Floyd Cramer - Biography
Nashville session pianist Floyd Cramer assumed both an integral role in the sound and feel of innumerable country hits while also managing to top the charts several times as a soloist on his records. As a cast member of Shreveport’s KWKH Louisiana Hayride, he accompanied some of the genre’s most legendary talents, playing live dates with Hank Williams Sr., Elvis Presley, Lefty Frizzell and Jim Reeves. Years before he arrived in Nashville. Presley even asked Cramer to join his touring band, but when the pianist opted to remain in Nashville’s studio, the King regularly used him on his records instead, from 1955 on “Heartbreak Hotel” to the 1968 “U.S. Male” session. Cramer’s unique “slip note” style—achieved when a pair of notes were hit in close sequence, resulting in a deftly synchronized segue that created a distinctive slurred sound—lent valuable atmosphere and color to any song, but was particularly well suited to ballads. From rock & roll to country to pop, Cramer’s keyboard work made him one of the most in-demand studio players of the mid-20th century.
Born October 27, 1933 in Campti, Louisiana and raised in small-town Huttig, Arkansas, Cramer’s parents bought a piano when the boy was just five years old and Cramer taught himself to play, strictly by ear. By high school, he was featured at local dances and, after graduating in 1951, headed straight for Shreveport and landed a job at the Louisiana Hayride. A better gig would be hard to imagine—known as the “Cradle of the Stars,” Hayride cast members at the time included Hank Williams Sr. (recently fired from the Grand Ole Opry), The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves, Faron Young, Johnny Horton and a host of others, along with visits from every major touring country star of the day. Between the weekend broadcast, Hayride artists also barnstormed through the South on weekday package tours, and Cramer gained a trove of invaluable and virtually non-stop bandstand experience.
During this period, Cramer also began traveling to Nashville for session work, where he came to the notice of legendary guitarist and RCA A&R man, Chet Atkins. In 1955, Cramer relocated to Nashville and made his Grand Ole Opry debut, eventually becoming a fixture at RCA’s fabled Studio B. He had first recorded in 1953 for Diane Records, resulting in one single, “Dancin’ Diane” backed with “Little Brown Jug,” and Cramer’s first album, released by MGM in 1957, was titled That Honky Tonk Piano. Cramer was already edging into new musical territory and signed next to RCA, and his groovy 1958 single “Flip, Flop & Bop” visited the pop charts. But it was 1960s melancholy instrumental “Last Date” that really hit big, showcasing his slip-note style and climbing to #3 on the pop chart and reaching the country Top 15. His 1961 follow-up, “On the Rebound,” did just as well in America and also topped the British charts, and Cramer’s next single—a version of the Bob Wills’ classic “San Antonio Rose”—crashed both the pop and country Top Ten. Cramer’s Class of 1965 album, where he interpreted the year’s top hits, became an annual series of similar releases that ran up until his Class of 1974 final edition.
During the late ’50s and early ’60s, Cramer became one of the key architects of the Chet Atkins-Owen Bradley masterminded “Nashville Sound,” a heavily orchestrated, pop-oriented middle-of-the-road approach which they had pioneered with Patsy Cline on “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.” Also known as “Countrypolitan,” it would later serve as Atkins’ reaction—or, depending on one’s viewpoint, the antidote—to the kicking, volcanic honky-tonk of the Bakersfield Sound, and the style allowed singers like Ray Price to crossover to the pop audience with impressive success. But Cramer was no stick in the musical mud—he also made plenty of rock & roll and rockabilly dates with everyone from Duane Eddy to Carl Perkins to Buddy Holly to Janis Martin to The Collins Kids to Ronnie Hawkins, and he was equally comfortable working with such pop singers as Perry Como and Johnnie Ray. Cramer’s remarkable flexibility came naturally: “Music is emotion, mood, regardless of what you name it. I wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed as playing only country or pop,” he said.
All the while, Cramer was contributing, non-stop, to records by country stars like Ernest Tubb, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash and literally just about anybody in Nashville. Cramer’s own output, from Keyboard Kick Band (1977) to Just Me and My Piano (1988) enjoyed respectable sales; in 1979 Cramer’s “My Blue Eyes” won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental.
Diagnosed with lung cancer, Cramer died on December 31, 1997, but was hardly a forgotten man—in 2003, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s “Sideman” category.