory still makes me giggle. Later that evening, Charo, ever curvy and overly energetic, chose me from the audience to dance with her in front of the crowd. For a second, I felt like a guest star on “The Love Boat.” And for that, I have to thank Andy Williams.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker