NEW YORK • Don Williams, a singer of heartfelt country ballads who emerged as one of the biggest stars in country music during the late 1970s, died last Friday in Mobile, Alabama. He was 78.
His publicist said the cause was emphysema, a lung condition.
Never entirely comfortable in the limelight, Williams nonetheless found himself in it: Seventeen of his singles, including earnest declarations such as You’re My Best Friend and Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good, reached the top of the Billboard country chart from 1974 to 1984.
He found particularly enthusiastic fans in Britain, where his admirers included rock stars Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton.
Nicknamed the Gentle Giant (even though his height of 1.85m may not have quite warranted it), Williams was adept at writing and recording plain-spoken material extolling the virtues of romantic commitment.
Singing in a warm, undulating baritone, he made marital fidelity not just appealing but sexy – as exciting, in its way, as the themes of cheating and running around that defined the classic honky-tonk music of the 1950s and 1960s.
Till The Rivers All Run Dry, a No. 1 country single in 1976, was typical of his understated persona and approach. Propelled by a lightly throbbing beat, he pledged his devotion to the love of his life, singing: “Till the rivers all run dry/Till the sun falls from the sky/Till life on earth is through/I’ll be needing you.”
Tulsa Time, a line-dancing favourite that hit No. 1 on the country chart in 1978, was evidence of Williams’ facility with more rhythmically propulsive material. Clapton’s version of the song reached the pop Top 40 in 1980.
Williams’ survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Joy Bucher; and their two sons, Gary and Timmy; three granddaughters; and one grandson.
He announced his retirement last year, saying in a statement that it was “time to hang my hat up and enjoy some quiet time at home”.
A tribute album, Gentle Giants: The Songs Of Don Williams, including performances by Lady Antebellum and Garth Brooks, was released this year.
Williams cultivated strong fan support in India and Latin America and was one of the few country stars to tour in Africa.
His most robust following outside the United States, however, was always in England. He was enthusiastically received at the 1976 Wembley Festival and performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In 1980, readers of the London-based magazine Country Music People voted him artist of the decade.
“I’ve found that the English pay a lot of respect to your music,” he told Country Music International. “They know who wrote the song, where you recorded it, who the musicians were and all of that stuff. There are a lot of English fans who can remember more about what I’ve done than I can.”