To the oldest generation still with us, the term “Christmas music” conjures up images of Bing Crosby. But to those of us who grew up watching television in the 1960’s, Christmas is near-synonymous with Andy Williams. This new collection of three DVD’s, featuring material from Williams’ t.v. series, which aired through most of the 60’s, includes one whole disc entirely devoted to his annual Christmas special, plus two discs of non-seasonal material.
Andy Williams, who turned 83 earlier this month, is still a popular live performer, in Branson, MO, Las Vegas, and other venues which cater largely to an older audience that remembers him from his heyday. What makes this particularly extraordinary is that he’s been doing this for over 70 years, beginning in the late 30’s as the youngest member of a family quartet from Iowa called the Williams Brothers, who hit the big-time singing with Bing Crosby on his 1944 hit, “Swingin’ On a Star”. When the rest of the group decided to quit in the early 50’s, Andy embarked on a solo career, and has never had to look back. By 1956, he began turning out a long series of hit records that continued into the 1970’s. His clear, appealing voice, with a strong falsetto that set him apart from other middle-of-the-road pop entertainers of the era, was combined with a stylistic versatility that made him a favorite of the Welk crowd, the Sinatra audience, and the Top 40 charts, all at once - no mean feat during the British Invasion and psychedelic eras. The one thing he lacked was a rhythmic feel for jazz, yet he sounded quite comfortable over the swinging big-band arrangements that were a staple of t.v. variety shows back in the day.
Although his early hit singles included both rockabilly (Charlie Gracie’s “Butterfly”) and country-music (Carl Belew’s “Lonely Street”) covers, Williams’ repertoire of the 60’s featured a number of songs from movie scores. The first disc in this set - all three discs are available separately, as well as in this box - “Moon River and Me” includes televised performances of such movie songs as the title song (from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the song was a hit single for Jerry Butler, but has become associated more closely with Williams over the years, due largely to his t.v. exposure), “The Shadow of Your Smile” (with a tasteful trumpet counter-melody by Al Hirt), “Born Free”, “Call Me Irresponsible,” and several others. There are also a couple unusual production numbers that go beyond the typical dance routines, such as a chorus line jumping-rope to “Goody Goody” and ice-skaters during “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve”. Unlike many of his pop-music contemporaries, Williams also had a taste for folk-flavored songs, on this disc “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”
Amidst all the well-known songs, there are a couple daring choices, Broadway songs which have never received as much attention as they deserve - Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” and Truman Capote/Harold Arlen’s “Don’t Like Goodbyes”. Many of the songs have new introductions by a white-haired, bespectacled Andy Williams, whom I don’t know whether I would have recognized if I didn’t already know it was him. Four additional songs, including a lovely “Danny Boy”, are included as Bonus Features.
The second disc, “My Favorite Duets”, features Williams in collaboration with a wide variety of guest stars. Despite the designation “duets”, he is joined by a few ensembles - Peter, Paul and Mary, with whom he blends seamlessly on the Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; Simon and Garfunkel, on a version of “Scarborough Fair” which may even exceed the duo’s original recording; Phil Harris and an unidentified male gospel quartet; a reunited Williams Brothers; and a highly impressive Osmond Brothers, in he days before they became Jackson 5 imitators and still based their sound on that of the Williams Brothers (no wonder Andy featured them so regularly!).
As for the “real” duets (the two-person variety), Sammy Davis, Jr. does some eccentric tap-dancing mixed in with the twist. A dance routine pairs Williams and former college athlete Johnny Mathis with basketballs and gymnastic equipment. A medley teams Andy with his old colleague Bing Crosby. Roger Miller scats through a wacky version of “You Don’t Want My Love”, an atypical Williams hit which Miller wrote). A funny bit finds Pearl Bailey dancing in her chair as the two engage in song and patter. Antonio Carlos Jobim, a Williams favorite, backs Williams on guitar and sings a bit himself, though Jobim was really a composer/pianist more than a singer). Inevitably, perhaps, there are a few collaborations which simply fail to catch fire, with Lena Horne, Julie Andrews, and a vocally shot Judy Garland.
Sprinkled throughout are reminiscences by Williams, music director Dave Grusin, and Mathis. All three offer additional commentary in the Bonus Features, along with a few repeats of their comments from the program. Because of the level of talent involved, I would suggest that - all things being equal - this would be the disc to get if your budget allows to only get one.
But that’s just my opinion - I have a feeling that most single-disc buyers will opt for disc 3, “Best of Christmas”. Goodness knows, I can picture this becoming an annual ritual around our house. The Andy Williams Christmas Special became such a yearly institution that it continued to appear for several years after the weekly show left the air. The disc has no bonus features and no guest stars aside from the Osmond Brothers, the Williams Brothers, and the whole Williams family - and it doesn’t need anything else. There are a couple more of those typically atypical Williams Show production numbers, in this instance with old-fashioned, small-town sets, vintage clothing, and people milling about (one hesitates to call it dancing, though the choreographer’s touch is obvious). There are also straightforward solo renditions of sacred Christmas hymns, “Silent Night”, “O Holy Night”, “Ave Maria”. And of course, Williams does his own Christmas hit, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. There really is no need to say much more, because this is the sort of fondly remembered disc that sells itself.
This would make a perfect last-minute Christmas gift for an, er, somewhat older person on your list (somebody my age, in other words!) Or treat yourself to some timeless entertainment. This should be well-distributed enough that there may still be time to pick it up for Christmas 2010. Or buy it in 2011, watch the first two discs, and save the third for next December. In any case, give this one some serious consideration.