Originally created 01/09/98

Cramer played piano for legends of music



Forty-two years ago Saturday, Elvis Presley recorded for the first time in Nashville, with his friend Floyd Cramer playing piano.

Mr. Presley's first Nashville session for RCA Records was Jan. 10, 1956, just two days after his 21st birthday. His first single, Heartbreak Hotel, featuring Mr. Cramer's distinctive playing, was released Jan. 27.

All of this becomes significant in honoring Mr. Cramer, who died of cancer on Dec. 31 at the age of 64.

The 1950s and '60s were an especially profitable time for RCA's Nashville division, with gigantic hits by Mr. Presley, Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins, Connie Smith, Boots Randolph, Charley Pride and many more.

Helping create those hits was Mr. Cramer, who also recorded with artists for other labels.

He was born in Shreveport, La., the home of the Louisiana Hayridestage and radio show, but he grew up in Huttig, Ark. (population 1,500).

After graduating from Huttig High School in 1951, Mr. Cramer played piano on the Hayride for Webb Pierce, Faron Young and Hank Williams.

"He (Mr. Williams) was right in the middle of his worst time," Mr. Cramer said in a 1974 interview. "It was right after his second marriage, and (his wife) Billie Jean was traveling to shows with him."

When I asked Mr. Cramer how he felt seeing the young star throwing his life away with heavy drinking, he bristled and replied, "Who's to say he was throwing it away? Maybe he was great because of it. ... I've never tried to be a judge of others. ... I knew his songs were great because they touched the hearts of so many people."

It was at the Hayride that Mr. Cramer came to know a Mississippi singer, also in his early 20s, named Elvis Presley. The two clicked, and Mr. Cramer toured high school auditoriums throughout Texas with Mr. Presley in 1952 and '53.

Their friendship continued when Mr. Cramer moved to Nashville in 1955 and ended up recording on most of Mr. Presley's Nashville sessions in the '50s and '60s. Mr. Cramer also played on the soundtracks of most of Mr. Presley's movies.

"Generally, we would start recording about 6 p.m. and then would work until the sun came up," Mr. Cramer recalled. "Then we would send out for Krystals or Kentucky Fried Chicken."

You can hear Mr. Cramer's timeless sound on Four Walls by Mr. Reeves, I'm Sorry by Brenda Lee and For the Good Times by Ray Price.

"I have worked with about everybody," Mr. Cramer told me backstage at Bell Auditorium in early 1972. "Each has their own unique sound, and they're all sincere in what they do."

Mr. Cramer became a recording star in 1960 when his instrumental single Last Date became a worldwide hit. He followed it with such chart climbers as Fancy Pants, On the Rebound, Corn Crib Symphony and Brian's Song.

He recorded more than 60 solo albums, with some of his best selections contained in the RCA release The Essential Floyd Cramer.

Michael Jackson's mother was such a fan of Mr. Cramer's music that Mr. Cramer was booked to play at one of her birthday parties.

Mr. Cramer's 39th album, In Concert, was recorded in 1974 at his daughter's ninth-grade banquet in the cafeteria of Neely's Bend Junior High School in Nashville. His daughter was on the entertainment committee, and Mr. Cramer convinced RCA Nashville operations chief Chet Atkins that the album would be a good project. It turned out to be one of Mr. Cramer's warmest and best albums.

Once I asked Mr. Cramer how it felt to have played piano on the recordings of legendary performers.

He replied in his usually quiet and humble fashion, "They were entertainers, people like today. You don't think of them as being fantastic or out of this world or legends. You look at them like they are just people who have worked hard to get where they are. They are just human beings."