About The Artist
It's a rare musician who perfects a signature style on his instrument, a sound so uniquely his that it becomes instantly identifiable and widely imitated. With a professional career spanning almost 50 years, Floyd Cramer was such a rare and gifted musician, his patented note-slurring piano style is just such a sound.
Exemplified by his moody 1960 instrumental smash hit, "Last Date," Cramer's signature sound harkens back to old time country fiddle players who added excitement to their music by sliding into the proper note of a melody from a half-step off. "It's an intentional mistake, but with a quick recovery," explained Cramer.
In the mid-1950s, pioneers of the pedal steel guitar enlarged on the technique.
Cramer was already one of the most popular studio and touring musicians in Nashville's country music industry by 1959, the year he translated the fiddle/steel guitar technique to piano. It instantly became "the Floyd Cramer style," a timeless technique that lends emotional coloration to any melody and remained his musical calling card ever since.
The soft spoken instrumentalist was born on October 27, 1933, in Shreveport, Louisiana, but raised in Huttig, Arkansas, a tiny sawmill town. His interest in music emerged early, and his parents bought Cramer his first piano when he was only five y ears old. Never much for formal training or extensive practice drills, Cramer soon realized he had an innate gift for playing by ear.
Initially, his main interest was Southern quartet gospel music, as taught in regional music schools given several times a year by various gospel sheet music publishers. Cramer attended at least one of these two-week schools each summer through his teen years. "I had followed gospel as a kid, particularly the Stamps Baxter Quartet, which featured Joe Roper on piano," Cramer said. "There was an excitement to the performances and I was especially interested in the left-hand piano style Joe played, where he played his own rhythm as in ragtime."
Cramer's dedication to the piano left no question in the minds of friends and family that he would become a professional musician. After he graduated from high school in 1951, he headed to Shreveport where he soon joined the musical staff of the famed Louisiana Hayride radio program.
"I just wanted to get involved in music and I thought Shreveport was the place," he explained. "That was the stepping stone to everything I did after that. It helped me eventually get to Nashville."
Through the Louisiana Hayride, Cramer began to get work on records and on the road with such artists as Faron Young, The Browns, Webb Pierce, and a young Elvis Presley. On one of his earliest jaunts as a touring musician, Cramer accompanied Red Sovine on a package tour that boasted Hank Williams Sr. on the bill. Additionally, he toured in the early '50s as a band member for Lefty Frizzell and Tex Ritter. He also recorded his first solo instrumentals on Abbott Records, including a country instrumental hit, "Fancy Pants."
Exposure on KWKH Louisiana Hayride broadcasts brought Cramer to the attention of RCA Records' Nashville A&R director Chet Atkins. Atkins suggested that the young pianist move to Nashville and get in on the rapidly-expanding recording business there. After making several trips to record with different artists, the newly-married Cramer packed up and moved to Nashville in 1955. It was a fateful move, both for Cramer and for the development of that distinctive, classy genre that became known as "the Nashville Sound."
With his clean, gospel-derived style, Cramer quickly became a key player in the Nashville session system. In that period of country music's greatest creative ferment, Cramer would play on nearly all major label sessions by such artists as Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison, Don Gibson, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, The Browns, Brenda Lee and many others. The list of records on which he can be heard encompasses just about all the best country artists of the period.
In 1959, Cramer was offered a recording contract by Atkins at RCA Records. The following year, Cramer's composition, "Last Date," became a huge hit on both the country and pop charts, selling more than a million copies and reaching number two. It was kept from reaching number one by Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight," which featured Cramer on the piano. The composition was subsequently combined with two sets of lyrics for hit singles by Skeeter Davis, Conway Twitty, and Emmylou Harris. His follow-up hit, "On The Rebound," was also a big success, launching Cramer on a recording career that would produce more than 50 albums for RCA.
Cramer's successes as an instrumentalist in his own right brought a demand for concert tours including one of the most successful, "The Masters Festival of Music," where he co-headlined with Chet Atkins and Boots Randolph. He continued to tour up until he was diagnosed with cancer in April 1997.
As awards go, Cramer had his share. He was voted Keyboard Player of the Year by the Academy of Country Music seven times. As a composer, he earned four country music citations, two pop music citations, and two airplay performance awards - two million for "Last Date" and one million for "On The Rebound" - from the performance rights organization BMI. He was nominated as an instrumentalist for seven Grammy awards. With 13 appearances in the member-voted final ballots, Cramer was one of the most-nominated instrumentalists in the history of the Country Music Association Awards.
Since his death, Cramer's impact on the music world has been rightfully acknowledged with multiple hall of fame recognitions. In 1998, he was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame. In March 2003 long-time admirer Paul Schaffer inducted Cramer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work in the early years as a sideman. Crowning a career in the field for which he was best known, Floyd Cramer took his rightful place in the Country Music Hall of Fame in November 2003. Cramer is one of only a handful in the music world to be recognized in both the Rock and Country halls of fame. In 2004, Cramer's recording of "Last Date" was added to the Grammy Hall Of Fame, established to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance.
Despite all the recording, performing, honors and recognition, Floyd Cramer was a quiet, humble man who was most happy when he was with his family. His wife Mary continues to live in their long-time home in Madison, Tennessee, near their two daughters, Diane and Donna, husbands Bobby and Joey, and four grandchildren, Jenny, Jessi, Jason and Josh.
Cramer's musical legacy lives on in his grandson Jason Floyd Coleman, a student in Belmont University's Music Business program. Jason, who says his grandad's style just comes out naturally, played with Cramer several times on national television and in concert. He made his Grand Ole Opry debut at age 17 when he accompanied the great Hank Locklin on his hit "Please Help Me I'm Falling", the song where Cramer first played his trademark bent note style. Jason had the honor of playing piano at his grandad's induction ceremony into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003. Cramer, who loved all his grandchildren, would have been proud.
One of the most admired and imitated pianists in country music history, Floyd Cramer continued to be a classy entertainer until cancer took his life on December 31, 1997, at the age of 64. His timeless innovation, the note-slurring piano style, imparted an emotional patina to almost any melody across musical lines: the country, pop, jazz, gospel, blues, and light classical genres from which he drew his recording and concert repertoire.
The first notes of "Last Date" heralded the arrival of a distinctive new sound - "the Floyd Cramer style" of piano playing. That sound will live on as the timeless trademark of a musical master-Floyd Cramer.
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