Floyd Cramer - King Of Country Piano

May 18, 2016
[This article originally appeared in the March 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard.]

His name is Floyd Cramer, and he is one of the most influential pianists in the music business. His tinkling, sentimental style is echoed in literally every modern country and western tune that carries a piano line, and with the exploding popularity of that genre, that means a lot of keyboard players are following in Cramer's footsteps.

Born 43 years ago in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cramer has been playing since the age of five, and began recording in 1952 on Abbott Records. In 1955, he entered the stratosphere of country music with his debut on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Within a few years, he became a top session man in the Nashville studios, playing with a long list of popular performers, including Jim Reeves ("He'll Have To Go"), Don Gibson ("Sea Of Heartbreak"), Jimmy Dean ("Big Bad John"), and Elvis Presley (a number of hits, from "Heartbreak Hotel" to "It's Now Or Never").

Cramer's first hit single—"Last Date," recorded in the 1950s—was also his last hit single, although some of his later releases, including "On The Rebound," "Flip Flop Bop," and "San Antonio Rose," have earned respectable sales. His effort now goes mainly into concert appearances, where his low-key, country-boyish personality and commercial, easy listening selections usually win over his audiences.

The crowd that turned out for his performance at the Wolf Trap outdoor theater in Vienna, Virginia, was downright enraptured as soon as Cramer walked out onstage. They quietly hummed along with his simple, fluid arrangements of "The Entertainer," "Both Sides Now," "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," "Sunny," and other pop standards, and gave him a send-off as warm as the Virginia evening air.

Before the concert, Cramer discussed his musical and personal history backstage.

Were you raised, like many of today's country musicians, on the airwaves of the Grand Ole Opry?
Really, I was raised in a small town in Arkansas, although I was born in Louisiana, and there were no other musicians in the area. But of course I listened to the radio, and my parents bought me a piano when I was small. They wanted me to take lessons, and I didn't like to take lessons at all; I wanted to just play tunes instead. The fact the piano was there was a big influence; when I had nothing else to do, I played the piano. Eventually, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I got more interested in playing. The more interested I got, the more I played, so by the time I got out of high school, I'd made up my mind that I wanted to be in the music business. So I went to Shreveport and started to work on KWKH with the Louisiana Hayride.

That's the same program where Elvis got his start.
Right. In fact, he came there after I joined the show, and I worked some tours with him in Texas. We also did some movie things together, like Blue Hawaii and Girl Happy.

What kind of music did you follow when you began playing?

I played music I heard in church. I used to follow quartet music, and also country music.

Did you do technical exercises when you were learning to play?
Well, mostly it was by ear, but I did take a few lessons earlier, before I got out of high school. I didn't like those exercises. I know I should have worked at it more—now I realize that. But I'm still in the process of learning; I think all musicians are.

Do you do exercises now?

Sometimes, but basically I just work at new tunes I hear.

Could you describe your bent note technique?
Well, technically, it's just like a slur or a grace note. You just strike the note below the note you want to hit, then slide up to the right one, while playing a harmony note above it. It's like making an intentional mistake, then recovering. This is the same device that steel-guitar players use, only they use pedals to slide more smoothly to the right pitch. (For an illustration of Cramer's bent note technique, see Ex. 1.)

You have refused to endorse any one brand of piano. Why?

I've been approached to do that by a number of companies, but I just don't want to get involved in endorsing this brand or that.

Is there in fact a make of piano you prefer to play?
In the studios, I usually play a Baldwin or a Steinway—the Steinways most often, I guess, mainly because they're the most available to me. They're both good, and so are a lot of other pianos besides them.

You recorded an organ album called Floyd Cramer Gets Organized [now apparently out of print].
Well, that was really half an album—half piano and half organ—and I did another organ album later. The organ is not one of my favorite instruments. The touch is different, and I prefer the piano touch. I just never played an organ much. If you could get some unusual sounds on it, I'd say "Yeah, I like it," but I'll stick with the piano for now.

Have you explored other kinds of keyboards?
I've done some things on the electric piano, but I really haven't gotten into a lot of the other things—the synthesizers and stuff like that.

Do you see country music using these kinds of instruments in the future?

They can use them best in the background, I would say.

What country pianists were you aware of when you were starting out?
One recording pianist I knew of back then was Moon Mulligan, and Owen Bradley was doing some things—they used to call him "Half Moon." He was a producer in Nashville, and he played on some of his own productions. There weren't really a lot of country background pianists at that time. What there was wa this kind of limited, Lefty Frizzell style—he had a piano on all his hits, playing just a plinking, honkytonk-type background. So it just eventually evolved, and they started using more piano.

These days in country music, how important is reading music?

In country music, I would say it isn't that important. It would help, of course. When I was really busy in the studios doing two or three sessions a day, some of the artists would come in with string arrangements or horn arrangements, and naturally, they'd have the parts written out. So in cases like that, a knowledge of music helps.

Do you do much studio work anymore?
No. I've cut out a lot because of the traveling and concerts we do.

How did you break into the tight-knit studio crowd in Nashville?
Well, when I lived in Shreveport, I came to Nashville on several trips to record with Webb Pierce, and I met Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose there, and Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, who was an assistant A&R man then. This was in 1954. I'd been in Shreveport for four years, and I'd worked the road, traveling. I'd gotten married in 1954, so in '55, I said, "I'm not getting anywhere. I'm playing, I'm making a living, but that's not enough; I want to do more." So, after meeting these people in Nashville, I decided, "Well, I'm just gonna move, and take a chance. I may have to come to Nashville and work the road again, but at least I'll be where everybody's wanting to go," and where all the people from the Hayride had already gone. I did work the road when I came to Nashville. I worked with Marty Robbins and did some things with Jim Reeves until it got to the point where, if I'd leave town, I'd blow a recording session because somebody would call me. So I said, "Well, I'm just not gonna work the road anymore, and if it doesn't work out, I'll just leave Nashville and maybe go back to Louisiana." So I just stayed in town and kept doing the sessions, and it eventually got bigger and bigger.

On Jimmy Dean's "Big Bad John," you produced an anvil sound. Did you do that on a keyboard instrument?
No. It was just a big piece of iron, like a weight, that was in the studio. We had a coat rack that was back behind the piano against the wall, so I got a coat hanger and hung that steel thing up and hit it with a hammer. That particular song didn't sound to me like it needed a piano, because of the arrangement we were doing.

Were you listed on the personnel as the coat hanger player?

Right. Jimmy wouldn't take me on the road doing that, though. And I wouldn't do it anyway—I just wouldn't want to carry that weight around.

What do you think of the new directions country music seems to be taking—the "progressive country" style, for instance?

Well, it's expanding, of course; that's pretty obvious. I think it's a great direction, because it's getting to where there's no limit. A country artist can be a top hit, so I'm very happy with what's going on.

Why do you think country music is becoming so popular?

It's broadened itself. The songs themselves have a wider scope. Hank Williams songs, for instance, are international—the lyrics and the melodies are something that people can hum, if they want to. Also, they're written about true, down-to-earth feelings that really touch people.

Country music is not technically a challenging music. Do you think this is a major drawback?
No. You don't have to play ninety notes a second to play country music, or to play any kind of music, and make it sound good, unless you just want to do a jazz thing, and then that's fine.

 
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