Were Andy Williams entering the music business as a performer today, he conceivably might also be a songwriter. When he began recording in the 1950s, however, the choice of songs was most often left up to the producer and the singer’s main job was to do the best he could do in the studio with the songs that were brought to him.Were Andy Williams entering the music business as a performer today, he conceivably might also be a songwriter. When he began recording in the 1950s, however, the choice of songs was most often left up to the producer and the singer’s main job was to do the best he could do in the studio with the songs that were brought to him.
Williams’ success came first in New York, where he was signed with Archie Blyers’ Cadence Records, then in Los Angeles, where he recorded for Columbia. The native of Wall Lake, Iowa went from singing in the church choir to working with his brothers on their own radio series in Des Moines. In 1947, the brothers made their Las Vegas nightclub debut, and six years later Williams found himself doing solo work on “The Tonight Show” in New York City.
“When I first started recording, I wanted to go with Archie Blyers’ Cadence Records, mainly because of the Everly Brothers, who had had great success with that label and I liked what they were doing. Archie was one of those people who said, ‘do you want to have a hit’ and of course I said yes. So when the publishers and songwriters would come to him and say ‘what kind of song are you looking for for Andy,’ he would say ‘a hit.’ They’d say ‘yes but what kind of a song’ and he’d say ‘a hit. I don’t care what kind of song it is, bring me a hit’.”
Ironically, the first song Williams recorded for Blyers was a Christmas song, “Wind Sand and Star.” The next three songs Williams recorded for Blyers were all recorded first by someone else on an independent label. Williams explained that Blyer was a master at hearing these songs on the radio and recognizing that they could be hits if the right ingredients fell together. First came a record called Butterfly released by Charlie Gracie on a small label.
“Archie came to me and said ‘I think we could do this and have a hit with it.’ It was a song I wouldn’t have picked myself, it was really like something Elvis Presley would have recorded.
“In a way, if I hadn’t been so eager to please him, and if I hadn’t been so eager to have a hit, I might have thought ‘well maybe this isn’t really what I want to get started with because this isn’t my stuff.’ I’m not a good imitator and I know I wouldn’t sound like Elvis Presley, but I tried to get that kind of feel to the song, and that was my first one and it was the biggest hit I ever had. It was number one, a top chart record single, went number one in England and was well known throughout Europe.”
Next came “Walk Hand in Hand,” a song that was doing well in Canada by an artist named Denny Vaughn and the total opposite from the rockabilly “Butterfly.” The third was an instrumental, “Canadian Sunset,” with the Hugo Winterhalter Orchestra, and lyrics had been written for it, so Williams had the vocal version of a hit instrumental. Next came hits with songs out of the Nashville market, including, “Lonely Street,” “In the Summertime,” “Are You Sincere,” and “I Like Your Kind of Love.”
When Williams moved to California to do his television show for NBC, Blyers said the two could no longer work together. “He worked very personally with the Everly Brothers, The Cordettes, and with me,” Williams explains. “We got together a lot and went over and over the songs, and that’s one of the reasons I think he was such a hit maker. He found the songs, he placed them with the artists he had, he arranged them, he produced them, he did everything. I did nothing except sing.”
Once on the West Coast, Williams signed with Columbia and found himself in a large company with an A&R person assigned to work with him.
“It was not a very personal company, it was actually a very big company with a lot of A&R people who are assigned to different artists, and sometimes they liked the artists and sometimes they didn’t,” Williams says. “They put me with a guy named Robert Mercy, who was to record, produce and arrange for me. The first album I did was Danny Boy and Other Songs I Love to Sing. It was one of my favorite albums.”
The reason for this might have been that, for the first time, Williams was in charge of picking his own songs. He chose favorites like, “Heather On the Hill, “Danny Boy,” “I Want to Be Wanted,” and other great standards. For most of his association with Columbia, he did have more of a say in picking the songs he recorded. Ironically fate intervened with the first album and another song, a song he had originally turned down, became part of an album that went on to do even better for him.
“Right at that time, and that album was started to do well, I was asked to sing, “Moon River,” on the Academy Awards, which was a song I hadn’t recorded. So I did go in and record an album called Moon River and Other Movie Themes,” and I sang the song on the Academy Awards and it won, which everybody thought it would. And because of the success of it, we sold 200,000-300,000 albums the next day, and I became identified with the song from my performance of it at the Academy Awards, so we made it my theme song (on the television show).” Also because of the success of that album, Williams recorded several songs from the pens of Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, all movie themes. Included in those were, “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Charade,” and “Dear Heart.”
During his Columbia contract, Williams said people would bring songs to him and he would go over them with Mercy “because I believed in him and his ability to pick good songs. I thought he has a good pulse on the market and what was happening. That’s the way I felt when I was working with Jimmy Bowen on my new album.”
Williams had just released another album of Nashville-based songs, and this time he had a great amount of say-so in choosing the songs he would record.
“Jimmy believes the artist can’t have a hit with a song the artist doesn’t like,” Williams says. “I looked for songs for days and days. All the Nashville publishers would bring in songs that they thought were for me, but many of them weren’t because they were thinking of what I had done before. I picked maybe 50 songs that I liked, and then Bowen listened to all of those 50 and weeded out the ones he thought for various reasons were not the ones I should cut.
While Williams couldn’t put his finger on what makes a good song, he does think he sings better on songs that are very lyrical. “I try to find a song I think I can do better than anybody else,” he explains. “Days of Wine and Roses” was a song I loved.”
Williams thinks there are three things that make hits. “The song is the strongest thing,” Williams admits. “Like “Davy Crockett” would have been a hit no matter who did it. The proof of that is that guy who did it was a Broadway show singer who is now on a soap, Bill Hayes.
“One of the other three is the performance by an artist -that it’s so good the way that person does it is what makes it a hit. The third one is the arrangement, as in the case of “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” I think with that song it was that arrangement that made it. At least one of those three things has to happen to have a hit song.”