Updated: Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 — 6:45 p.m. ET.
Don Williams, who regularly topped the country charts during the 1970s and ’80s with his gentle, reflective ballads, died Friday (Sept. 8) at the age of 78.
Except when onstage, the soft-spoken Williams generally shunned the spotlight, even managing to be absent when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
But it was his warm, resonant baritone voice that become his chief trademark and his key to racking up 17 No. 1 singles, among them “I’m Just a Country Boy,” “Tulsa Time,” “I Believe in You,” “You’re My Best Friend” and “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good.” Twenty-two more of his singles went Top 5.
“Good Ole Boys Like Me,” perhaps his most memorable hit, peaked at No. 2 in 1980.
Fans and journalists often referred to him as “the gentle giant” — more for his bearing and musical impact than his physical size.
Speaking and singing in his honor at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, admirer Alison Krauss said, “I think he sounds somewhere between Santa Claus and the Almighty.”
In 2012, Krauss joined Williams in the wistful duet, “I Just Come Here for the Music,” from his And So It Goes album.
Born May 27, 1939, in Floydada, Texas, Williams first flirted with folk and pop music before turning to country. He was the lead vocalist of the Pozo-Seco Singers from 1964 to 1971. The group had modest pop success, charting six low-ranking singles in 1966-67. Of these, only “Time” cracked the Top 50.
Williams would not hit the pop charts again until 1980 when “I Believe in You” — a two-week country chart-topper — reached No. 24.
In 1972, Williams signed to Jack Clement’s JMI Records. This brought him into a creative community that included Clement, producer-songwriter Allen Reynolds, songwriter Bob McDill and engineer-producer Garth Fundis. They would do much to shape his sound and supply many of his hits.
A gifted songwriter as well as a vocalist, Williams wrote his first country charter, “The Shelter of Your Eyes,” which reached No 14 in 1973. Other hits Williams wrote or co-wrote included “Atta Way to Go,” “We Should Be Together,” “Till the Rivers All Run Dry,” “Lay Down Beside Me” and “Love Me All Over Again.”
Williams could also take credit for having the first country music video — before there were music videos. Because Clement was interested in movie-making, he did a concept clip in 1973 of the current Willliams single, “Come Early Morning,” a song written by McDill.
Like the late Jim Reeves (1923-1964), with whose style his is sometimes compared, Williams became a superstar in Africa. In 2004, he released the DVD Into Africa which chronicled his 1997 live shows and travels in Zimbabwe.
In one of the most moving scenes, a blind street musician strums his guitar and earnestly sings “You’re My Best Friend” while a friend accompanies him on a drum kit made of discarded pots and pans.
Williams’ winning streak on the charts continued through the early ’90s with such memorables as “Just as Long as I Have You,” “Back in My Younger Days,” “True Love” and “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy.”
Even after the hits tapered off, he continued to release albums and tour, often talking about retirement but never quite making it final.
Funeral arrangements are pending.