Throughout the course of his career, Don Williams was known for two things: consistency and great songs. From 1973-1991, the singer hit the Top-20 on the Billboard Country charts with every release but one. At the same time, his catalog includes lyrics that country fans could identify with strongly — all done in an easy-going style that made him a favorite of music fans here and abroad, and also influencing artists ranging from Joe Nichols to Keith Urban, and a brand new tribute record, Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, that includes contributions from artists such as Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, and Brandy Clark.
Sadly just more than three months after the tribute album was released, Williams passed away on Friday (Sept. 8) after suffering from a short illness. He was 78 years old, which means that he was able to leave behind a legacy revered by country artists young and old — and in celebration of his life, Billboard wanted to pick his best contributions to the country world.
A close examination of the Don Williams song catalog reflects many of the top songwriters of the format from Dave Loggins to Roger Cook to Wayland Holyfield, and of course, Bob McDill, who penned so many of his classics. It’s no coincidence that many of the songs on this list include those names on the copyright. As we reflect on the greatness of Don Williams’ life and career, let’s look back on these fifteen great moments, each showing the singer at his best.
15. Don Williams – “Amanda”
It’s one of the classic arguments for longtime fans of Country Music. Waylon Jennings’ 1979 chart-topper or Don Williams’ 1973 original? Either way, the choice is one of a classic. But, Don’s recording of this (a charted B-side of early hit of his early single “Come Early Morning”) Bob McDill evergreen made plenty of positive impressions early on in his career.
14. Don Williams – “Just As Long As I Have You”
Of the Don Williams songs released during his 1989-1992 stint with RCA, this reassuring love ballad from the pen of J.D. Martin and Dave Loggins became a fan favorite in the winter of 1990. Interestingly enough, Williams wasn’t the first to chart with the song. That distinction falls to Loggins, who recorded it with Gus Hardin in 1985. However, their version only made it to No. 72 – more than a few positions lower than the No. 4 peak of Williams’ recording.
13. Don Williams – “Walkin’ A Broken Heart”
A 1985 performance that showed Williams’ evolution as a recording artist. It was a little more sophisticated than the organic sound of his 1970s work, but the No. 2 rank of this one the charts proved that Williams’ easygoing style was right at home with any production.
12. Don Williams – “You’re My Best Friend”
The Don Williams song catalog has a few songwriters’ names listed more than once – Bob McDill and Dave Loggins among them. This early hit – his second number one hit – was supplied to the singer by tunesmith Wayland Holyfield.
11. Don Williams – “We’ve Got A Good Fire Goin’”
Williams had been on the ABC / Dot / MCA roster for over a decade when he moved to Capitol Records in 1986, reuniting with Jim Fogelsong – his label chief during the early days at MCA. It was a successful partnership from the start, hitting No. 3 on the singles chart. Lady Antebellum turned in a stirring performance of the song on the recent Gentle Giants tribute disc.
10. Don Williams – “Nobody But You”
J.D. Martin and John Jarrard penned this romantic love song for the singer, which was all over the Country charts during the summer months of 1983. It was one of three singles from his classic Yellow Moon album.
9. Don Williams – “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend”
Another Don Williams song from the pen of Wayland Holyfield. It was his sixth number one on the singles chart, and inspired two very different cover versions. The Bellamy Brothers recorded a reggae version in the 1990s, but before that, Telly Savalas (yes, Kojak!) cut a version that was a hit in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. ‘Who Loves You Baby,’ indeed!
8. Don Williams – “Another Place, Another Time”
In the spring of 1988, Williams released what might have very well been his best single of his later years, this tender ballad about a love that should have been, but the timing wasn’t right, due to the relationship that the singer was already in. Of course, strong lyrics were nothing new to the legendary Bob McDill, who co-wrote the song with Paul Harrison.
7. Don Williams – “If I Needed You”
Williams didn’t do a lot of collaborations in his career, and the only one to ever chart was this beautiful performance of a Townes Van Zandt classic along with fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Emmylou Harris. The song made it to No. 3 in America, while topping the charts in Canada.
6. Don Williams – “She Never Knew Me”
McDill and Holyfield united their talents on paper for this composition, which made it all the way to No. 2 in late 1976. The lyrics were very much inspired by “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” and the resulting factor was a Don Williams performance that ranks as one of his best!
5. Don Williams – “Rake and Ramblin’ Man”
Most of the time, artists choose to record songs that are geared toward the female demographic, as traditionally, they have been the primary record buying consumer. But, in 1978, Williams cut this song that many men have identified with at one time or the other – about that moment where you find out that parenthood is just around the corner. He handled the song with just the right amount of wry humor in interpreting McDill’s lyrics, and the result was one of his most unforgettable records.
4. Don Williams – “I Believe In You”
Likely the song that stands as Williams’ most identifiable classics, this was an across the board hit. No. 1 Country, No. 8 Adult Contemporary, and his highest ranking of No. 24 on the Hot 100. Moreover, the song’s success stretched across the pond, hitting the charts in Europe and Australia.
3. Don Williams – “Lay Down Beside Me”
On many of his early recordings, Don’s name showed up as a songwriter, including this No. 3 hit from 1979. Though he composed the song, he actually wasn’t the first to record the heartwarming ballad. Kenny Rogers recorded a fine version on his 1976 self-titled album for United Artists — but it was Williams’ version that found its’ way to the charts.
2. Don Williams – “Good Old Boys Like Me”
Again, credit a Don Williams hit to the pen of Bob McDill. This 1980 single was an ode of a disappearing way of life that likely wouldn’t have worked in today’s marketplace, but in Don Williams’ hands, this song became a classic. And, you never know who’s paying attention to your song. In Mike Nichols’ classic 1998 hit Primary Colors, the Clinton-esque lead character — Jack Stanton (played to perfection by John Travolta) was seen quoting the song’s lyrics — not long after destroying the political career of Larry Hagman’s Governor Fred Picker.
1. Don Williams – “Tulsa Time”
Released in October 1978 ( the same month of Don’s win as Male Vocalist of the Year by the CMA), this Don Williams song definitely had a different sound. Composed by Danny Flowers, the song was perhaps Williams’ most rockin’ performance, and one that has been covered more than a few times — most notably by Eric Clapton, who released the song as the B-side to “Cocaine” in 1979.