Danny Williams (7 January 1942 – 6 December 2005) was a South African pop singer. Williams earned the nickname, "Britain's Johnny Mathis", for his smooth and stylish way with a ballad. He is best known for singing his UK number 1 version of "Moon River" in 1961 and his US top ten hit, "White on White".
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 Williams was brought up by his grandmother. 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 Moon River 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, and Williams
had no more British hits, although White on White reached the US Top 10 in 1964. 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, a consequence of a profligate lifestyle that centred for several years on the Playboy Club in Park Lane.
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, his last being in the summer of 2004.
After the collapse of apartheid in 1990, Williams returned to South Africa on several occasions, but continued to live in Britain. He died in December 2005 of lung cancer, at the age of 63. Williams was married three times, and is survived by his partner Daniella, two daughters and a son, the actor Anthony Barclay. (Info mainly from the Guardian)