Andy Williams stopped singing at funerals when he was 8 years old. A searing family tragedy and its ensuing consequences left a lifetime scar when it came to participating in memorial services.
Only once in his remaining 76 years did the superstar entertainer overcome his trauma — and that was on the occasion of an historic national tragedy, the funeral of his close friend, Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Williams’ original problems developed when his 2 year old brother, Buddy, died from a lingering case of spinal meningitis. Not only was the loss particularly cruel, but the Williams family was unable to afford a respectful burial. A deal was struck with a nearby funeral home — in return for Buddy’s service and interment, the four remaining Williams brothers, all talented singers, agreed to perform hymns at the funeral home.
After school and on Saturdays, the young Williams brothers sang at dozens of services.
In his autobiography, Moon River and Me, Williams wrote: “It was heartbreaking to see those endless lines of flower-laden caskets and mourners and to listen to the sobs of the grieving people, but, even worse, they were a daily reminder of our own recent and still painful loss.”
Williams cried himself to sleep many nights during this period. When the obligation was finally settled, he vowed to leave funeral work to others.
Success in show business did not come overnight for Williams. He and his three brothers continued to sing together — even managing to record background vocals on the Bing Crosby hit, “Swinging on a Star”– but the group never clicked except on the margins.
By the time he was 26, Williams found himself on the entertainment “equivalent of skid row.”
In Moon, Williams observed, “no matter how much talent you have or how much work you put in, you also need a large stroke of luck along the way.”
That break for Williams came when Steve Allen’s Tonight Show producer saw him perform — Williams was signed as a regular on the show, and from there, he forged a legendary career.
Williams sold over 100 million records, won two Emmys for his long-running television variety show, and headlined in Las Vegas for more than two decades.
The Kennedy connection occurred when the two were taping different programs at NBC Studios in Burbank, California. Kennedy walked on the Williams’ set, introduced himself and said he and his wife, Ethel, were devoted fans. This led to some casual socializing which evolved into a strong friendship.
Williams, a lifelong Republican, was taken with the senator’s sincere convictions — he became a true believer and sang at fundraisers when Kennedy ran in the 1968 Democratic primaries.
On the night when Kennedy won the California primary, June 4, 1968, Williams and his wife, Claudine, were in the family suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. As Kennedy was departing to deliver his victory speech, he told Williams that he would do an on-camera hand signal near the end of the speech so that Williams and his wife could head down to the garage to meet the Kennedys for a late dinner.
Kennedy delivered the signal, but the dinner never happened. The senator was shot in the hotel kitchen following his speech.
The last time Williams saw Kennedy was in a room at Good Samaritan Hospital — he was on life support equipment, but brain dead.
The funeral mass was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Saturday, June 8. Ethel Kennedy asked Williams to perform a solo. The number selected was one of Kennedy’s favorite campaign songs, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Williams was overcome with grief when he arrived at the church — but mixed in were the almost phobic fears he experienced as a child when his brother died.
Williams’ account of the moment: “When I rose to my feet to sing, I wasn’t at all sure I could do it…everyone was crying, including me …I sang it not as a fierce old war song but as a sad and tender lament. It was the hardest performance I’ve ever given…I sang it unaccompanied, my voice echoing alone in the vast stillness of that great cathedral, but as I sang, everyone in the congregation gradually joined in. Then the huge crowds outside…listening to a live relay of the service, began singing it too. It was the most moving thing I ever heard.”
The service was televised nationally: a rendition of Williams singing the “Battle Hymn” is available below.
Williams passed away on September 25, 2012. His memorial service, attended by more than 1,000 people, included a touching tribute from Ethel Kennedy.