Born 27 October 1933, Campti, Louisiana
My first encounter with the name Floyd Cramer was in late 1960, at the time that his "Last Date" was a big seller. I suppose that many others who were born in the 1940s had the same experience. Little did we know then that we had heard Floyd long before "Last Date", on million sellers as diverse as "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley, "The Three Bells" by the Browns and "Only the Lonely" by Roy Orbison. Session players were largely anonymous in the 1950s.
Though mostly labelled as a country pianist, Floyd Cramer will also be fondly remembered by rock and roll fans for his contributions to countless rocking records. Cramer can be heard on so many recordings from the period 1956- 1965 that he must have been eating and sleeping in the Nashville studios. Floyd Cramer, Jr., was born in Campti, Louisiana (near Shreveport), but grew up in the small sawmill town of Huttig, Arkansas. His parents bought him a piano when he was small and wanted him to take piano lessons, but young Floyd saw no need for lessons and taught himself to play by ear. He got really interested in playing around the time he was thirteen. His musical career started in earnest when he graduated from high school in 1951 and hustled a job on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.
After a few years of touring with Hayride cast members (including an upcoming Elvis Presley), Floyd talked to Chet Atkins about relocating to Nashville and becoming a session pianist. He never cared for the hard grind of road work and preferred to work in the studio. Apart from Owen Bradley, there were virtually no studio pianists in Nashville then. Chet said he thought that Floyd could make a good living working sessions in Nashville, so the young couple Floyd and Mary Cramer packed their belongings and moved to Tennessee in January 1955. The first year wasn't easy, but by 1956-57 he was one of the busiest studio musicians in the industry. Along with Chet Atkins and Anita Kerr, he was one of the main architects of the Nashville Sound.
Prior to that, Floyd had already cut several records under his own name for Fabor Robison's Abbott label (1953-54) and had also done session work for the label (for instance on "Mexican Joe", a # 1 country hit for Jim Reeves). Three of the four Abbott singles were also released in the UK, on the famous London label. After arriving in Nashville, Cramer was signed to MGM, for which he recorded eight singles (1955-57). The Abbott and MGM recordings feature Floyd in a honky tonk style (influenced by Madge Suttee, the pianist on Lefty Frizzell's hits from the early fifties), pleasant, but undistinguished. It was not until Chet Atkins signed him to RCA in late 1957 that Floyd hit the Billboard Hot 100 (# 87) with his first 45 for that label, the self-penned "Flip, Flop and Bop", aimed at the rock and roll market. However, it would be his fourth RCA single, "Last Date" (1960), that made his name a household word. It got to # 2 on the US charts and is a perfect example of the technique that Floyd has become associated with. He himself calls this the "slip note" : accentuating the discord in rolling from the main note to a sharp or flat. Or in Floyd's own words: "It's a near miss on the keyboard, you hit below the note you want and then immediately slide up into it". Before "Last Date", he had already incorporated this technique in his style on Hank Locklin's "Please Help Me, I'm Falling", earlier in 1960. The inspiration came from Don Robertson's demo of the song. Before Robertson, the slip note technique was pioneered by Maybelle Carter on guitar and Ivory Joe Hunter on piano.
"Last Date" stayed at number 2 for four weeks, only being kept from the top spot by Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight", another record Floyd had played on. Other Top 10 hits followed in 1961: "On The Rebound"(# 4) and "San Antonio Rose" (# 8). "On the Rebound" made it to # 1 in the UK and was featured (in an extended remix) during the opening credits in the Oscar nominated 2009 film "An Education", starring Carey Mulligan.
After 1961, the hits became fewer, but by then everybody knew who Floyd Cramer was. From 1964 onwards he concentrated on making albums for the MOR market, usually filled with covers of recent hits ("Class Of '65", etc.). His last chart entry was his version of the theme from the TV series "Dallas" (# 32 country) in 1980 (the year in which he finally left RCA).
In 1965 he, Chet Atkins and Boots Randolph formed a troupe called the Masters Festival of Music that toured when their schedules permitted. As a session pianist, Floyd played on Elvis' first RCA session on January 10-11, 1956, but the next time Presley required his services would not be until June, 1958 ("I Need Your Love Tonight", "A Big Hunk o'Love", "I Got Stung", "A Fool Such As I", "Ain't That Loving You Baby"), Elvis' last session before he left for Germany. However, after Presley's return from the US Army, Floyd would become his regular session pianist, until 1968. Apart from backing many RCA artists (Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Eddy Arnold, Bobby Bare, Hank Locklin, Janis Martin, etc.), Floyd also played on the Nashville sessions of many others: The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee, Conway Twitty, Marvin Rainwater, Marty Robbins, many Hickory artists, etc., etc. Like the other members of Nashville's A-team (Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Bob Moore, Boots Randolph, Buddy Harman, etc.) he knew what to play and what not to play. He could rock as hard as Jerry Lee Lewis if he wanted to (listen to Jimmy Newman's "Carry On" on Dot, for instance), but just as easily could he add almost inaudible embellishments to Jim Reeves' "Four Walls". And if he felt that the arrangement didn't need a piano, he wouldn't play the instrument at all, as on "Big Bad John" by Jimmy Dean, where he hung an iron door-stopper onto a coat hanger and hit it with a hammer to get the now- famous pickaxe sound effect.
After a six-month battle with lung cancer, Cramer died at his Madison home on the morning of New Year's Eve 1997. In 2003 he was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
More info : http://www.artistdirect.com/artist/bio/floyd-cramer/418317
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Bob Fisher, Frank Frantik.
Dik, July 2013
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