Interview: Andy Williams, king of easy listening

Andy Williams, king of easy listening, talks to Caroline Sullivan

It's so strange to be so popular here. I did Top of the Pops 30 years ago, and to have a new generation of young people listening and liking it is fantastic." Andy Williams has never been cooler than he is right now. Actually, you might say that he has never been cool until now. Coolness was something he left to others, while he satisfied Middle America's taste for what he calls "better music".

That began to change in the mid-1990s, when this better music, otherwise known as easy listening, was adopted by a faction of British clubbers and became perversely fashionable under the name lounge. Williams and fellow lounge progenitors Tony Bennett and Burt Bacharach were lauded for never straying from their Sta-Prest sound.

The decisive crossover moment came when Fiat used Williams's old hit Music to Watch Girls By in a commercial two years ago, introducing a new generation to his mellifluous baritone. The re-released song made the top 10, and a cash-in compilation, In the Lounge With, was also successful.

The latest instalment of his comeback is his first British tour in 20 years, which starts in Belfast tonight. He claims it's also his last British tour, because he's getting on a bit and would rather play golf at his "French-style chateau" in Branson, Missouri (one of six houses he owns around the US). Branson is an Ozark Mountains town known as the "Las Vegas of the Bible Belt" due to the many middle-of-the-road stars who live and perform there year-round. The Osmond Family Theatre is a mile down Route 76 from Williams. "They do their show on ice skates," he offers with a gently sardonic smile.

Williams, 73 last month, does a gruelling 12 shows a week in his own $8m Moon River Theatre, named after his signature tune. Hewn out of Ozark limestone, the building is the only place in Branson to have been featured in Architectural Digest. The foyer boasts a Henry Moore sculpture and works from Williams's collection of Pollocks and De Koonings, although "not the important ones. The locals don't really appreciate them. They're not into art that much." Who'd have thought the man who calls himself Mr Christmas ("In America I'm Mr Christmas, because I've done six Christmas albums. There's a big market for them there") was a serious art collector?

Saying that, to look at him you wouldn't know he was Mr Christmas. There's not a Pringle sweater to be seen in his hotel suite. No cardigan. No kitsch at all, in fact, unless you count his pale green spectacles, the same shade as his herbal tea. If anything, he is starting to seem like Mr Cool Rockin' Grandad.

Unlike most Americans of his vintage, he has even hung onto his figure. "I've followed the Pritikin low-fat diet for about 20 years. Who wants to be fat? There's so many fat people in America. They're nice people," he adds, not wanting this to be taken as criticism. "They're just fat."

He has already offended Branson by using the words "damn" and "ass" in his act. He almost got picketed. So it must be a relief to be in swinging London, eh? He laughs. "If I was 24, I wouldn't go to Branson, I'd live here or New York. But I have a great life. We got 7,000 tourist buses at my theatre last year. The front door of my house goes onto the golf course and the back looks onto a lake."

What he doesn't have back home is the admiration of younger people who see him as the emperor of all things easy. The Andy Williams revival is mainly a British phenomenon, but he's happy with that. "In the States, lounge has different connotations," he says. "I've made jokes that when I get old I'll end up in a seedy hotel lounge in Bakersfield [California] doing a flash act - singing a bit, then wearing a raincoat and flashing 'em." He hawhaws fruitily.

That's almost shocking coming from a native of Wall Lake, Iowa. Andy started singing there at the age of eight, the youngest member of the four-boy Williams Brothers. During his 1930s youth the family moved to Chicago, Cincinnati and finally Los Angeles, where they got their break doing backing vocals on a Bing Crosby record, Swinging on a Star. He croons mistily into his cup: "Would you like to swing on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar?"

No surprise, then, to learn that the adolescent Williams never went through a rebellious phase. "You mean smoking or drinking? I was doing that anyway; I didn't consider it rebellious. My dad did screw me up, though. His philosophy to get us to work was to say, 'You're not as good as the others out there', so you had a lack of self-esteem as you grew up. I still have it now - that's why I work so hard."

Has he tried therapy? "All therapy does is make you forgive your father. It doesn't take away the low self-esteem. It's still in my brain."

He hit a crisis in the early 1970s when his marriage to his first wife, Claudine Longet, began to unravel. He and Longet, a French singer who was later convicted of the manslaughter of her second husband, were so unhappy that Williams decided to try an unconventional treatment recommended by his doctor. If anyone from Branson is reading, look away now.

"He said, 'You're having some problems, so you might consider LSD treatments. Maybe you and your wife should try it, because you're breaking up.' It was illegal in America because of Timothy Leary, so I went to the Hollywood Hospital in Canada - my wife didn't come - and did it three or four times two days apart.

"It was interesting," he remembers dryly, cradling his cup in both hands. "Some of the trips were good, some bad. They guide you through it and suggest colours, etcetera. You go back and see yourself being born, see yourself pooping in your diapers, you go through a lot of stuff. It changed me - I came out realising that the only things important to me were family, friends and love. Maybe that's why I'm so cool."

Who would believe it? Apparently, the drug's only adverse effect was a short-lived partiality to bell-bottoms and long hair. "Only a little longer, though," he says hastily. He has never had a flashback, and has mainly positive memories of the "treatment", but he never repeated the experience.

Now that he has outed himself, younger artists will undoubtedly flock to work with him on his next project, a duets album. The success of Tom Jones's Reload LP has encouraged him to have a crack himself, and he's already musing about potential partners. He would like to get, for starters, Pavarotti, Whitney Houston and Britney Spears.

Britney Spears? Isn't he setting his sights a bit low?

"Well, I'd like Madonna, but if we don't get her, then Britney. It's like in the old movies, where if you couldn't get Marilyn Monroe for a role you'd go for the second or third choice."

At which point his manager, Tennyson Flowers (the name was inherited from a great-uncle named after Alfred Lord), arrives with a photographer, the signal for the emperor of easy to say goodbye. He half rises, proffers a hand and sinks back onto the sofa in one casual movement that barely disturbs the crease in his slacks. Impressive.

• Andy Williams plays the Waterfront Hall, Belfast (028-9033 4400), tonight, The Point, Dublin (00-3531-836 3633), tomorrow, the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4242), on Friday, then tours.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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