During a recent business trip, I found myself in a bar with three gentlemen — two of them close to me in age, one considerably younger — and discovered they all had in common a passion for the music of Andy Williams. I tried hard not to let my jaw drop into my beer.
One talked about looking forward to relaxing in front of the TV to a DVD of Andy Williams’ old Christmas shows. Another expressed his eagerness to put on his “Andy Williams sweater” at an upcoming Christmas party. A third said that one of these days he was going to drive on down to Branson, Missouri and catch one of Andy Williams’ shows. But he was warned by the first man: Andy Williams doesn’t perform there year-round. (Tonight, for example, he’s in Buffalo, NY.) You’d hate to go all the way to Branson, Missouri on an Andy Williams mission and have to settle for Yakov Smirnov and the “What a Country” Dancers.
These guys — they were no squares. Their fondness for Andy Williams was genuine. Oh sure, they liked their Claudine Longet jokes as much as the next guy. It was taken as a point in Andy Williams’ favor that he stood by his ex-wife after she shot her lover, “Spider” Sabich.
Andy Williams gets all this respect mostly because he is the Mayor of Christmas Town. He was, and is, the last entertainer who could present the holiday without irony. He represents Christmas before Christmas became a battlefield in America’s culture war. You didn’t have to be religious to feel a rush of warmth and comfort when this velvetty-voiced singer performed “Oh Holy Night,” or “The Little Drummer Boy,” alongside the more secular holiday tunes like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” or “White Christmas.” But if you happened to agree that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” Andy Williams didn’t make you feel left out. He had the freedom to perform the religious-themed tunes that, say, my high-school orchestra was prohibited from playing.
What else in pop culture bridges this divide? “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” certainly, especially the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack, but also Linus’ Bible reading. “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which shows up on most lists of the top 100 films of all time, is a curiously pagan version of Christmas. God’s in it, an angel is a major character, but the nativity never comes up. I’m sure you can think of others.
I don’t know whether Los Angeles will get it’s traditional “24 Hours of Christmas” this year with the demise of pop standards on Saul Levine’s KKGO, but that always got me in the mood: Aretha Franklin doing “Ave Maria,” followed by the New Christy Minstrels rip-roaring “We Need A Little Christmas.”
To me, Christmas in America is the whole cheeselog — the sacred, the silly, the magic of gift-giving, the misery of shopping for them, all the rituals as well as the surprises — including finding out that that three hard-nosed guys in a bar are all Andy Williams fans.
P.S.: A few interesting Andy Williams facts — all from his Wikipedia bio:
- His show business career began in the last 1930s when he was a member of a family act, the Williams Brothers. The Williams Brothers backed up Bing Crosby on “Swingin’ on a Star.”
- He was a regular on the Tonight Show when Steve Allen hosted it.
- His only #1 Billboard hit was “Butterfly,” which he sang in imitation of Elvis Presley. His greatest recording (in my opinion), “Moon River,” shockingly was never #1. He made the record only after he performed the song at an Oscar ceremony.
- He met Claudine Longet when he stopped to help her when her car broke down outside of Las Vegas.
- He is a noted collector of modern art.