Texas native Don Williams, who forged his own musical identity in the 1970s with a unique and low-key style of country that earned him the nickname “The Gentle Giant,” passed away on Friday (Sept. 8). A press release from the singer’s PR team confirms his death “after a short illness,” saying that funeral arrangements are pending. He was 78 years old.
Williams was born May 27, 1939 in Floydada, Texas, growing up in nearby Portland. Music had always been close to Williams’ heart, as he entered his first talent contest — and won — at the age of three. His prize was a brand new alarm clock. Williams played in a band with several friends during his teenage years, and started a family not too long after graduating high school, marrying his wife Joy in April 1960. To make ends meet, Williams worked a variety of jobs, including that of a bill collector. However, he never gave up on his love of music, eventually forming a folk trio, The Pozo-Seco Singers, in late 1964. Comprised of Williams, Lofton Cline, and Susan Taylor, the trio released three albums for Columbia in 1966-1968, hitting the Billboard Hot 100 six times — with their biggest hits including “Time” (No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1966), “I Can Make It With You” and “Look What You’ve Done” (both No. 32 singles on the Hot 100 in 1966 and 1967, respectively.) Williams left the trio in late 1969.
Soon, the singer found his way to Nashville, and was writing for the publishing company of Jack Clement. By 1972, he was on the roster of Clement’s JMI Records, where he made his Hot Country Songs chart debut the following year with “The Shelter of Your Eyes.” Four subsequent releases on JMI all charted, including 1974’s “We Should Be Together,” which hit No. 5 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
Williams’ career caught the eye of veteran executive Jim Foglesong, who signed the singer to Dot, (later ABC / Dot) where his debut single for the label “I Wouldn’t Want To Live If You Didn’t Love Me” became a chart-topper in September 1974. The successes continued to come for the singer. In fact, each single he released from 1974 through 1991 hit no lower than No. 22 on the Hot Country Songs chart, including the late-’70s No. 1s “Say It Again” and “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” which led to his being named as the Male Vocalist of the Year in 1978 by the Country Music Association.
The next year would see Williams’ recording contract be absorbed by MCA Records, but there was no slowdown in his success rate. He topped the chart that year with “It Must Be Love” and “Love Me Over Again,” and recorded the 1981 crossover hit “I Believe in You,” which hit No. 24 on the Hot 100 in addition to hitting the top of Hot Country Songs. His star shined throughout the decade with hits such as “Stay Young,” “Desperately,” and “Old Coyote Town,” keeping his records in the top 10 through label changes to Capitol (1986) and RCA (1989), where he notched his final top 10 hit, 1991’s “True Love.” All in all, Williams’ Hot Country Songs chart numbers include 45 top 10 hits and 17 No. 1s, with his final leader being 1986’s “Heartbeat in the Darkness.”
With his chart heydey behind him. Williams continued to tour in the United States as well as abroad. His smooth sound had made him fans the world over, including Great Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa. Williams retired from the road in 2006, but he couldn’t shake his love of the stage, returning to audiences in 2010. He also returned to the recording studio for a pair of albums for Sugar Hill, 2012’s And So It Goes, and 2014’s Reflections, both of which made the top 20 on Top Country Albums chart. Williams called it a career in 2016, with his final release being a Live CD / DVD recorded in Ireland, where he developed a loyal following.
In May 2017, Williams was the subject of a tribute album, Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams. Garth Fundis, who produced many of Williams’ biggest hits, oversaw the project, which included cuts from The Pistol Annies, Garth Brooks, and Lady Antebellum. At the time of the release, Fundis was quick to praise his old friend’s acumen for picking songs.
“He never let himself stray from what he felt about music. I think that’s where the consistency comes from. It had to work for him in a simple way. Sometimes, we do orchestrations and get a lot of instruments going, but it was usually pretty simple. He always was the rudder that kept the bowel pointed in the right direction, to use a sailing term. It was wonderful how he could always take different kinds of songs, and by the time he was done with them, they all kind of fit together in a really wonderful way.”