Before Michael Jackson, before Donny Osmond, there was Andy Williams.
The cardigan-wearing Emperor of Easy was the youngest of the singing Williams Brothers who performed on radio and in front of sold-out crowds and appeared in movies in the 1940s and early ’50s.
After the brothers disbanded, Andy went on to become one of America’s favorite song stylists on the strength of gentle pop ballads, including his iconic “Moon River.”
In the book “Moon River and Me: A Memoir,” Williams looks back on a 70-year career that includes 18 gold and three platinum albums, two decades as a headliner at Caesar’s Palace, and a long-running television variety show on which he introduced the world to the Osmond Brothers, among many others.
A longtime host of the Grammy Awards and countless Christmas specials, Williams left the rat race in 1992 and built his Moon River Theater in Branson, Mo., where he still performs several months each year.
At 82, Williams still sounds timeless.
Bankrate: Brother acts seemed to find their way onto “The Andy Williams Show,” true?
Andy Williams: Yes. In fact, when my father brought the Osmonds to me, he said, “You’ve got to give these kids a helping hand because somebody helped you along the way. So you put them on your show.” And I said, “Yes, sir!”
Bankrate: Was he the classic taskmaster manager?
Williams: He was. He was like the Osmonds’ father. He was a taskmaster, but he was very gentle about it. He wasn’t like I understand Michael Jackson’s father was, which was quite a bit tougher.
Bankrate: You and your brothers started out singing for shoes and groceries, right?
Williams: We were very poor to begin with and remained poor until the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Bankrate: Did you learn how to handle what money you made?
Williams: (Laughs) Well, not then. I was still 19 years old. Like everybody else, we made some money, but when the act broke up and I went out on my own, I spent it pretty quickly.
Bankrate: Steve Allen rescued you when he invited you aboard “The Tonight Show.”
Williams: He did. If I hadn’t gotten that, I don’t know what I would have done. It was my first time on TV. I was on that show for 2½ years, and because of that exposure, even on a late-night show, I got a record deal.
Bankrate: That must have been good training for your own show.
Williams: Yes, I learned a great deal during that show about what to do with cameras. I got used to doing comedy sketches with Steve. He would say, “All right, Andy, you’re going to play a Russian bartender.” I had had some training in comedy with my brothers. All of that I used in my own show later on.
Bankrate: Were you prepared to handle the success of “The Andy Williams Show”?
Williams: Most people, when they get a break, sometimes they’re not ready for it. When I got mine, I was ready for it. I had worked a lot, with my brothers and then Steve Allen. All of those things helped make me a better performer.
Bankrate: How did you invest your money?
Williams: My dad was a very bright guy; he was in real estate and insurance, but he also read up a lot on tax laws. He invested for me in a lot of citrus groves, and all of that came to be very good stuff.
Bankrate: You could have continued as the king of Las Vegas or the toast of New York, but you decided to establish a theater in tiny Branson, Mo. Why?
Williams: I was ready to be off the radar. I was on the road all the time in Asia, Japan and Australia and all through the U.K., over and over and over again for 10 years and I was really fed up. About that time, my brother Don was managing some country acts, including Ray Stevens. He invited me down to Branson and I liked what I saw. I would be the only pop singer in a country town. So I built a theater and it’s been wonderful having everything just the way I want it: the lights, the sound, the band. There are no surprises. It’s like walking out into your living room — a big living room with 2,000 seats. You never have that out on the road.
Bankrate: What advice would you give young musicians starting out today?
Williams: It’s very difficult for young people to suddenly get some money and then not spend it. It’s good to spend it, but you shouldn’t spend all of it. Always put some away, whether it’s $10 or $100 or $1,000, so that when things aren’t going so well you have something to fall back on.
But don’t focus on the money. Try to be the best at whatever you’re trying to be and everything will work out. If you really want something badly enough, don’t give up too easily. That’s my sermon for today.