Doc Williams; country singer starred on W.Va. radio; at 96
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Country music singer Doc Williams became a big star in small places through the power of radio.
In the years before World War II, his Wheeling, W.Va.-based radio show built him a following in Maine, Vermont, and the Canadian provinces — places where he later toured, and where some fans still tap in time to songs from his band, the Border Riders.
Mr. Williams died Monday at his Wheeling home at age 96.
“I don’t know if the state of West Virginia had a better ambassador than Doc Williams,’’ Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson said this week. “You thought of Doc Williams, you thought of Wheeling, you thought of the Jamboree,’’ Anderson said, referring to Jamboree USA, one of the most popular programs on radio station WWVA.
Born in Cleveland in 1914 as Andrew John Smik, Mr. Williams quit school in the 10th grade to help support his family. He worked alongside his father in the coal mines but left to play music, using the stage name Williams. His grandmother bought him his first professional guitar in 1933 and he started performing at square dances in small Pennsylvania towns.
After forming the Border Riders, Mr. Williams started broadcasting a daily show on WWVA in 1937. He and his wife, Chickie, became the Jamboree USA headline act that could be heard on AM radio all the way to Canada.
“That station came in clear as a bell,’’ said Mr. Williams’s daughter, Barbara Smik. “In those days radio was a very, very powerful medium.’’
Smik, who took over her father’s business dealings a few decades ago and wrote a book about him, said she still gets calls from fans in Canada.
“I hear from these children now of many parents that have already passed on, the World War II generation, that took them to Mom and Dad’s concerts,’’ Smik said.
She said they took their act to northern Maine and beyond.
“That’s how they made their living,’’ Smik said. “They reached out to people with entertainment and goodwill. Dad would book his show into these little communities, and that’s what he enjoyed doing, especially Canada. The Canadians remained amazingly loyal.’’
Mr. Williams’s rendition of “The Cat Came Back’’ sold more than 1 million records.
Anderson recalled attending one of Mr. Williams’s shows in Roscoe, N.Y., in the mid-1970s. Anderson was looking to add a musician to his own band and had heard that one of Doc Williams’s band members was interested in moving to Nashville.
“I bought a ticket. Doc did not know I was there,’’ Anderson said. “I sat in the back of the auditorium and was thoroughly entertained. I was afraid I made Doc mad when I hired him, but he was very nice and he was glad to see the young boy get a chance to come to Nashville. Doc was a gentleman, he really was.’’
Mr. Williams never followed the route to the Grand Ole Opry.
“Doc wasn’t a major recording artist. He didn’t have national hits,’’ Anderson said. “He just confined himself to that area of the northeast and Canada. He just had a great way of communicating with the people. He didn’t necessarily try to go beyond that. He found his niche and he played to that.’’
Chickie Williams died in November 2007 at age 88.