Recently, I was listening to satellite radio. This particular afternoon, the station was featuring country/pop instrumental selections. Among the artists getting a spin was Floyd Cramer.
It is rare for a musician to perfect what they do so proficiently that they become a well-known artist on their own. In the case of Cramer, that is exactly what happened. As a musician, his one-of-a-kind piano style solidified the "Nashville Sound" that producer/guitarist Chet Atkins crafted. As an artist, his smash hit "Last Date" stills stands as one of the greatest instrumental recordings.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cramer grew up in the small sawmill town of Huttig, Arkansas. At the age of five, his parents bought him a piano. Never much for formal lessons, he taught himself to play by ear. As a child, he followed Southern gospel music and was heavily influenced by the Stamps-Baxter Quartet, especially pianist Joe Roper.
Cramer's dedication to the piano left no question in the minds of friends and family he would eventually become a professional musician. That opportunity came once he graduated high school. He returned to Shreveport and joined the musical staff of the legendary Louisiana Hayride program on KWKH.
The popular radio show allowed him to back-up such artists as Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Red Sovine and Hank Williams. Later, Cramer played in the bands of Lefty Frizzell and Tex Ritter. At this same time, he made his first solo recordings for Abbott Records, which included the spunky instrumental favorite "Fancy Pants."
At the encouragement of Atkins, Cramer and his wife moved to Nashville in 1955. Soon, he was signed to a recording contract with RCA Records. He recorded several rockabilly/bluesy tunes in the late 1950's including his first pop hit, "Flip, Flop and Bop" in 1959.
The following year, he released "Last Date," and the single quickly soared to number three on the pop charts and reached the top 15 on the country charts. His string of pop and country instrumental hits continued with tunes like "On the Rebound," "San Antonio Rose," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," and "Hot Pepper."
From 1965 - 1974, Cramer released several highly successful albums, on which he would play his versions of some of country and pop music's biggest hits. His last RCA chart entry came in 1980 with his rendition of the theme from "Dallas."
However, it is as a studio musician that Cramer will always be famous. He played on virtually every major recording session by such performers as Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley, Don Gibson, the Everly Brothers, the Browns, Brenda Lee and many others.
His trademark slip-note technique of playing was actually a mistake with a quick recovery. Cramer would literally hit one note and slide almost immediately to another, resulting in a lonesome sound. It was simply his way of expressing feeling without words.
The over 45-year career of Cramer defies categorization. Due to the strong ties early in his career to country music, he will always be labeled as such, but he was just as capable of providing sweet sounds of jazz, blues or classical.
On Dec. 31, 1997, Cramer died of cancer. He was 64. His clean, gospel-sprang style made him the back-bone of Music City's A-team of session players during the glory years of the "Nashville Sound." Cramer was not only a remarkable talent but one of the music industry's most respected people. He is an inductee into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Charles Haymes is a country music journalist and historian. He has been covering the genre for more than 25 years. He served as co-host for the first two Arkansas Country Music Awards and is slated to return to that role for the third annual show in 2020.