It was shortly before Thanksgiving. I was in the kitchen washing dishes when I heard my first music of the holiday season. Sick of talk radio and sick of election post-mortems, I gave myself a breather, turning the FM dial to something cheerful for a change.
The first song I heard was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” by the great Gene Autry. There is no substitute. And there’s no better feeling every season than hearing such songs for the first time. I grabbed my two-year-old daughter and danced with her. She smiled as I sang, didn’t make a peep, her head on my shoulder.
Then I heard the next tune, “There’ll be much mistle-toeing and hearts will be glowing when love ones are near! It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” It was crooned in that soaring, happy voice so uniquely Andy Williams.
As I was singing along, twirling my two-year-old, it hit me: This was the first time I was singing with Andy Williams without his presence in this world. Williams passed away on September 25 at the age of 84.
His passing didn’t happen without notice, even in our self-indulgent, frenetic, short-time-span culture. I caught the news of his death at a website. It gave me pause. I never met the man, but I have fond memories of his place in Americana and Christmas.
Williams had a regular TV show in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it was his Christmas specials that ran longer still that most of us remember. I would catch them at my grandmother’s house. She lived in Emporium, Pennsylvania, which really was over the river and through the woods. In fact, during the snowy drives to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve, we’d cruise through a little town in Western Pennsylvania called Brockway, where we encountered horse-drawn sleighs clopping under the streetlights and over the railroad tracks. The horse knew the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.
When we got to my grandmother’s house, it was total mirth: My grandmother’s anchovy and pepperoni rolls, freshly cooked ham, cookies everywhere, my grandfather blissfully babbling on, my Aunt Em and Uncle Rich, my Aunt Della and Uncle Joe, Uncle Bruno, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Sam—all crammed happily in a tiny little kitchen. Most are gone now.
Tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.
That brings me back to Andy Williams. It’s funny the things you remember, but, in those days, there were only three or four stations on television: ABC, CBS, NBC, and maybe a PBS affiliate. At Christmas time, no one missed Bob Hope’s annual special on NBC. He did all sorts of skits and gags and musical renditions and terrific tributes to the troops—and presented the college football all-Americans. We would take time out from the kitchen—playing cards, Scrabble, or just talking—to watch Bob Hope.
But Bob Hope wasn’t the only one. Other big names did Christmas shows: Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Loretta Young, Jimmy Durante and the Lennon Sisters, Lawrence Welk—and Andy Williams. Williams sang those songs, always accompanied by fake snow, pretty girls, lots of colors, sweaters, and glowing faces (click here and here and here and here).
Until September 25, 2012, Andy Williams was one of the only big names still alive from that genre. Remarkably, he had still been performing and was very active. In fact, he made the news not long ago for taking a shot at President Obama. He was not a supporter.
When I heard that Williams died, I began writing a tribute. I read the news the same day I happened to read this verse from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passes and another comes…. There is no remembrance of the men of old.”
That was fitting. I didn’t finish the article. Like much of America, I was preoccupied with less redeeming things—like politics and the 2012 election. We couldn’t pause to adequately remember this man of old. For that I am sorry.
But, just as fitting, the arrival of the holiday season corrected that. As Christmas time begins again, it does so—once again—with the voice of Andy Williams. We’re made mindful of what lasts. Andy Williams lasts. He makes us happy; politics doesn’t.
Andy Williams, rest in peace. And thanks for the memories this most wonderful time of the year.