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Country music TV host Williams dies at 73

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Posted: Friday, December 16, 2011 3:17 pm

Gene Williams, host of a long-running country music television show that was filmed in Branson for many years, died Wednesday at the age of 73.

According to Glen Williams, Gene Williams’ son and the show’s executive producer, the longtime TV host stopped breathing at his home in Sherwood, Ark., Wednesday evening.

He said CPR was attempted at the scene and Williams was transported to a local hospital, but medical personnel were unable to revive him. 

“He came home, sat down in his favorite chair, went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” Glen Williams said.

He said his father had just gotten to see his family and grandchildren over the holidays and spent some time with one of his daughters Tuesday.

“He was in a good place,” he said.

Singer Dalena Ditto, Williams’ friend and co-host for almost a year, said he was in Branson Wednesday for several meetings related to some “big plans” for his show.

“Things were really moving along. He was really excited,” she said. “I think this was probably the happiest he’s been in a long time.”

After a long run filming his show in various venues in Branson — including his own theater in the Branson Mall at one point — Williams had moved to a studio in Springfield for two years before returning to the Mickey Gilley Theatre in November. 

He had been planning to move filming to the Clay Cooper Theatre, Ditto said.

“He sure loved to promote the music in Branson,” Glen Williams said of his father. “Branson was good to him. There are a lot of good people there, and we’re very grateful.”

Glen Williams said he and his staff are going to try to continue the show. There are at least four episodes that have been filmed that haven’t yet been broadcast, including several that were recorded in Branson.

“We’re going to do our best to keep the show going,” Glen Williams said. “We’re not going away.”

Local ventriloquist and businessman Jim Barber, another friend of Williams, called him the “Ed Sullivan of country music.”

“There was a genuine, down-home folksiness and dry sense of humor about the man that created loyal viewers across the country to tune in each week for all these years,” Barber said. “We may never see the likes of him again.”

Williams began his show in 1963 in Jonesboro, Ark. It was later syndicated and was reaching nearly 175 markets at its peak.

According to Williams’ website, it was the longest-running country music television show in the industry. As of 2011, he had taped more than 2,400 shows.

While in Branson, Williams’ production featured a live band and various local entertainers as guest stars.

Barber said Williams’ show “was simple by design, but Gene surrounded himself with very talented musicians, producers, co-hosts and interesting guests to keep the show moving.”

“He loved being around entertainers and was a huge promoter of country music and variety artists,” Barber said.

Williams was born in Dyess, Ark., and grew up with Johnny Cash, who was also from there, Ditto said. 

He had a successful career as a disc jockey in Nashville, even being named Disc Jockey of the Year by the Grand Ole Opry in 1961. Ditto said this career helped Williams make connections in the music industry that served him well for the production of his TV show.

Williams is survived by his two sons and four daughters. Funeral services are planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at Roller-Owens Funeral Home in Little Rock, Ark.

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