Spectropop remembers

DANNY WILLIAMS (1942 - 2005)

Danny Williams, who has died of cancer aged 63, was a South African-born singer whose ethereal version of the film theme "Moon River" topped the UK charts at Christmas 1961 and has remained an easy listening favourite ever since.

He grew up under apartheid in Port Elizabeth, where he sang his first solo with a church choir at the age of six. His father, a professional soldier, died in the Korean war, and his stepfather beat him so brutally that he acquired a limp. He was then brought up by his grandmother. Although he revisited South Africa when apartheid ended, he still felt too traumatised by his past to return to Port Elizabeth.

At 14, he won a talent contest and joined a touring show called Golden City Dixies that played throughout South Africa. Its members included jazz saxophonist Harold Jephtah and, in later years, the singer-songwriter Jonathan Butler.

The musical King Kong and the Golden City Dixies were among several black South African shows to come to Europe; and, in London in 1959, Williams impressed Norman Newell, the recording manager of EMI's HMV label. Newell was a composer and arranger of the Tin Pan Alley old school, and was unhappy at being the British executive responsible for issuing Elvis Presley's early hits. In Williams' good looks and mellifluous high tenor, he saw the makings of a new Johnny Mathis, and signed him to a recording contract. The first single was "Tall A Tree", but it was not until 1961 and his fifth record, "We Will Never Be As Young As This Again", that Williams achieved a minor hit.

That was also the year of the Blake Edwards film Breakfast at Tiffany's, starring Audrey Hepburn. The film's catchy theme tune, "Moon River", composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, won an Oscar. The American hit record of the song was by another tenor, the soul singer Jerry Butler, and, at first, Williams was unwilling to record the song - mainly, he later explained, because he did not understand the lyric reference to "my huckleberry friend". After seeing the film, however, he relented, and his "Moon River" outsold the instrumental version by Mancini himself and replaced Frankie Vaughan's "Tower Of Strength" at No 1 in the charts at the end of December. Williams was fond of telling the story that his boyhood hero Nat "King" Cole had declined to record the song because he regarded Danny's version as unsurpassable. Since 1961, the track has been reissued on numerous compilation albums and it remains a favourite item at karaoke sessions and even at funerals.

The following year brought three Top 20 hits for Williams: "Jeannie" (based on a Russ Conway instrumental), "The Wonderful World Of The Young" (by Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett, composers of several Cliff Richard hits) and "Tears". Then, in February 1963, he joined a 20-city package tour headed by a new star, Helen Shapiro. Also on the bill was a guitar group, the Beatles. By the end of the tour, "Please Please Me" was No 1 and the beat group era was born.

It was an uncongenial era for ballad singers, but American producers and arrangers were interested in working with his terrific voice. Nelson Riddle hooked up with Danny to release the "Swinging For You" LP in 1962. Alma Cogan wrote the sleeve notes. In March 1964, Danny turned up on the US charts with "White On White", with an arrangement by Don Costa. He continued to record for HMV until 1967 and worked steadily in nightclubs.

In 1968, he had a nervous breakdown followed, two years later, by bankruptcy. Williams's lifestyle belied the gentle romance of his songs. He loved the fame while it lasted, lived a wild life in London and in the late 1960s was a fixture at the Playboy Club on Park Lane. He once caused Chubby Checker to storm out of a showcase gig when he stole the crowd's attention by twisting with Helen Shapiro. But after two more Top 20 hits, "Jeannie" and "The Wonderful World Of The Young", his singles made less and less impact. The future belonged to the Beatles, who once cited his lifestyle as an inspiration for the album "Revolver".

Williams resumed his singing career in the early 1970s but did not come to national attention again until 1977, when his record "Dancin' Easy", based on a jingle from a well-known Martini commercial, reached the Top 30. In the early 1990s, he recorded for the Prestige label and, in 1994, starred in a Nat "King" Cole tribute show. Scripted and narrated by Elliot Brooks, this was taken by Williams on several more British tours, most recently last summer.

After the collapse of apartheid in 1990, Williams returned to South Africa on several occasions, but continued to live in Britain. He recorded again recently: his granddaughter is the partner of DJ Adam Sky, better known as Adamski. This year Williams went to Italy to sing a track on Sky's latest album, not yet released. Earlier this year, EMI reissued two of his early albums, "Moon River" and "Swinging For You", on CD.

Williams was married three times and is survived by his partner Daniella, two daughters and a son, the actor Anthony Barclay.

(Compiled from obituaries in The Times and by Dave Laing in The Guardian, plus other sources.)

Danny Williams, singer: born January 7th, 1942 - died December 6th, 2005.