Don Williams Dead at 78
Written by Warren Ellison on September 9, 2017
Don Williams, who parlayed a smooth baritone singing style into country music stardom, died on Sept. 8 following a short illness at age 78. “The Gentle Giant,” as he was often known, was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and won the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year award in 1978.
Born in Floydada, Texas, May 27, 1939, don was singing professionally by the time he turned 18. In 1964, he became the lead vocalist for the Pozo-Seco Singers pop trio, which enjoyed mild chart success. After splitting from the trio in 1970, Don briefly left the music business but resurfaced as a songwriter and solo artist for Cowboy Jack Clements’ JMI label in 1972. He scored several hits for that label, including “We Should Be Together,” which peaked at No. 5.
Signing with Dot, which later became ABC/Dot, helped springboard Don to the next level of country stardom. His first single for the label in 1974, “I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me,” reached No. 1. The follow-up, “The Ties That Bind,” hit the Top 5, but Don then ran off a string of four straight No. 1 singles, starting with 1975’s “You’re My Best Friend,” which became one of his best-loved tunes over the years. The hits continued through the 1970’s with the ABC/Dot and MCA labels with such favorites as “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” and “Tulsa Time.”
In 1980, Don released his most popular hit, “I Believe in You,” which also became a smash in Australia, New Zealand and other countries overseas. Don was one of the first American country artists to achieve an international following, due in part to his pure and soothing baritone voice, relatable to any language or culture. Contemporary artist Keith Urban, who grew up in Australia, vividly remembers Don Williams records being played in his household. Keith, along with current stars like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Alison Krauss, will often cite Don Williams as a major influence.
In concert, Don engaged audiences with warmth and soft-spoken charm. Offstage, however, Don stood as the product of a different era, when artists generally did not engage in self-promotion. As such, he rarely granted interviews and seldom talked about himself.
Don scored the last of his 17 No. 1 career No. 1 singles in 1986 with “Heartbeat in the Darkness” for Capitol Records. He continued to tour both in the U.S. and abroad until announcing a Farewell Tour of the World in early 2006. After resuming touring in 2010, he retired permanently in 2016.
In 2010, Don was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but was unable to attend the ceremony due to an illness. During the induction program, Alison Krauss described Don’s unique voice as, “Somewhere between Santa and the Almighty.”
On May 26, 2017, a tribute album in Williams’ honor, Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, was released. The album features performances by Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum, Jason Isbell and many others.
As his fans and fellow singers will easily concur, Don Williams was a giant among artists.