Mentor Williams, 'Drift Away' songwriter, dead at 70

MARY HUDETZ
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Mentor Williams, the award-winning songwriter behind the 1970s hit "Drift Away," which became a soulful rock n' roll anthem aired on radio stations for generations, has died in Taos, New Mexico, at age 70, his brother said Friday.

Actor and songwriter Paul Williams, who is the president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP, confirmed for The Associated Press that his brother Mentor Williams died Wednesday morning after battling lung cancer.

Paul Williams, who is 76, said he was with his brother when he died at home in northern New Mexico.

"It seemed the closer we got to his death the more absolute joy he claimed to feel," the elder Williams said. "He was an amazingly kind, big-hearted cowboy."

Mentor Williams' "Drift Away" was sung by pop artist Dobie Gray in 1973 and reached No. 5 on the Billboard charts that year.

Gray, who died in 2011, had prior hits, including the 1964 pop song "In-Crowd," but had been in desperate need of another break in the early 1970s after reaching a lull in his career.

He teamed up with Williams. The songwriter had produced "Drift Away" for another artist but it didn't pan out.

"He took a singer who the music industry had kind of considered yesterday's news and he cut a classic album with him," Paul Williams said.

With Gray's soulful delivery and the signature line in the chorus ("Give me the beat, boys, free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock 'n' roll, and drift away"), the song quickly became a hit. It not only became a radio mainstay for decades but a remake by Uncle Kracker in 2003 re-introduced the song to a new generation.

A year after Gray's version came out, Williams produced the album "Feelings," which included the songs "Sunday Driver" and "L.A. Cowboy."

Williams also worked on movie soundtracks. For the 1979 "Muppet Movie," he mixed and engineered the tune "Rainbow Connection," which was written by his older brother. In the movie, Kermit the Frog sings the sentimental song by a swamp.

"I asked him to come in and to mix the album for me," Paul Williams said. "All of a sudden, it was this crisp wonderful recording with Kermit singing about rainbows."

Williams, who went to high school in Albuquerque, made his home in Taos, a picturesque mountain and ski town. He had been drawn to the area for its natural beauty, culture and cuisine, his brother said.

Memorial services for Williams in Taos and Nashville will be planned at a later date, his brother said.