Monday, October 1, 2012

Andy Williams and Billy Barnes: My Memories of Two Huckleberry Friends

OK, so I didn’t know either Andy Williams or Billy Barnes very well. And I’m as baffled as anyone by the meaning of the phrase “my huckleberry friend” in Williams’ signature tune, “Moon River.” But the almost simultaneous passing last week of two major musical talents led me to remember that I’d spent instructive hours with both of them. I doubt all three of us were after the same rainbow’s end, but both men (like me) loved show biz and the sound of music.

Billy Barnes wasn’t a household name, especially if you grew up far from Los Angeles.
I first heard about him from my parents: he was the originator of several 1950s hit musical revues with titles like Billy Barnes’ L.A. that played for months at small Hollywood theatres, then traveled briefly to the Big Apple. The young and perky performers, most of them Barnes’ former UCLA classmates, included such talents as Ken Berry, Bert Convy, Joyce Jameson (to whom he was briefly married), and Jackie Joseph (soon to make her mark as the original, adorable Audrey in Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors). Another Barnes discovery, Jo Anne Worley, helped Billy get involved with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. He also contributed comic songs to The Danny Kaye Show, and wrote for such TV stars as Goldie Hawn and Cher. Though his specialty was topical satire, his best-known song may be the poignant “Have I Stayed too Long at the Fair,” as recorded by Barbara Streisand.

I visited Billy in his colorful Laurel Canyon home in 1981, for a magazine profile. My editor had warned me that my piece had better be funny. In conversation, though, Billy was not a wit. His charm was low-key: I enjoyed his still-boyish enthusiasm for Old Hollywood, stage musicals (he’d amassed a huge pile of old theatre programs), and tap-dancing. Not to mention his affection for the subject of one of his songs, a now-vanished L.A. emporium called the Akron,where you could buy anything from a can of buffalo chili to a tiki god. (“I MUST have a tiki god!”) It’s hard for me now to think of Billy Barnes fading out with Alzheimer’s prior to his death at age 85.

My Andy Williams memory is quite different. It was 1970, and I was a guide in the U.S. Pavilion at Osaka’s Expo 70, where moon-landing memorabilia and souvenirs of American life were drawing record crowds. Andy back then was the hugely popular star of his own TV variety show. One day in May I was asked to escort him and comic Bill Dana (whose heavily accented “José Jimenez” comedy would never pass muster today) through our exhibit. Making small talk, I asked Andy how Los Angeles was looking these days. “Well,” he said, “Last week they burned down UCLA.” I didn’t believe him, of course, but I quickly realized he wasn’t just trying to be flip. His Expo visit took place shortly after the tragedy of Kent State, where students protesting the Vietnam War were shot dead by members of the Ohio National Guard. In the wake of Kent State, young people went on strike at campuses across the nation. And Andy, a good friend of Senator Robert Kennedy, had been present two years earlier when Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. Some recent reports about Williams’ politics have confused me (it’s said he was a lifelong Republican). But I don’t blame anyone in May 1970 for feeling bitter and confused about his country and its inhabitants.

May Billy and Andy rest in peace.


  1. I am socially networked with Jackie Joseph - and her heartfelt eulogy post about Billy Barnes a few days ago was the first I'd ever heard of him. Not wanting to ask silly questions during a sad time I didn't try to find out who he was through Ms. Joseph - and I was planning to do some research on him - but you've taken care of that for me! My tiki god and I thank you (mine came from Hawaii, not the Akron.)

    I first became aware of Andy Williams when Moon River was on one of the two American Graffiti soundtrack albums (both from the first movie) - I later knew him as the man who brought the world the Osmonds. My appreciation for him has grown over the years - he had a lovely voice, whatever his politics.

    Rest in peace gentlemen.

  2. I'd like to have seen what Jackie Joseph had to say. From what Billy told me, there was a real family feeling among the Billy Barnes performers. Too bad he wasn't known to a wider audience, but during the era of the TV variety shows his music was ubiquitous.