‘Gentle Giant’ singer, songwriter who topped the US country singles charts 17 times and toured widely
DON WILLIAMS, who has died aged 78, was known as the “gentle giant of country music”, and became an instant favourite in the US and Britain in the 1970s with easy listening numbers such as Gypsy Woman, You’re My Best Friend and I Believe In You.
Like his fellow Texan, Jim Reeves, to whom he was often compared, the laconic Williams had one of the most instantly recognisable voices in country music — a deep, rich Southern drawl that he delivered with minimum effort, over gentle acoustics, to maximum, soothing effect. One critic likened his performance to a “sonorous bedtime drink”.
Other classics from his repertoire included She’s In Love With A Rodeo Man; Love Me Over Again, I’m Just A Country Boy; Some Broken Hearts Never Mend; Till the Rivers All Run Dry and Tulsa Time. He also recorded a popular duet with Emmylou Harris, If I Needed You, in 1981.
But success had been slow in coming. Before making his name as a solo artist, Williams worked as a debt collector, truck driver and also in the oilfields and smelting plants of his native Texas.
In 1966 he had the first of two US Top 40 hits with a Texan pop-folk group called Pozo-Seco Singers, but the group broke up and by 1970 he was working for his father-inlaw in the furniture business.
In 1973, however, he headed for Nashville and set out on a solo career that yielded 17 number-one singles in the US Billboard country charts and a clutch of awards, including the Country Music Association’s awards for best male vocalist and best single for Tulsa Time in 1978, and the association’s Album of the Year for I Believe in You (1981).
He went on to fill venues the size of the Albert Hall around the world (he was one of the few country stars to tour in Africa) and became a favourite with British fans after a triumphant debut at the 1976 Wembley Country Music Festival. He amassed nine hits in the UK album charts and had minor success with several singles, keeping his fans loyal with regular visits. In 1980, the readers of the British magazine Country Music People voted him artist of the decade.
Pete Townshend covered his Till the Rivers All Run Dry, while Eric Clapton, who recorded his We’re More Than Friends and Tulsa Time, was so influenced by Williams’s laid-back style that he was said to have softened his own accordingly, and the two men appeared regularly together on stage.
Williams steered clear of what he called “love triangle or boozer songs”, instead celebrating the joys of home and hearth, children, happy marriages and old folks. His signature tune, I Believe In You, featured a singalong chorus with the words: “But I believe in love/ I believe in babies/ I believe in Mom and Dad/ And I believe in you.
“My songs are about love and relationships,” he told an interviewer. “We’re all made of the same stuff and there is a universality to what I sing and what other people feel.” Contrary to popular belief, observed one British reviewer of Williams’s middle-of-the-road ballads, “there are in fact three things in life that are certain. Along with death and taxes is the inescapable fact that your mum loves Don Williams.”
The son of a mechanic, Donald Ray Williams was born on May 27, 1939 at Floydada, a rural community in north Texas. The family eventually settled in Portland, near Corpus Christi on the state’s Gulf Coast.
He made his first public appearance, aged three, in a talent contest when he won an alarm clock, and at high school, in 1957, he joined a band that played for the opening of a local service station.
In 1964, after army service, he formed the Pozo-Seco Singers, with Susan Taylor and Lofton Cline, recording several albums for Columbia Records, and making the US Top Ten with Time. The group split up in 1969.
Williams’s solo career took off after he moved to Nashville and signed a contract with Jack Music, the publishing company founded by “Cowboy” Jack Clement.
He had his first No.1 country hit with I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me in 1974.
He released more than 40 albums and appeared in two films, WW and the Dixie Dancekings (1975) and (with Burt Reynolds) in Smokey and the Bandit II (1980). He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
Williams never seemed entirely comfortable in the limelight and his rare interviews tended towards the uninformative.
Fame, he opined in a 1994 interview with the Associated Press, “is one of those blessings and curses kind of things. If you have the talent, it’s a blessing. But there’s times that … a lot of the prices that you have to pay to be a part of it is a curse.” He retired in 2016.
Away from his music, Williams spent much of his time pottering around his 100-acre ranch near Nashville, which he and Joy, his wife of 57 years, shared with a few cats, dogs and chickens, and where he enjoyed fishing, tinkering with his prized ‘56 Chevy and watching the History Channel.
She survives him with two sons.
SONGS: Don Williams had hits with ‘Gypsy Woman’, ‘You’re My Best Friend’ and ‘I Believe In You’