Willie B. Williams Ruled
Middays at WNEW
David Hinkley, NY Daily News
Twenty-five years after he died too young, William B. Williams will be inducted into the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame on Monday night. His fellow inductees in the annual ceremony at the Sagamore will include Regis Philbin, WOR owner Richard Buckley and others. Speakers will include Brian Williams and Deborah Norville. To anyone who remembers radio’s golden age of American popular standards, though, “Willie B.” is the star. Best known for three decades as host of the midday “Make Believe Ballroom” on the late WNEW-AM, Williams was to radio hosts what his friend Frank Sinatra was to popular singers. He’s the standard, the single name that defines the elegance and class of professionals who don’t just play music on the radio, but who know that music and understand what it means… (6/28/2011 NY Daily News)
Bolton Landing, New York
June 27, 2011
Chairman Ed Levine … Joe Reilly … Brian Williams … Hall of Famer Regis Philbin … graceful Deborah Norville … that was one of the most powerful moments we’ve ever witnessed in this room as you received the Award named for our beloved Carol Reilly.
Dear friends and colleagues of so many years and so many seasons. As this is the first opportunity I’ve had to enjoy the privilege of your podium in quite some time … I want to first take a moment of personal privilege and tell all of you here assembled of my regret at not being able to join you for the Induction of the first group some years ago. Your elders at the time, in their wisdom, chose to include an Irishman from Westchester when you first began the Hall. As many of you know, a great sadness overtook our family in 2005, and I was not able to be with you. But please permit me now, this evening, to thank you for that momentary lapse in good judgment and relaxation of your standards …
I want to speak about William B. Williams. David Hinckley, the great and gifted critic of the New York Daily News, in a gorgeous feature column this morning, said it all … much more gracefully and artfully than I am able. So I will be mercifully brief.
I met William B. at one of those small clubs which once flourished on Third Avenue in Manhattan. Of course, I had idolized him for many, many years. I remember the night so well … Matt Dennis, the great songwriter-singer who was one of Sinatra’s favorites (and mine) was sitting at the piano in a little pencil spotlight as a mid-winter blizzard descended on the city that cold night.
Matt Dennis started with the verse to a lovely song which he himself had composed: “It was winter in Manhattan … falling snowflakes filled the air … the streets were covered with a film of ivory … but a simple little secret I heard about somewhere … changed the winter into summer … I bought you Violets For Your Furs.
And then, from the banquette just behind me … I heard the unmistakable, rich voice of William B. Williams … “That’s a gorgeous song … known only to songwriters and musicians.” I introduced myself and went off into the night vowing that one day I would work at WNEW where he held forth with such style and grace.
Those were the days when WNEW, of sainted memory, held forth as an oasis of taste on the AM dial. The number one station today has – in its best moments – a 5.6 or 5.7 share. WNEW had a 26!
I did make it about a year later – thanks to the indulgence of the legendary general manager John Van Buren Sullivan – who brought me in as kind of an “ambassador without portfolio” (in other words, nobody ever knew what the hell I did!)
One thing I did, however, was to get myself invited to lunch at least four or five days a week with the great William B. Williams. I would tag along as part of his entourage which much more prominently included Buddy Hackett, Bill Persky, Sam Denoff, David Yarnell and, occasionally, Steve and Eydie.
Billy would take us to the Friars Club, Rocky Lee’s, the Stage Deli, Toots Shor and Basin Street East. And about every 10th day or so, we’d go to the coffee shop around the corner from WNEW at 46th and Fifth and he’d let me pick up the check. (I was making about $125 bucks a week).
He was the classiest – and one of the nicest – men to ever stand in front of a microphone. His taste was impeccable. You could actually understand the sweet words to the songs he played.
I remember he loved to tell the story of when he asked Louis Armstrong who was the greatest girl singer of all time. And Satchmo, after but a moment of reflection, said: “you mean besides Ella … ?”
Edward Kennedy Ellington was the “Duke of Ellington.” William Basie of Red Bank was “The Count of Basie.” Nat King Cole was “Nathaniel.” Mel Tormé was “Melvin Howard Torme.” And, as legend and the popular lexicon has it enshrined forever in our memory, Sinatra was “Chairman of the Board.”
William Bernard Breitbart was so much more than an entertainer or performer … and he walked the desparate, dangerous, dusty roads of Selma with Martin Luther King and squandered his talent across a thousands nights as master of ceremonies at all kinds of charitable functions. Mr. Sinatra called him “simply the most generous man I know …”
He left us some 25 years ago much too early at the age of 63. Billy had been battling the cancer which killed him for a couple of years. And when he made a brief recovery during that siege and returned to the air, I did a piece which was published in Variety that included the line: “an icon is properly restored” when he went back on the radio for a brief period.
I must tell you, in the intimacy of this room. it was somewhat bewildering to many of us that his genius had somehow eluded the elders of your Hall of Fame Committee – until now. But, I’m so happy for this moment.
You have restored an icon, who, like I said, was about the classiest disc jockey we’ve had in this nation.
So I thank you on behalf of Billy’s many friends who are still around. They are legion. And grateful.
I will send this memento of his designation by morning post to Dottie Williams, who is still as beautiful as ever, in Aventura, Florida … to his son and heir Jeffrey.
William B.’s theme song was Henri René’s You Are The One.
I can still hear him say: “Hello, world!”
He was … The One!
William O’Shaughnessy is President & CEO of Whitney Radio, parent company of Westchester community stations WVOX and WRTN, New Rochelle, NY.
Photo added by WNEW1130AM editors.