WALL LAKE — The smooth familiar lyrics of “Moon River” that strolled up to the ears of millions for decades have their origins in Wall Lake.
Andy Williams, Wall Lake native and international music superstar, made “Moon River” his signature song decades ago.
In recent years, keeping a tireless schedule, Williams delighted crowds of fans at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre in Branson, Mo., with a playlist of American treasures.
“I know what kind of an effect it has on the audience, and I know what kind of an effect it has on me every time I sing it,” Williams said of “Moon River” and other classics such as the “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” during a 1997 interview with The Daily Times Herald.
Williams died Tuesday night at his home in Branson following a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 84.
News spread quickly this morning in Williams’ hometown.
“He was our idol here as far as Wall Lake was concerned,” said Gus Schroeder, a former mayor of Wall Lake and longtime community advocate.
Williams joined Schroeder as two of the major benefactors for the Wall Lake Community Center.
“He was a gosh darn good friend,” said Schroeder, whose wife, Lil, attended grade school with Williams.
In August of 1998, in conjunction with Wall Lake’s Farm Festival, Williams returned to his hometown for the first time since moving in the 1930s to pursue a career in the music industry. He joined in a dedication of the historic Andy Williams Birthplace home and mesmerized an audience of hundreds by performing “Moon River” just feet from his family’s Wall Lake place.
“He always closed every show with ‘Moon River,’” Betty Brotherton, president of the Wall Lake Historical Society, recalled this morning.
The society just finished upgrading the house, with among other things, new paint.
Brotherton, who met Williams several times in Wall Lake and Branson, and hosted the Williams family at her home, said the iconic American performer’s passing is a major loss for Wall Lake as Williams’ association with the Sac County city buoyed its spirits and reputation.
“I can’t speak for the whole community, but I think it’s meant a lot,” Brotherton said.
In many ways singing the same songs for decades may seem like drudgery to the outside observer, sort of like playing the same golf course day after day may appear to others.
But as Williams, an avid golfer with a 15 handicap in 1997, pointed out, each day brings new shots on the same holes, and different performances of favorite songs.
Besides, when people came to Williams’ Moon River Theatre they expected at the very least to hear “Moon River,” Williams said in the interview with The Daily
“I think people figure when you come to see Andy Williams and they don’t get ‘Moon River,’ they feel cheated,” Williams said. “I know I felt that way one time
when I went to see Tony Bennett and he didn’t do ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’”
So, Williams said, he would always perform “Moon River.” Besides, he said, “It’s such a great song.”
The voice that made “Moon River” into an instantly recognizable and beloved song, was initially trained in the choir of the Presbyterian church in Wall Lake.
At that church, Williams sang with his older brothers Bob, Dick and Don in the choir established by his parents.
With the Williams Brothers quartet, the 8-year-old Andy Williams made his professional singing debut on radio station WHO’s “Iowa Barn Dance Show” in Des Moines.
Williams and his family left Wall Lake when he was 8, he said.
“I remember Wall Lake pretty well,” Williams said. “It was like a one-street town.”
His father, Jay Emerson Williams, who was born in Carroll, worked as a mail clerk for the railroad in Wall Lake before the family left the community to pursue music.
Williams said he remembered riding a Shetland pony in Wall Lake. And he recalled childhood friends like Marge (Hopkins) Stickrod.
Perhaps most of all, Williams said, he remembers the Christmases.
“Christmas has always been a very big thing with him,” Brotherton said.
Williams said he recalled Christmas in Wall Lake as being extremely warm and open, with numerous relatives and friends mingling at various homes.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I like doing my Christmas show,” Williams said.
The Andy Williams Christmas shows featuring the entire Williams family are considered classics.
After leaving Wall Lake Williams established himself as one of the most famous native northwest lowans in history.
In fact, it would be difficult to find another northwest lowan who has gained Williams’ level of national and international fame.
In the early stages of his career, Williams and his brothers attracted a strong following as they performed on radio around the country. They made their first recording,
“Swinging on a Star,” with Bing Crosby in 1944.
The Williams Brothers joined comedienne Kay Thompson in 1947 and spent the next few years performing in Europe and the United States.
When the group disbanded in 1951, Williams moved to New York, and in 1954 he became part of Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show.”
Williams is also known for the movie themes he made famous, such as “Love Story,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Godfather” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
In 1963, he started his highly rated series on NBC that lasted for nine years, earning three Emmy awards.
In his later years Williams remained a hot act in Branson, generally performing twice a day, six days a week, nine months out of the year at his opulent Moon River Theatre.
Williams’ music is of the more traditional variety. But that didn’t mean his personal collection of music is limited to that genre.
Williams said he listened to colorful rocker Prince.
“I think he’s very talented,” Williams said. “I like what he does on some of his songs.”