MU­SIC’S ‘GEN­TLE GI­ANT’ GOES OUT ON HIGH NOTE

Don Wil­liams is sur­vived by a widow, two sons, four grand­chil­dren and mil­lions of fans he touched in his 46-year ca­reer

Business Daily (Kenya) - - THE WEEKENDER - Mar­garetta wa Gacheru mar­garetta.gacheru@gmail.com

The re­cent pass­ing on of one of the world’s most pop­u­lar coun­try mu­sic stars, the award-win­ning singer-song writer, Don Wil­liams, dealt a heavy blow to the hearts of many Kenyan mu­sic lovers.

Wil­liams died at age 78 last Fri­day at his home in Mo­bile, Alabama. The cause of his pass­ing was em­phy­sema, a lung con­di­tion most com­monly caused from cig­a­rette smok­ing.

Fondly nick­named ‘the gen­tle gi­ant’ for his tow­er­ing height (he was over six feet tall), low-key pro­file and mel­low bari­tone voice, Wil­liams first came to Kenyans’ at­ten­tion back in the 1970s.

He ac­tu­ally launched his solo mu­sic ca­reer in Nashville in 1971; but his first num­ber one hit sin­gle came out in 1974 when he recorded ‘I wouldn’t want to live if you didn’t love me.’

Ac­claimed for his soul­ful coun­try bal­lads, he shot to fame for songs like ‘I be­lieve in you’ and ‘You’re my best friend.’ Both were hits that topped Bill­board Coun­try Mu­sic Charts as did Kenyan favourites like ‘Amanda’, ‘It must be love’ and ‘Till the rivers all run dry’, which was later recorded by Pete Townsend of the Bri­tish band, The Who.

In all, be­tween 1974 and 1991, no less than 45 out of the 52 of Wil­liams’ Top 40 sin­gles landed in the Top Ten. And out of those, 17 of his sin­gles shot to Num­ber One. Among them were songs like ‘Senorita’, ‘If I needed you’ (which he sang as a duet with Em­my­lou Har­ris in 1981) and ‘We’re more than friends’, which won more fans when an­other Bri­tish gui­tarist Eric Clapton per­formed it live.

Wil­liams had an even wider fol­low­ing out­side of the US. The Bri­tish in par­tic­u­lar were so fond of his mu­sic that they wel­comed him en­thu­si­as­ti­cally in 1976 when he per­formed at both the Wem­b­ley Arena and the Royal Al­bert Hall in Lon­don. Read­ers of the Lon­don­based mag­a­zine Coun­try Mu­sic In-

ter­na­tional even voted him ‘Artist of the Decade.’

In 1978, he also won the Coun­try Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion Award for Male Vo­cal­ist of the Year. The same year, his up­beat hit, Tulsa Time also won the CMA award for ‘Hit Sin­gle’. (The sin­gle shot to the top of the charts in 2007 when it was re-recorded by Sh­eryl Crow and Eric Clapton.)

But Wil­liams’ sweet coun­try mu­sic didn’t only touch the hearts and minds of Euro­peans. He had a huge fan-base in In­dia and Latin Amer­ica. And among Africans, it wasn’t only Kenyans who loved lis­ten­ing to Wil­liams sing songs like ‘Lord, I hope the day is good’, ‘Gypsy Woman’ and ‘I’m just a coun­try boy.’

He was so pop­u­lar in South­ern Africa that he be­came the only Amer­i­can coun­try singer to tour Africa although he never made it to Kenya. His live per­for­mance in Harare, Zim­babwe was recorded and re­leased as a DVD in 1997. It’s avail­able on Amazon en­ti­tled ‘Don Wil­liams: Into Africa’. But a new copy costs $288.90 (Sh29,700) and a used one will set you back $44.15 (Sh4,540).

Born in the ru­ral town of Floy­dada, Texas on May 27, 1939, Wil­liams’ fa­ther was a me­chanic who moved his fam­ily all over Texas be­fore they fi­nally set­tled in Portland near the Gulf Coast. That’s where Wil­liams grad­u­ated from high school in 1958. He went on to en­list in the US Army where he served for sev­eral years. His mu­sic ca­reer took off soon af­ter that.

Wil­liams started singing at home from age three. His mother is the one who taught him to play gui­tar. He be­gan per­form­ing with lo­cal coun­try, rock and folk bands through­out his high school years.

Af­ter the mil­i­tary, he came home and co­founded the folk-rock trio, Pozo-seco Singers in 1964. With them he recorded his first al­bums on Columbia Records. The trio split up in 1969 and for a brief pe­riod, Wil­liams did odd jobs un­til he hit the road for Nashville, the capi­tol of coun­try mu­sic.

By 1971, he had signed a con­tract with Jack Mu­sic. By the time he re­tired in 2016, Wil­liams had made nearly 40 al­bums and recorded with Cap­i­tal Records, MCA, RCA and sev­eral oth­ers.

He was fi­nally in­ducted into the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame in 2010. But Wil­liams had al­ways been cau­tious about star­dom and fame. He said it could be both a bless­ing and a curse. Thus, he didn’t go on tour as of­ten as many mu­si­cians pop­u­lar dur­ing his hey­day in the 1970s and ‘80s. Nor did he give many me­dia in­ter­views. He frankly pre­ferred keep­ing a low pro­file and stay­ing with his fam­ily on his farm just out­side of Nashville.

Renowned for his gen­tle, un­der­stated style and ge­nial South­ern drawl, Wil­liams was given the nick­name ‘gen­tle gi­ant’ by the CEO of the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame and Mu­seum, Kyle Young. It was also Young who said that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of coun­try mu­sic singers would need the same ‘grace, in­tel­li­gence and age­less in­tent’ as Wil­liams if they hoped “to stand on the shoul­ders of this gen­tle gi­ant.”

In one ex­ten­sive in­ter­view that he gave to a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist in 1996, Wil­liams said he had grown up lis­ten­ing to the likes of Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves as well as Lit­tle Richard, Bill Ha­ley, Teresa Brewer and the Plat­ters.

Some might say Don Wil­liams’ mu­si­cal legacy will be more lon­glast­ing than all of his men­tors com­bined. Rea­sons for what is bound to be his en­dur­ing suc­cess is the sim­ple wis­dom, un­abashed sin­cer­ity and ac­ces­si­bil­ity of his warm melo­di­ous style. He was a man who shame­lessly sang of sen­ti­ments like love, com­mit­ment and even ro­man­tic fi­delity.

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