Don Williams, Singer of Plain-Spoken Country Songs, Dies at 78
Don Williams, a singer of heartfelt country ballads who emerged as one of the biggest stars in country music during the late 1970s, died on Friday in Mobile, Ala. He was 78. His publicist, Kirt Webster, said the cause was emphysema.
Never entirely comfortable in the limelight, Mr. Williams nonetheless found himself in it: 17 of his singles, including earnest declarations like “You’re My Best Friend” and “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” reached the top of the Billboard country chart from 1974 to 1984.
He found particularly enthusiastic fans in Britain, where his admirers included the rock stars Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton. Named male vocalist of the year by the Country Music Association in 1978, Mr. Williams released 52 Top 40 country singles in all, 45 of them rising as high as the Top 10, before the hits stopped coming in the 1990s.
Nicknamed the Gentle Giant (even though his height of 6 feet 1 inch may not have quite warranted it), Mr. Williams was adept at writing and recording plain-spoken material extolling the virtues of romantic commitment. Singing in a warm, undulating baritone, he made marital fidelity not just appealing but sexy — as exciting, in its way, as the themes of cheating and running around that defined the classic honky-tonk music of the 1950s and ’60s.
“Till the Rivers All Run Dry,” a No. 1 country single in 1976, was typical of his understated persona and approach. Propelled by a lightly throbbing beat, he pledged his devotion to the love of his life, singing:
Till the rivers all run dry – Till the sun falls from the sky – Till life on earth is through – I’ll be needing you.
Written by Mr. Williams and Wayland Holyfield, the song was also on the album “Rough Mix,” recorded later that year by Mr. Townshend, of the Who, and his fellow British rocker Ronnie Lane, of the Faces.
“I Believe in You,” a gently cantering ballad in a similarly intimate vein written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, spent two weeks at the top of the country chart and crossed over to the pop Top 40 in 1980. In the song’s chorus, after cataloging a series of ephemera in which he professed little or no faith, Mr. Williams, with unabashed sincerity, sang:
But I believe in love – I believe in babies – I believe in Mom and Dad – And I believe in you.
His unfussy aesthetic — at once simple and, in its elemental way, profound — would go on to influence, among others, the country singer-songwriters Alan Jackson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Brad Paisley and Kathy Mattea. Mr. Williams’s success as an artist was likewise attributable to the accessibility and stylistic reach of his music.
“When I was growing up, I used to listen to Ray Price, Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves,” Mr. Williams recalled in a 1995 interview with the British magazine Country Music International. “At the same time, I’d also listen to Teresa Brewer, the Ink Spots and the Platters. Then, when Bill Haley, Little Richard and all that started happening, I think a lot of us made a transition then without realizing it.”
CreditMark Humphrey/Associated Press. His recordings also benefited from the creative input of country-pop crossover producers like Allen Reynolds and Garth Fundis, who offered a seamless blend of country, pop, rock and R&B sensibilities.
“Tulsa Time,” a line-dancing favorite that hit No. 1 on the country chart in 1978, was evidence of Mr. Williams’s facility with more rhythmically propulsive material. Mr. Clapton’s version of the song reached the pop Top 40 in 1980.
Mr. Williams also had a Top 10 country hit in 1974 with a cover of “The Ties That Bind,” which had been a Top 40 pop hit for the soul singer Brook Benton in 1960. He was born Don Williams on May 27, 1939, in the rural north Texas community of Floydada. His father was a mechanic who moved the family often in search of a better life. They eventually settled in Portland, Tex., near Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast, where Mr. Williams graduated from high school in 1958.
He first sang in public at age 3 and performed in country, rock and folk bands as a teenager. His mother taught him to play guitar. In 1964, after serving in the Army, he formed the Pozo-Seco Singers, a folk-pop trio, with Susan Taylor and Lofton Cline, in Corpus Christi. The group recorded several albums for Columbia Records, and two of its singles reached the pop Top 40.
The trio split up in 1969, after which Mr. Williams held several jobs outside the music business before moving to Nashville in the early 1970s to sign a contract with Jack Music, the publishing company operated by the producer Cowboy Jack Clement.
Mr. Williams released more than 40 albums in his career, on MCA, Capitol, RCA and other labels. He also appeared in two movies, “W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings” (1975) and “Smokey and the Bandit II” (1980). He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
His survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Joy Bucher; and their two sons, Gary and Timmy; and four grandchildren. Mr. Williams announced his retirement last year, saying in a statement that it was “time to hang my hat up and enjoy some quiet time at home.” A tribute album, “Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams,” including performances by Lady Antebellum and Garth Brooks, was released this year.
Mr. Williams cultivated strong fan support in India and Latin America and was one of the few country stars to tour in Africa. In 1997 he released a DVD, “Into Africa,” recorded live in Harare, Zimbabwe. His most robust following outside the United States, however, was always in England (although he was popular elsewhere in Europe as well). He was enthusiastically received at the 1976 Wembley Festival and performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In 1980 the readers of the London-based magazine Country Music People voted him the artist of the decade.
“I’ve found that the English pay a lot of respect to your music,” Mr. Williams told Country Music International. “They know who wrote the song, where you recorded it, and who the musicians were, and all of that stuff. There are a lot of English fans who can remember more about what I’ve done than I can.”
– New York Times