Don Wil­liams

‘Gen­tle Gi­ant’ who topped the US coun­try sin­gles charts 17 times and toured widely

The Guardian - - OBITUARIES - Don­ald Ray Wil­liams, singer, born 27 May 1939; died 8 Septem­ber 2017 Dave Laing

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

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