‘Gentle Giant’ who topped the US country singles charts 17 times and toured widely
British fans of country music have tended to favour the unassuming, less flamboyant male exponents of the genre such as Jim Reeves, George Hamilton IV and Don Williams. At the peak of his popularity in the late 1970s and 80s, Williams, who has died aged 78, headed the bill at the annual Wembley international festival of country music, toured Britain and mainland Europe, and sold LPs by the hundreds of thousands. He once described his music as “intensely simple”, but while his love songs were charming and often sentimental and his warm baritone voice was compared to that of Reeves, he also found admirers among the rock music fraternity: both Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend recorded versions of his songs.
Williams was born in Floydada, Texas, the third son of James, a mechanic, and Loveta Mae (nee Lambert), an amateur musician who entered her son for a local talent competition when he was three. He won first prize, an alarm clock. A few years later the family settled in Corpus Christi, east Texas, where his mother taught him to play the guitar. By the time Don had graduated from high school in 1958 he was absorbing both country music and rock’n’roll, notably the music of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.
After high school Williams served for two years in the US army. Returning home, he found work variously as a bread delivery driver, debt collector and oil field operative, while performing in local clubs and bars with a friend, Lofton Cline. In 1964 they formed a pop-folk trio with Susan Taylor, calling themselves the Pozo-Seco Singers. The trio made records for Columbia, two of which – I Can Make It With You and Look What You’ve Done – became Top 40 pop hits in the US. But the group failed to build on that success and returned to playing in noisy dance halls and bars, which were anathema to Williams. He said later that “I swore I’d never paint myself into that corner again,” and the trio disbanded in 1971.
Next Williams set up a furniture business with his father-in-law (he had married Joy Bucher in 1960). But he continued to write songs, and when Taylor asked him to contribute to her solo album, Williams took a job within a year with a Nashville music publishing firm headed by Allen Reynolds. However, the low-key ethos of his compositions went against the grain of the dominant, sophisticated “countrypolitan” Nashville sound so, with Reynolds, he decided to record them himself.
The result was the album Don Williams Volume One (1973), which contained one of his most praised tracks, Amanda, described by the music historian Bill Malone as combining “the flavour of old-time country music with a middle-of-the-road approach”. Two more albums followed before I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me gave Williams his first country No 1 hit single in 1974. As with most of his later hits, he did not compose this himself. The songwriter was Al Turney, who had pitched the song while serving Williams at a petrol station.
Williams was to top the country singles charts in the US a further 16 times over the next 12 years. Among his biggest hits were You’re My Best Friend (1975), written by Wayland Holyfield; Tulsa Time (1978), composed by Danny Flowers, guitarist with Williams’s touring band; I Believe in You (1980), which became Williams’s only solo US pop hit; and Stay Young (1983), a cover of the Gallagher & Lyle song.
Williams first visited Britain in 1976 at the invitation of the impresario Mervyn Conn, who promoted the Wembley festival. Conn also persuaded the British arm of his record company, ABC, to make Williams’s albums available during a period when UK labels were often reluctant to release country albums for fear their hip rock image would be tarnished.
In the event, partly owing to the BBC showing highlights of the Wembley festival, Williams was a great success, both with a hardcore country audience and a wider public. His single I Recall a Gypsy Woman became a Top 20 UK hit in the summer of 1976, while the followup, You’re My Best Friend, reached the Top 40 later in the same year. More than a dozen of his albums reached the UK charts, the most successful being Images, which peaked at No 2 in 1978. He made his final British tour in 2014.
As fashions in country music changed, Williams toured less and spent more time with his family at his ranch near Nashville. But he was held in high esteem by many younger musicians. On his final albums, So It Goes (2012) and Reflections (2014), issued by Sugar Hill, he was accompanied by artists including the singer Vince Gill and the fiddler and singer Alison Krauss. A tribute album, Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, featuring versions of his songs by Garth Brooks, Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum, was released earlier this year. The title was a reference to his nickname, the Gentle Giant.
Like Reeves before him, Williams appealed to listeners on several continents. He toured Australia and New Zealand, India and Latin America, and was especially popular in Africa, where he had enthusiastic fans in South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast.
Williams was awarded many honours from the country music community. He received the 1978 male artist of the year award dressed in the outfit of faded blue jeans, denim jacket and worn-out hat designed for him when he appeared with Burt Reynolds in the 1975 film WW and the Dixie Dancekings. He was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010, but was too ill with bronchitis to attend in person.
He retired from live performance in 2016. He is survived by Joy, their sons, Gary and Timmy, and four grandchildren.
His first No 1 hit was by Al Turney, who pitched the song while serving him at a petrol station
Williams playing at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004. He was a great success with UK audiences Photograph: Redferns