Don Gibson, 75; Songs of Loss, Loneliness Were Country Hits

Times Staff Writer

Don Gibson, the reclusive songwriter and singer who transformed his loneliness into such piercing country music classics of heartache and separation as “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Sweet Dreams” and “Oh Lonesome Me,” has died. He was 75.

Gibson died Monday at Baptist Hospital in Nashville after a long illness, longtime friend Peggy Lamb said Tuesday. He had undergone open-heart surgery in the early 1990s and several major surgeries since.

“If loneliness meant world acclaim/ Then everyone would know my name/ I’d be a legend in my time,” he wrote in "(I’d Be A) Legend in My Time,” a 1960 song that distilled his life and career and became a No. 1 hit in 1975 for Ronnie Milsap.

Gibson recorded 23 Top 10 country hits from 1956 to 1974 and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, 18 years after his induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. But the reach of the 350-plus songs he wrote, the vast majority of them ballads of intense loss, extended well beyond his own versions.


Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Ike & Tina Turner, Elvis Costello, Reba McEntire, Marie Osmond and Marilyn Manson are among the hundreds of musicians who have recorded his songs.

“I Can’t Stop Loving You” has been performed by Kitty Wells, Conway Twitty, Count Basie and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others, and gave Ray Charles the biggest hit of his career, topping Billboard’s singles chart for five weeks in 1962.

“It allowed me to go in a whole different musical direction while bringing the country sounds to a new and wider audience,” Charles said Tuesday. “It was Don’s wonderful creation that served as a springboard for this part of my life that remains one of the most cherished aspects of my career.”

As of 1995, the song had been played on the radio more than 4 million times, according to “Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers.”


“He’ll be categorized with people like Hoagy Carmichael,” singer Merle Haggard, a longtime friend, said Tuesday. “We’ll remember him for writing those great songs, but let it go down that he was a stylist. Like Frank Sinatra said in some movie when he was describing somebody he admired, ‘He had style.’ That’s what Gibson had -- style. He didn’t copy nobody.”

Gibson, who considered himself a songwriter first and a singer second, didn’t fake the feelings of despondency he captured so succinctly in his best songs.

“Simple is the only way I can write,” he once said, displaying the economy of words that was a cornerstone of his songwriting.

“I can’t stop wanting you/It’s useless to say/So I’ll just live my life/In dreams of yesterday,” is how he quickly summed up the feeling of lost love in “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”


“My love has been untrue/She’s found somebody new/It’s been a blue, blue day for me,” he wrote in “Blue Blue Day,” which followed “Oh Lonesome Me” to the top of the country charts in 1958, helping keep Gibson in the top spot for a total of 10 weeks the year his career peaked.

In all he put 82 songs on the country chart. He returned to the No. 1 position only once more, 14 years later, with “Woman (Sensuous Woman),” a Gary S. Paxton song that extended his hit streak into the 1970s.

His final chart hit came in 1980 with “Love Fires,” but he continued writing until recently and had delivered two new songs to his publisher in recent months, Lamb said.

Although loneliness and perhaps even depression spurred him to create some of the most enduring songs of the 20th century, they also led to bouts of alcohol and drug abuse.


“I had a lot of problems that hurt me,” he told The Times in 1970. “It’s funny, but a lot of young songwriters in Nashville seem to think pills can help them.” The younger people see people like Gibson and Johnny Cash “and begin to feel pills are part of the secret of success.... It only hurts a songwriter. I’m not looking for sympathy, but I’d like to have a few of those years back.”

Donald Eugene Gibson was born April 3, 1928, in Shelby, N.C., into a family of sharecroppers. He dropped out of school in the second grade because, he said later, “The only thing I was any good at was music.”

As a teenager he helped form the Sons of the Soil, which played songs popularized by the Sons of the Pioneers Western group. By 1948 they had their own radio show on Shelby station WHOS, although Gibson continued his day job working for J&K; Music, a jukebox company.

The group recorded a few songs without success in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. It wasn’t until the Sons moved to Knoxville, Tenn., that Gibson began to get noticed. During a four-year stint performing at Esslinger’s Club, he was spotted by music publisher Wesley Rose, who heard him singing “Sweet Dreams” and offered him a songwriting deal. Gibson held out for a recording contract as well.


Gibson got that deal with MGM Records in 1955 and the next year his recording of “Sweet Dreams” became his first hit, placing him in the country Top 10 nationally. Faron Young did even better with the same song a few months later, taking it to No. 2, and Patsy Cline virtually made it her theme song.

Despite the chart successes, Gibson’s fortunes didn’t change dramatically. By 1957 he was living alone in a trailer outside Knoxville. According to legend, one day in June after his TV and vacuum cleaner had been repossessed, he dashed off two songs: “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Oh Lonesome Me.”

“When I wrote those two songs, I couldn’t have been any closer to the bottom,” he once said.

His recordings of those songs also were significant because Gibson and producer Chet Atkins decided to leave off the steel guitars and fiddles that were the hallmarks of most country records at the time. Instead, they used just guitar, piano, drums and background singers, laying the foundation for a less rural style that came to be known as “the Nashville Sound” and that dominated recordings from the country-music capital for almost two decades.


While some musicians relish the spotlight of public performance, Gibson dreaded it.

During a rare trip to L.A. for a 1967 concert that he headlined at the Shrine Auditorium, Gibson told The Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, “I’d rather be whipped with a bullwhip than go out on that stage.”

“He was singing for a different reason,” Haggard said Tuesday. “He was all about what he wrote about. He never was happy in his life ... he wrote about that, and it all led back to one center -- that he was a lonely fellow. I think he didn’t know how to be otherwise.”

Despite his declining health, in recent years Gibson performed periodically at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, where he moved in 1967.


“He sang with a lot of heart and I always felt you could tell that he was feeling the songs when he performed them,” Lamb said. “He never thought he was a great singer, but many, many other people did.”

Lamb said Gibson’s wife of 34 years, Bobbi, on Tuesday had not completed funeral and memorial service arrangements. Gibson had no other known survivors.