Thursday, September 27, 2012

Everybody's Huckleberry Friend Left Us With A Song

Andy Williams: The Bestest

Because my mother loves me and because I will always be her little boy, no matter my age, I met Andy Williams more than 15 years ago at his Moon River Theatre in Branson.

My mother was there for a show with about 2,500 of her closest friends, and she handed a couple of books I’d written to a teenaged usher and told him, ordered him, to get the books to Andy Williams. I’m sure out of fear that his sweet older lady would hunt him down and beat him with a switch if he didn’t, the kid must have delivered the books, because a week later in the newsroom of The Times in Shreveport, my phone rang and it was crooner extraordinaire Andy Williams, who asked me in his smooth voice of rich baritone timbre if I would come to Missouri and write some jokes for him.

And I did. And he will always be in the Top Five of the most genuine, kind, funny, professional, talented people I’ve ever met.

Played golf with him and the guy who dresses up as The Bear for his shows, and with one of his agents/lawyers. Ate with him in his dressing room – he put cottage cheese on his baked potato instead of sour cream. Sat through several performances – the Christmas shows were the best -- faxed him jokes from Shreveport, sent him pages and pages through the mail, and sometimes just called and talked to either him or one of the nice ladies who worked for him there and told them to pass this or that along, some joke regarding the news of the day.

It’s strange now, thinking about it. It was sort of like being in show business. Which I was not. But Mr. Williams most definitely was. Recording artist. TV series and specials. Not just a singer but an entertainer. Funny. Willing to make fun of himself. Crowd pleaser. Genuine as baby breath. 

He lasted because he was genuine in talent and in his heart. Even when he talked, he sounded like he was singing, and he could sing like a house afire. Listen to “Days of Wine and Roses” or “Theme from ‘The Godfather’” or “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.” No lip-synching for my man. He was about five feet six and it was all stud singer. He could belt WAY up there and it came off smooth and rich and deep and full.

But more than that, he did something that even those of us less talented can always do. He treated people right. A guy recognized him on the golf course and said he was coming to the show that night. “Well thank you and please applaud,” Andy Williams said. The guy loved that. His band was full of young musicians and they all appreciated working for him because he wasn’t temperamental or anything less than encouraging. Sometimes he’d call me just to see how our Little League team was doing. He was a Big Star who made you feel like one. He gave us all neat Christmas presents: I have a picture in an engraved silver frame of him and Debbie and their dogs, and a killer blanket on my bed right now with the Moon River Theatre logo stitched into it. He did little things to make you feel like you mattered.  

He actually crashed the golf cart when we played one day – hit his brother’s cart and cracked the fiberglass fender – smiled, said “Oops” and kept on driving. I dropped the sweater he gave me to wear and he had to walk back down the fairway and pick it up. The ultimate indignity, seeing as how this was a guy famous for wearing sweaters on his Christmas show. And I’d fumbled one. Imagine dropping Tiny Tim’s ukulele or Henny Youngman’s violin. But Andy Williams just laughed.

We’d be playing and I’d think of something and run it past him. He wore a dress and fruit on his head in one song, some Carmen Miranda number, and I told him to try saying this: “Sorry about my outfit, but all my really good dresses are at the cleaners.” And I can hear him laughing and repeating just that, a couple of times until he had the timing right, then saying, “That’s funny. That’s funny.” Even when he laughed he sounded like he was singing.
The audience asked questions and one was always, “Is that your real hair?” And he’d point to his solid white hair and say, “Yes, but I do dye it this color just to make me look a little older.” The jokes weren’t cutting edge but they were handy and for Branson audiences and his timing made most everything funny.

I hope he crossed the river in style, as he’d always sung about, when he passed away Tuesday at 84 from the bladder cancer he was diagnosed with a year ago. Most of his close friends, Merv Griffin and that gang, preceded him, but people who know how to be a friend always have friends, so he passed away with plenty of love around. I’m sorry for those who will miss him most and got to be around him all the time.

I have a sense of loss and regret that’s profound because I didn’t pursue a deeper friendship with Mr. Williams. This might have made little difference to him but it meant a lot to me. Back a few years ago I fell out of touch with him, lost his home address and phone number, was too embarrassed to call the theater and pick back up. My priorities shifted and things that weren’t important at all became important to me. I’ve tried to learn a lesson from that, because I don’t feel he ever really knew how much I enjoyed knowing him and being around him, or how much people enjoyed talking to me about him. I should have driven up there, done something. I’d have kept writing the jokes for free, just to hang around; it was that fun. And already we’d planned to go up late this fall and see him…now it’s too late.

So, my word to the wise is, never wait. Find a way. Everyone likes to know when they’ve made a difference for you; I wish I could tell Andy Williams that now, about how just thinking about him or being around him made me feel better, and how grateful I am that, at the rainbow’s end, he left me and millions more smiling, and with a song.