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Floyd Cramer's signature "slip note" piano style, along with Chet Atkins' smooth production and syrupy background vocals by the Anita Kerr Singers (or the Jordanaires), exemplified the Nashville Sound of country music in the 1960s. Often referred to a "countrypolitan," this polished form of country was an enormous commercial success--producing country's first cross-over hits in the pop music charts and carving out a niche on Top 40 radio. To some, it was an artistic disaster, and inspired a younger generation of country musicians--people like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark--to begin a return to a rougher, less citified style in the late 1960s.
Cramer grew up in the small town of Huttig, Arkansas, and began playing piano, learning by ear, at the age of 5. He dropped out of high school in 1951 and returned to Louisiana and got a job playing in the studio band on the legendary radio show, "Louisiana Hayride." While with the show, he had the occasion to back Elvis Presley on one of Presley's first live radio performances. He cut a few sides for a local record company, Abbott, but they went nowhere.
He moved to Nashville in 1955, and Chet Atkins quickly spotted him and began using him as a regular session player. He did continue to do live work, appearing with Elvis, Webb Pierce, and Jim Reeves, but as it would remain for the rest of his career, studio work was his focus.
MGM Records signed him in 1957, and he recorded one album of undistinguished honky tonk piano (more along the lines of Moon Mullican's roadhouse jive than the nostalgic honky tonk piano of Joe Fingers Carr and his followers). Atkins then brought him over to RCA, where Cramer stayed for the next two decades. He dented the charts in 1958 with the lively "Flip, Flop, and Bop," but his work didn't really catch on until the slip note sound first appeared in Hank Locklin's cover of Don Robertson's "Please Help Me, I'm Falling."
Cramer later said he was trying to emulate Mother Maybelle Carter's autoharp playing, but others have noted that a similar sound can be heard on Robertson's demo of his tune. Whatever the origin, the sound could be heard all over the dial a few months later when Cramer's own composition, "Last Date," shot to the Top 20 on the country charts and reached #2 on the pop charts, becoming the biggest instrumental hit of 1961. Singer Skeeter Davis soon followed with an answer song, "My Last Date (with You)," which itself reached the Top 40s on both pop and country charts.
Cramer had several more Top 40 singles over the next two years, "On the Rebound," another original, and a cover of Bob Wills' great hit, "San Antonio Rose." He became a staple of RCA's country catalog, recording an average of two albums a year for the next 14 years, all with Atkins as producer.
From 1965 to 1974, he recorded a selection of current hits interpreted in the countrypolitan style once a year, titled Class of ... (1965, etc.). These are a cut above Atkins' own pop cover albums (Teensville, Picks the Beatles, etc.), with at least a couple of sparkling now sound tunes on each one. He cut a whole album of covers of Monkees tunes. The overlap of ersatz pop and pop-ified country results in an enjoyable goofy set of instrumentals. And Cramer's take on Lalo Schifrin's theme to "Mission: Impossible," is, well ... as the Church Lady would say, special.
By 1974, Cramer was a Nashville institution, and Atkins presented him with a special award at Opryland to commemorate Cramer's 15 years with RCA. By that time, however, country was producing fewer crossover hits and was experiencing a musical lost weekend in the land of the rhinestone cowboy. Cramer bumped the charts with a 1977 single, "Rhythm of the Rain," as "Floyd Cramer and the Keyboard Kick Band," which was really Cramer playing 8 different keyboard instruments through the magic of multitracking. And again, in 1980, he placed a cover of the theme to the television series, "Dallas" in the country Top 40. Soon after, though, RCA let his contract lapse.
In the 1980s, he recorded intermittently, hawking at least one compilation of his old hits (even further smoothed down with plenty of synthesized strings) on late night television ads. He recorded a bland, if heartfelt, set of gospel albums, as well as several new Class of style CDs of current hits, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Cramer funded a music scholarship at East Tennessee State University and continued to help organize an annual music festival in Nashville until he was diagnosed with cancer in 1997. Although he will always been known as a consummate studio musician, he never personally wandered far from his early days of playing by ear. "I don't practice," he once told a reporter. "I call it play. That's because I enjoy it. Practice I don't enjoy."
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