“Not now… Not ever…. NEVER!”
It may seem improbable, but there was a time in the 1960s when those words were as widely over-repeated and just as much a sign of imagined hipness as, say, “Jane, you ignorant slut…,” “Is that your final answer?” or “D’oh.”
They were spoken, once per weekly prime-time hour, by Andy Williams, an easy-listening crooner only a few degrees less square than Lawrence Welk, to a tall guy (Janos Prohaska) in a bear costume.
On The CBS Evening News Wednesday night, anchor Scott Pelley prefaced the report of Williams’ death at the age of 84 by saying that the reaction of many CBS staff members upon hearing the news was “to start humming ‘Moon River,’” which was Williams theme song.
Me? I thought about the bear and Williams’ send-off line, which worked, I think, because the bear bit was almost as off-the-wall in that tame TV era as an Ernie Kovacs skit and because the “anger” was so comically incongruous coming from a singer so pleasant and unflappable. To find a fellow who seemed more serene than Williams, you had to go over to Perry Como’s soundstage or visit a temple in Tibet.
The bear would wander in and out of camera range and pester and pester Williams, trying to mooch a cookie. And finally, at some point, Williams would explode. “Not now… Not ever… NEVER!”
I still laugh when I read or hear those words. And I’m not the only person of my era who still has that reaction.
Williams was of course best known for his singing, especially ballads such as the themes from Love Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (“Moon River”). He also had hits covering an occasional rock ’n’ roll tune (Charlie Gracie’s “Butterfly”) or a country song (Roger Miller’s wonderful “In the Summertime’) or refurbishing a real oldie (Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht’s “The Bilbao Song”).
For kids and teenagers of the time, it was Williams' TV show, not his Billboard charters, that mattered. It premiered on NBC in 1962 and ran for nine years. To put that impressive run into context, it predated the Beatles’ world conquest and was still around after Fab Four were launching solo careers. It bridged an era when he the worlds of popular music and television were undergoing seismic changes.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69) is rightly remembered as the most daring and “countercultural” of the era’s network musical-comedy programs. But while the musical legacy of Williams’ weekly show inevitably will be linked to the Osmonds, whose career he launched, he was almost as adventurous as Tom and Dick Smothers when it came to showcasing rock and rock-pop acts.
On The Andy Williams Show, you could see and hear Creedence Clearwater Revival, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Elton John and Ike and Tina Turner as well as Peggy Lee, Count Basie or Tony Bennett. Other than Ed Sullivan, there’s probably no other TV host who ever welcomed both Jerry and Jerry Lee Lewis to his soundstage (or Liberace and Little Richard, for that matter). And he presented comedians as well: Flip Wilson, Shelly Berman and Phyllis Diller, to name just a few who either did some stand-up or joined Williams in skits.
So here’s to the late, likeable Andy Williams, a singer who came across as a mischievous “Huckleberry friend” notwithstanding the camouflage of tuxedos and Christmas sweaters. I loved his show and his guests and especially the bear. And I never doubted that Williams, once the cameras stopped rolling, handed over the cookie.