Don Williams, who died in September 2017, would have turned 80 this Memorial Day. In a remarkable country music career that began in the early Seventies and lasted until his retirement in 2016, Williams was known not only for his warm, resonant voice and his gentle, unassuming nature, but also as one of the world’s most important and popular ambassadors of country music. What is less well-known about the “Gentle Giant,” as he was affectionately nicknamed, are details of Williams’ military career.
From 1957 to 1959, Williams served at a remote base with the Army Security Agency, holding top secret and cryptology security clearances, according to his friend Robert G. Neiswender, who served in the Army Security Agency with Williams. “He understood the advantages of knowing our opponents’ intent, recognizing ongoing world dangers such as a divided Korea and an emerging China and seeing the need to maintain a strong military and economy,” Neiswender wrote in a letter to Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle newspaper after Williams’ death.
While serving in Japan, the Texas native began playing music, and although he sang a variety of genres, found particular favor from audiences when he performed country music. He would, however, have his first taste of success as a member of the folk-pop group the Pozo-Seco Singers. But in 1972, signed to Cowboy Jack Clement’s JMI Records, he scored his first hit single, “The Shelter of Your Eyes.” By 1974, he was signed to ABC-Dot Records — which would later morph into the MCA label where he had his greatest hits. For the next decade, he dominated the country charts and earned several ACM and CMA nominations, taking home the CMA Male Vocalist trophy in 1978, by which time he was also crossing over to the pop chart.
One of Williams’ earliest hits was the 1973 double-sided single “Come Early Morning,” backed with the romantic “Amanda.” Both songs were penned by the legendary Bob McDill, who would supply Williams with other major hits, including “If Hollywood Don’t Need You,” “Good Old Boys Like Me,” “(Turn Out the Lights And) Love Me Tonight” and “It Must Be Love.” Although “Amanda” would be a chart-topping 1979 single for Waylon Jennings, Williams’ early Seventies version, featured in the above clip, comes from a time before the singer sported facial hair and commonly wore a cowboy hat in public. He had, however, already perfected the smooth-as-silk vocal style that distinguished him as one of country music’s most effortlessly inviting entertainers for decades.
A genuinely private person, Williams is nonetheless revered by a new generation of performers and is set to be celebrated later this year at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center with a three-night event titled Don Williams: Music & Memories of the Gentle Giant, during which the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s music will take center stage, accompanied by the Nashville Symphony and Williams’ touring band. Keith Urban will serve as curator of the show, which runs from October 31st through November 2nd. Williams, who made history as one of the first country acts to appear in his own music video (for “Come Early Morning”) in 1973, will be spotlighted through historical footage, and special guest singers will perform live during the event. The show is also scheduled to tour the country through 2020.