(Reuters) - Andy Williams, who charmed audiences with his mellow delivery of songs like “Moon River” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in the 1950s and 60s, has died at his home in Branson, Missouri, his family said Wednesday. He was 84.
The blue-eyed Williams, who continued touring and drawing crowds to his Moon River Theatre in the music hub of Branson into his 80s, died on Tuesday evening after a yearlong battle with bladder cancer, his family said in a statement.
Williams had 18 gold record and three platinum hits and in his peak years was a regular on television with his own variety series.
President Ronald Reagan called his voice “a national treasure.”
Williams was born on December 3, 1927, in tiny Wall Lake, Iowa, and was singing professionally with three older brothers at age 8. The Williams Brothers had steady work on radio and even sang back-up on Bing Crosby’s 1944 hit “Swinging on a Star.”
Williams went solo after the group broke up in 1951, drew attention with his appearances on “The Tonight Show” and began recording. His first No. 1 hit, “Butterfly,” came in 1957.
Later hits included “Born Free,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” “Solitaire,” “Music to Watch Girls By,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and the theme from the 1970 movie hit “Love Story.”
He came upon his signature song when asked to sing “Moon River” at the 1962 Academy Awards ceremony. Audrey Hepburn had performed the song in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany‘s.”
“I still love it, as many times as I’ve done it,” Williams told a British newspaper in 2007. “It has a great melody and wonderful lyrics. It’s not a bad song to have. It could have been ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.’ We forgot to do it one night and 27 people wanted their money back.”
Williams’ first wife was Claudine Longet, a Folies Bergere dancer he married in 1961, and they had three children before divorcing. After their split, Williams supported Longet when she was charged with fatally shooting her boyfriend, skier Spider Sabich, in 1976 in Colorado. She was convicted of negligent homicide after claiming the gun went off accidentally.
In 1992, Williams built his own 2,000-seat dinner Theatre in Branson, a city of 10,000 people that had become a regional entertainment centre featuring more than 30 theatres, most of which cater to country music acts. He performed there about 20 weeks a year while also putting on a Christmas tour in the United States and occasional tour of Britain.
Williams was a Christmas fixture on U.S. television, dressed casually in a trademark sweater, and he recorded several Christmas albums. In 2006 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers ranked his “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow” as the sixth most frequently performed Christmas song and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as No. 11.
Williams had a strong following in Britain, where his career was revived in the late 1990s when “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “Music to Watch Girls By” were used in television commercials.
In 1991, Williams married Debbie Haas and they lived in Branson and La Quinta, California.
Williams was a close friend of the powerful Kennedy political family and sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral after the U.S. senator from New York was assassinated during the 1968 presidential campaign.
Williams’ love of golf was so intense that for several years he hosted a professional tournament that bore his name.
Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bill Trott; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Vicki Allen