Williams was born in Wall Lake, Iowa, the son of Jay Emerson and Florence (née Finley) Williams. Williams attended Western Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio; he finished high school at University High School, in West Los Angeles, because of his family’s move to California. He had three older brothers—Bob, Don, and Dick Williams. Williams’s first performance was in a children’s choir at the local Presbyterian church. He and his brothers formed The Williams Brothers quartet in late 1938, and they performed on radio in the Midwest, first at WHO, in Des Moines, Iowa, and later at WLS, in Chicago, and WLW, in Cincinnati.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1943, The Williams Brothers sang with Bing Crosby on the hit record “Swinging on a Star” (1944). They appeared in four musical films: Janie (1944), Kansas City Kitty (1944), Something in the Wind (1947) and Ladies’ Man (1947). The Williams Brothers were signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to appear in Anchors Aweigh and Ziegfeld Follies (1945) but, before they went before the cameras, the oldest brother, Bob, was drafted into military service and the group’s contract was canceled. Kay Thompson, a former radio star who was now head of the vocal department at MGM, had a nose for talent and hired the remaining three Williams Brothers to sing in her large choir on many soundtracks for MGM films, including The Harvey Girls (1946). When Bob completed his military service, Kay hired all four brothers to sing on the soundtrack to Good News (1947).
By then, Thompson was tired of working behind the scenes at MGM so, with the four Williams boys as her backup singers and dancers, she formed a nightclub act called Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers. They made their debut in Las Vegas in 1947 and became an overnight sensation. Within a year, they were the highest paid nightclub act in the world, breaking records wherever they appeared. Williams revealed in his memoir Moon River and Me that he and Thompson became romantically involved while on tour, despite the age difference (he was 19 and she was 38). The act broke up in 1949 but reunited for another hugely successful tour from the fall of 1951 through the summer of 1953. After that, the four brothers went their separate ways. A complete itinerary of both tours is listed on the Kay Thompson biography website.
Williams and Thompson, however, remained very close, both personally and professionally. She mentored his emergence as a solo singing star. She coached him, wrote his arrangements, and composed many songs that he recorded (including his 1958 Top 20 hit “Promise Me, Love” and, later, “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells” on his 1964 No. 1 The Andy Williams Christmas Album). Using her contacts in the business, Thompson helped Williams land his breakthrough television gig as a featured singer for two-and-a-half years on The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen (it helped that the producer of the series Bill Harbach was Kay’s former aide de camp). Thompson also got Williams his breakthrough recording contract with Cadence Records (the label’s owner Archie Bleyer had gotten early career breaks because of Kay and he owed her a favor). Meanwhile, Williams sang backup on many of Thompson’s recordings through the 1950s, including her Top 40 hit Eloise based on her bestselling books about the mischievous little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Thompson also served as a creative consultant and vocal arranger on Williams’ three summer replacement network television series in 1957, 1958, and 1959. In the summer of 1961, Thompson traveled with Williams and coached him throughout his starring role in a summer stock tour of the musical Pal Joey. Their personal and professional relationship finally ended in 1962 when Williams met and married Claudine Longet, and Thompson moved to Rome.
In a surprise appearance at his theater in November 2011, Williams confirmed that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. After chemotherapy treatment in Houston, Texas, he and his wife moved to a rented home in Malibu, California in order to be closer to cancer specialists in the Los Angeles area. On September 25, 2012, Williams died of bladder cancer at the age of 84 at his home in Branson, Missouri.
- December, 03, 1927
- Wall Lake, Iowa
- September, 25, 2012
- Branson, Missouri
Cause of Death
- bladder cancer
- cremated and his ashes were sprinkled into the artificial waterway at his theater in Branson.