Obituary: Floyd Cramer
Monday 05 January 1998
The piano style of Floyd Cramer is among the most readily identifiable in popular music. His famous slurred notes, each sliding, as with a steel guitar, seamlessly and richly into those that follow, appear on literally hundreds of recordings from the Fifties and Sixties and at his peak were heard on an estimated quarter of all the sides cut in Nashville. Among the artists he backed were Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Perry Como, Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers, Connie Francis, Eddy Arnold, Burl Ives and Skeeter Davis.
With the producer-musicians Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, the guitarists Harold Bradley and Fred Carter, the fiddler Tommy Jackson, the vocal group the Jordanaires and a handful of others, Cramer became a key figure in the late Fifties in the emergence of the famed Nashville Sound, country music's slick, upmarket and ultimately very successful answer to the tidal wave that was rock 'n' roll. Not only did the "Sound" ensure that country music remained viable, it also played a key role in developing, perhaps for the first time, its international fan base.
The characteristic Cramer sound has routinely been labelled "slip-tone". He himself commented, "The style I use mainly is a whole-tone slur which gives more of a lonesome cowboy sound. You hit a note and slide almost simultaneously to another."
Its origin, however, remains uncertain. It seems first to have emerged at a 1960 session for Hank Locklin's future hit "Please Help Me I'm Falling", at which Atkins asked Cramer to copy the unusual piano styling used by the songwriter Don Robertson on the original demo. Cramer, however, acknowledged the influence of "Mother" Maybelle Carter's autoharp playing.
Floyd Cramer was born near Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1933, but grew up in Huttig, Arkansas. His parents bought him a small piano when he was only five and he taught himself to play, performing in public whenever the opportunity arose. On graduating from high school, he returned to Louisiana and soon found work at the radio station KWKH, broadcasting out of Shreveport. At this time KWKH was home to one of the most popular of the radio barndances, The Louisiana Hayride, the so-called "Cradle of the Stars". Whilst there Cramer, along with Faron Young and the steel guitarist Jimmy Day, backed the honky-tonk stars Webb Pierce and Red Sovine, and he briefly toured with Hank Williams.
In 1953 he entered the recording studio and cut his first single, "Dancin' Diane", backed with "Little Brown Jug", for the local Abbott label. He then toured with an emerging talent who would later figure significantly in his career, Elvis Presley.
From 1952 Cramer had been making regular forays to Nashville for session work and in 1955, at the instigation of Chet Atkins, and in common with many of the Hayride's other stars, he relocated there. An album for MGM, That Honky-Tonk Piano, was issued to little fanfare in 1957 and he signed to RCA, enjoying his first real success as a solo act with the self-penned single "Flip, Flop and Bop" (1958). Two million-sellers followed: "Last Date" (1960) and "On the Rebound" (1961), the latter topping the British pop charts.
Over the years, Cramer continued to balance session work with his own albums. Many of these featured standards or popular hits of the era and from 1965 to 1974 he annually recorded a disc of the year's biggest hits prefaced "Class of . . ." Other long-players included I Remember Hank Williams (1962), Floyd Cramer Plays the Monkees (1967), Looking For Mr Goodbar (1968) and Sounds of Sunday (1971). Nineteen seventy-seven saw the release of Floyd Cramer and the Keyboard Kick Band, on which he played eight different keyboard instruments.
In addition to his studio work, Cramer became a fixture of the concert circuit, joining Atkins and the saxophonist Boots Randolph in a series of Masters Festival appearances; they recorded an album together, Chet, Floyd & Boots, in 1971. In 1974 he was awarded the Golden Metronome in recognition of his contributions to the music industry in Nashville.
Floyd Cramer's final major chart entry was a version of the theme to the television series Dallas in 1980. His subsequent visits to the studio proved sporadic: a handful of albums for Ray Pennington's Step One Records in the late Eighties and a series of popular, if uninspired, television- advertised sets.
It is as one of the architects of the Nashville Sound, that small group of musicians whose polished and heartfelt playing made country music accessible to a world-wide audience, that he will be best remembered. In the words of the country star Jimmy Dean, "No orator ever spoke more eloquently than Floyd Cramer speaks with 88 keys."
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