Crooner Andy Williams of 'Moon River' fame dies

Posted at 09/26/2012 10:04 PM | Updated as of 09/27/2012 8:17 AM

CHICAGO (UPDATE) – American crooner Andy Williams, whose string of hits like "Moon River" and annual Christmas TV shows made him a national treasure, has died aged 84 after losing his battle with cancer.

Wildly popular in the 1960s, with 18 gold and three platinum records to his name, the clean-cut master of easy listening and the sentimental soundtrack signed what at the time was the biggest US recording contract.

"Legendary singer Andy Williams passed away last night (Tuesday) at home in Branson, Missouri following a year long battle with bladder cancer, it was announced by his family," his publicist said in a statement.

Born in Wall Lake, Iowa, a son of a railroad worker, Howard Andrew Williams sang in his family's church choir with bothers Bob, Dick and Don -- setting off on what was to become a 75-year professional singing career.

After World War II, they joined entertainer Kay Thompson in her innovative and sophisticated nightclub act. In his 2009 memoir "Moon River and Me," Williams admitted a long affair with Thompson, 18 years his senior, as she coached him professionally.

On his way to earning more gold albums than any other solo performer bar Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Elvis Presley, Williams won an Oscar for his rendition of "Moon River" in the 1961 hit film "Breakfast at Tiffanys."

That led to NBC's signing of Williams for his popular "Andy Williams Show" in 1962, which was on the air for almost a decade, until 1971.

A frequent host of the Grammys and Golden Globes, Williams was also known for his television Christmas specials and in later years, decked out in his trademark red cardigan, he became an annual fixture in American homes.

Williams was survived by wife Debbie and his three children Robert, Noelle and Christian from his first wife, French-born dancer Claudine Longet.

He and Longet divorced in 1975 and the following year she was charged with fatally shooting her ski racer boyfriend Spider Sabich in Aspen. Williams stood by her side throughout the trial. He wed Debbie Meyer in 1991.

Williams was a close friend of Bobby Kennedy and was present when the Democratic presidential candidate was assassinated by Palestinian Arab Sirhan Sirhan in June 1968.

He solemnly sang "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at Kennedy's funeral at the request of his widow Ethel.

Williams' golden period in the 60's and '70s saw a string of hits including "Can't Get Used to Losing You", "Happy Heart", and "Where Do I Begin", the theme song from the 1970 blockbuster film, "Love Story."

He also achieved success overseas, notably in Britain, where his 1967 recording of "Music to Watch Girls By" was a surprise hit to a new young TV audience in 1999 after being featured in television ads.

At the height of his success, in 1973, Williams also sang the national anthem at Super Bowl VII in Los Angeles.

Williams' birthplace in Iowa remains a tourist attraction, and in the 1990s he opened a theater in his adopted hometown of Branson, Missouri.

Called Moon River Theater after his signature song, the crooner carried on performing there into his 80s.

"In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network," publicist Paul Shefrin said in a statement confirming Williams' death.

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