With Halloween approaching, it’s time for the annual Christmas Creep, the celebration of Christmas that starts exasperatingly earlier each year. Expect soon to see Christmas lights and decorations appearing everywhere, accompanied by the inevitable retail sales promotions. And don’t forget White Christmas, the ubiquitous song that can mean only one performer, Bing Crosby. The most popular Christmas signature song of them all.
Except that it’s not anymore, not close.
According to the 2011 ASCAP list of radio’s most-played Christmas songs, Bing’s swinging star has fallen. White Christmas is now officially an old-fashioned granddad song; it’s no longer even in the top ten.
The most popular Christmas music now includes familiar instrumentals (#1 is Sleigh Ride) and standards covered by a wide variety of performers (The Christmas Song, Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer). One signature song and its artist endure in the top ten – Andy Williams singing It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. Andy died last month, but his legacy lives on in that tune. Those of a certain (advanced) age can conjure indelible images in their minds of Andy in his colorful sweater, family gathered around the tree, singing that favorite on his Christmas television specials. Long after the previous sentence has lost any meaning for future generations, they will still recognize that song and the man singing it.
Andy Williams was a special performer. Michael Parkinson, long-time television host at the BBC, knew Williams well and eulogized him by saying, “He represented that Norman Rockwell view of America, that homespun America, log cabins and all that stuff, people and families gathering around the hearth at Christmastime and singing carols. Peaceful America. Nothing wrong with that at all. He had a wonderful, natural relaxed style. He copied from Crosby, they all did… It was a wonderful style. It really was, and the ease with which they did it displayed their great professionalism…. He wasn’t Sinatra but who was Sinatra? But he’s still, of that Como/Crosby genre, one of the best.”
Before The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and their rock contemporaries began writing their own music, only the best popular singers were identified with a signature song (think Tony Bennett nad I Left My Heart in San Francisco, or Nat King Cole and Mona Lisa). Andy Williams was lucky enough, and talented enough, to be known by two signatures. Besides his Christmas classic, he will forever be linked to Moon River, that great Henry Mancini song from the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Moon River is now fifty years old and Andy’s version sounds as good today as it did when he sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards.
That was one facet of Andy Williams’s career that went unmentioned in the obituaries –he was arguably America’s greatest interpreter of movie music. Today, recognizable music themes are rarely created to be associated with specific films, a common practice in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Countless people are familiar with the themes from The Godfather, Love Story, Born Free, and Mondo Cane. Few knew those songs had words until they heard Andy Williams sing them.
And yet, his greatest performance was none of the above. Although he turned conservative in his old age, Williams was a political liberal in the 1960’s and close friends with Robert Kennedy. On the June night in 1968 when Kennedy won the California primary, he gave a brief hand gesture during his televised victory speech. The gesture was a signal for Williams and his wife to meet Kennedy and his wife at a Los Angeles nightclub to celebrate the primary victory.
Minutes later, Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded. Williams raced to the hospital, where Kennedy was near death. When Kennedy died, the astronaut John Glenn, a Kennedy supporter, went back to the Ambassador Hotel to get a fresh set of clothes for the senator’s burial. Glenn came back with a suit, but no tie, so Williams removed his own tie and Kennedy was buried wearing it.
The next day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, Kennedy’s body lay in state as a line of mourners three miles long passed by to view his body. At the funeral that afternoon, Andy Williams sang Robert Kennedy’s favorite song, The Battle Hymn Of The Republic. Williams said, “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do…I was so broken up I wasn’t sure I could sing. But I got through it.” On loudspeakers set up outside the church thousands of people heard Williams’s mournful, haunting a cappella version of the song. Spontaneously, a chorus of thousands on Fifth Avenue began singing the song’s refrain of “Glory Hallelujah” along with Andy Williams.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here