The recent passing on of one of the world’s most popular country music stars, the award-winning singer-song writer, Don Williams, dealt a heavy blow to the hearts of many Kenyan music lovers.
Williams died at age 78 last Friday at his home in Mobile, Alabama. The cause of his passing was emphysema, a lung condition most commonly caused from cigarette smoking.
Fondly nicknamed ‘the gentle giant’ for his towering height (he was over six feet tall), low-key profile and mellow baritone voice, Williams first came to Kenyans’ attention back in the 1970s.
He actually launched his solo music career in Nashville in 1971; but his first number one hit single came out in 1974 when he recorded ‘I wouldn’t want to live if you didn’t love me.’
Acclaimed for his soulful country ballads, he shot to fame for songs like ‘I believe in you’ and ‘You’re my best friend.’ Both were hits that topped Billboard Country Music Charts as did Kenyan favourites like ‘Amanda’, ‘It must be love’ and ‘Till the rivers all run dry’, which was later recorded by Pete Townsend of the British band, The Who.
In all, between 1974 and 1991, no less than 45 out of the 52 of Williams’ Top 40 singles landed in the Top Ten. And out of those, 17 of his singles shot to Number One. Among them were songs like ‘Senorita’, ‘If I needed you’ (which he sang as a duet with Emmylou Harris in 1981) and ‘We’re more than friends’, which won more fans when another British guitarist Eric Clapton performed it live.
Williams had an even wider following outside of the US. The British in particular were so fond of his music that they welcomed him enthusiastically in 1976 when he performed at both the Wembley Arena and the Royal Albert Hall in London. Readers of the London-based magazine Country Music International even voted him ‘Artist of the Decade.’
In 1978, he also won the Country Music Association Award for Male Vocalist of the Year. The same year, his upbeat hit, Tulsa Time also won the CMA award for ‘Hit Single’. (The single shot to the top of the charts in 2007 when it was re-recorded by Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton.)
But Williams’ sweet country music didn’t only touch the hearts and minds of Europeans. He had a huge fan-base in India and Latin America. And among Africans, it wasn’t only Kenyans who loved listening to Williams sing songs like ‘Lord, I hope the day is good’, ‘Gypsy Woman’ and ‘I’m just a country boy.’
He was so popular in Southern Africa that he became the only American country singer to tour Africa although he never made it to Kenya. His live performance in Harare, Zimbabwe was recorded and released as a DVD in 1997. It’s available on Amazon entitled ‘Don Williams: Into Africa’. But a new copy costs $288.90 (Sh29,700) and a used one will set you back $44.15 (Sh4,540).
Born in the rural town of Floydada, Texas on May 27, 1939, Williams’ father was a mechanic who moved his family all over Texas before they finally settled in Portland near the Gulf Coast. That’s where Williams graduated from high school in 1958. He went on to enlist in the US Army where he served for several years. His music career took off soon after that.
Williams started singing at home from age three. His mother is the one who taught him to play guitar. He began performing with local country, rock and folk bands throughout his high school years.
After the military, he came home and cofounded the folk-rock trio, Pozo-Seco Singers in 1964. With them he recorded his first albums on Columbia Records. The trio split up in 1969 and for a brief period, Williams did odd jobs until he hit the road for Nashville, the capitol of country music.
By 1971, he had signed a contract with Jack Music. By the time he retired in 2016, Williams had made nearly 40 albums and recorded with Capital Records, MCA, RCA and several others.
He was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. But Williams had always been cautious about stardom and fame. He said it could be both a blessing and a curse. Thus, he didn’t go on tour as often as many musicians popular during his heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s. Nor did he give many media interviews. He frankly preferred keeping a low profile and staying with his family on his farm just outside of Nashville.
Renowned for his gentle, understated style and genial Southern drawl, Williams was given the nickname ‘gentle giant’ by the CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Kyle Young. It was also Young who said that future generations of country music singers would need the same ‘grace, intelligence and ageless intent’ as Williams if they hoped “to stand on the shoulders of this gentle giant.”
In one extensive interview that he gave to a British journalist in 1996, Williams said he had grown up listening to the likes of Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves as well as Little Richard, Bill Haley, Teresa Brewer and the Platters.
Some might say Don Williams’ musical legacy will be more long-lasting than all of his mentors combined. Reasons for what is bound to be his enduring success is the simple wisdom, unabashed sincerity and accessibility of his warm melodious style. He was a man who shamelessly sang of sentiments like love, commitment and even romantic fidelity.