Don Williams, known for his mellow, laid-back delivery of more than 30 top-10 country hits during a four-decade career on the charts, has died at age 78.
A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the singer-songwriter was an international ambassador for the genre, achieving enormous popularity in Germany, Sweden, Kenya, South Africa and New Zealand, as well as England and Ireland, His enduring classics include “Tulsa Time,” “I Believe In You,” “I’m Just a Country Boy,” “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and “Amanda.”
A native of Floydada, Texas, Williams began playing guitar as a teenager. During his youth, he worked in oil fields. drove a bread truck, labored in a smelting plant, worked for Pittsburgh Plate Glass and was a bill collector.
In Corpus Christi, he formed the folk trio The Pozo Seco Singers with Susan Taylor and Lofton Kline. The three traveled to Nashville to record with producer Bob Johnston and scored on the pop charts with a series of singles including “Time” (1966), “I’ll Be Gone” (1966), “I Can Make it With You” (1966) and “Look What You’ve Done” (1967).
Following a pair of albums for Columbia Records, Kline departed. Taylor and Williams returned to Nashville as Pozo Seco to record their 1970 LP Spend Some Time With Me at Jack Clement’s studio. Williams returned to Texas to work at his father-in-law’s furniture business. Taylor summoned him back to Nashville to write songs for her emerging solo career. She and Williams were soon signed to Clement’s JMI Records label as individual artists.
Don Williams debuted on the charts with his self-penned JMI single “The Shelter of Your Eyes” in late 1972. The following year, he had the two-sided success “Come Early Morning” and “Amanda.” The first named inspired what is believed to have been country’s first concept video. The latter became an even bigger hit for Waylon Jennings six years later.
In 1974, Williams had his first top-10 hit, “We Should Be Together.” He signed with Dot Records and scored “I Wouldn’t Want to Live if You Didn’t Love Me” as his first No. 1 smash later that same year. He followed it with a country revival of the Brook Benton oldie “The Ties That Bind.”
Between 1975 and 1978, he had seven consecutive No. 1 country hits — “You’re My Best Friend” (1975), “(Turn Out the Lights and) Love Me Tonight” (1975). “Til the Rivers All Run Dry” (1976), “Say It Again” (1976), “She Never Knew Me” (1976), “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” (1977) and “I’m Just a Country Boy” (1977).
Williams made his movie debut in 1975’s W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. This appearance led to his adopting his trademark hat. He also appeared in the 1980 film Smokey and the Bandit II. Buoyed by the British success of his singles, Williams traveled to England to appear at The Wembley Festival in 1976. This marked the advent of his wide popularity overseas throughout the remainder of his career. By the dawn of the 1980s, he was also a superstar in Canada.
Dot became ABC/Dot, then ABC and then MCA Records as Williams continued to score hit after hit. In 1978 came “I’ve Got a Winner in You,” “Rake and a Rambling Man” and “Tulsa Time.” The last named was revived by Eric Clapton on the pop hit parade two years later. Don Williams won the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year award in 1978. He finished out the decade with “Lay Down Beside Me,” “It Must Be Love” and “Love Me All Over Again.” “It Must Be Love” turned out to be another evergreen. Alan Jackson brought it back to the top of the charts in 2000.
The Don Williams hit “Good Old Boys Like Me” of 1980 is regarded as one of country’s most poetic lyrics. It was written by Bob McDill, who was also behind 11 of the singer’s other top-10 hits. Others to whom Williams regularly turned for material included Allen Reynolds, Wayland Holyfield and Roger Cook.
Cook and Sam Hogin co-wrote “I Believe in You,” which returned Williams to the pop charts in 1980. It was later revived by Bette Midler. Williams had a banner year in 1981 with “Falling Again,” “Miracles,” “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” and the Emmylou Harris duet “If I Needed You.” That fall, the CMA named his I Believe In You its Album of the Year.
He remained with MCA into the middle of the decade, repeatedly topping the charts with such singles as “If Hollywood Don’t Need You,” “Love Is on a Roll,” “Stay Young” and “That’s the Thing About Love.” Throughout this era, Don Williams records were produced by Garth Funds, and two remained a team when the star signed with Capitol Records in 1986. The hits “We’ve Got a Good Fire Goin,” “Heartbeat in the Darkness” and “Then it’s Love” kicked off his Capitol career. These were followed with 1987’s equally successful “Senorita,” “I’ll Never Be in Love Again” and “I Wouldn’t Be a Man.” In 1988-89 he scored with “Another Place, Another Time,” “Desperately” and “Old Coyote Town.”
Williams moved to RCA in 1989. His last seven top-10 hits were on this label, including “One Good Well” (1989), “I’ve Been Loved by the Best” (1990) and his final one, “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy” (1991). Josh Turner revived the last-named in 2006.
Although no longer a chart topper, Don Williams continued to perform for sold-out crowds both at home and abroad for the next 20 years. He attempted to retire in 2006, but returned to the road in 2010, the same year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He also had regular success as a songwriter. Among those who have recorded his songs are Kenny Rogers (“Lay Down Beside Me”), Charley Pride (“The Shelter of Your Eyes”), Lefty Frizzell (“If She Just Helps Me Get Over You”), Johnny Cash (“Down the Road I Go”), Jeanne Pruett (“Lay Down Beside Me”), Sonny James (“If She Just Helps Me Get Over You”) and rock star Pete Townsend (“Til the Rivers All Run Dry”).
Williams returned to recording with the Sugar Hill Records albums And So It Goes (2012) and Reflections (2014). His enduring appeal was reflected in the fact that both made the top-20 on the country album charts. He also released a live CD and DVD in 2016.
He announced his retirement last year. Earlier this year, producer Fundis created a tribute CD to him, titled Gentle Giants as a tip of the hat to the performer’s longtime nickname. It included performances of Williams’ hits by Chris Stapleton, Alison Krauss, Garth Brooks, Keb Mo, Lady Antebellum and Trisha Yearwood, among others.
Don Williams had been in declining health for several months. He died on Friday, September 8. He is survived by his wife Joy and sons Gary and Timmy. Arrangements are pending.
“In giving voice to songs like “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” and “Amanda,” Don Williams offered calm, beauty, and a sense of wistful peace that is in short supply these days,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “His music will forever be a balm in troublesome times. Everyone who makes country music with grace, intelligence, and ageless intent will do so while standing on the shoulders of this gentle giant.”
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