Known as the “Gentle Giant” both for his physical stature and for his deep catalog of mellow country hits, Don Williams has passed away. Known for “Tulsa Time” and “I Believe In You,” among many other songs, the singer died after a short illness, according to his publicists, Nashville’s Webster & Associates. He was 78.
Williams’s gruff but soft-spoken style, tailor-made for love songs that were tender-hearted but never treacly, made him one of the most successful artists ever to come from country music’s easy-listening wing. His high-water mark was “I Believe In You,” a No. 1 country hit – one of 17 across Williams’s career – that also climbed to No. 24 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1981. Other songs closely identified with the singer, all of them also country No. 1s, include first No. 1 “I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me,” “(Turn Out the Light And) Love Me Tonight,” “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and “It Must Be Love,” which Alan Jackson also took to the top of the charts in 2000.
Williams was a Texan, born in the tiny Panhandle town of Floydada and raised in Portland near Corpus Christi. From 1964 through 1971, he was a member of the Corpus-based folksinging group the Pozo-Seco Singers; their 1964 song “Time,” on which Williams sang lead, became a hit in Texas and won the group a contract with Columbia Records, ultimately reaching the Top 3 of Billboard’s Easy Listening chart and the mid-thirties on the pop chart in 1966.
After moving to Nashville, Williams hired on as a songwriter for legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement’s label, Jack Music Inc., and worked his way into a solo deal that culminated in “We Should Be Together,” which hit the Top 5 in 1974. Williams would land at least one single in the Billboard’s country Top 40 every year until 1991, 46 in all and only four that failed to reach the Top 10. After befriending Burt Reynolds, he had a small part in 1980's Smokey and the Bandit II alongside other country stars Mel Tillis and the Statler Brothers.
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Williams was a four-time Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo entertainer, from 1981 through '83 and again in 1986. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010, the same year he came out of a four-year retirement. He remained popular on the road, visiting Houston’s Arena Theatre in 2013 and Stafford Centre in 2015 before retiring for good the next year. “It’s time to hang my hat up and enjoy some quiet time at home,” he said.
Williams’s songs have endured long since his heyday on the charts and continue appealing to younger artists. Released this past May, the tribute album Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams features performances by, among others, Lady Antebellum, Alison Krauss, Brandy Clark, Chris Stapleton, Dierks Bentley, Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires and John Prine.
Turn on Houston's Country Legends 97.1 right now, and it's a safe bet one of Williams's songs will come on before the hour is up.