A self-taught pianist, Floyd Cramer was one of the architects of the “Nashville Sound,” a merger of country and pop that helped revive the former genre as it emerged from a commercially fallow period.
Often mentioned alongside such fellow sessionmen as guitarist Chet Atkins and saxophonist Boots Randolph, Cramer became the pianist to use in Nashville from 1955 on. Cramer’s influence extended to traditional country and rock and roll, too. His distinctive piano stylings could be heard on recordings by Elvis Presley,Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee and many others.
His forte was the “slip note” or “bent note” style, in which two notes are struck almost simultaneously so that one leads smoothly into another with a kind of slurred sound. The effortless flow of his playing was particularly effective on romantic ballads and allowed him to blend smoothly into the overall sound of an arrangement, which made him popular with both producers and artists. Cramer was conversant in a variety of genres and once remarked: “Music is emotion, mood, regardless of what you name it. I wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed as playing only country or pop.”
Cramer taught himself to play by ear at age five. After graduating from high school, he embarked on his musical career as pianist on the Louisiana Hayride, a live country-music radio show based in Shreveport. During this period, he played with Hank Williams Sr., Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizell and a young Elvis Presley. He moved to Nashville in 1955 and became one of the city’s most sought-after sessionmen. From a rock and roll fan’s perspective, his most notable accomplishment was playing on Elvis Presley’s historic 1956 sessions shortly after Presley’s move from Sun Records to RCA. Presley was backed that year by a band that included guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, drummer DJ Fontana, lap steel guitarist Jimmy Day and pianist Cramer. Presley wanted Cramer to remain part of his touring band, but Cramer had his sights set on the Grand Ole Opry and was satisfied with the work he was getting in Nashville.
In addition to pioneering the country-pop crossover sound as a top Nashville sideman, Cramer enjoyed a prolific career as a solo artist. This included such rock and roll-oriented material as “Flip Flop and Bop,” released as a single in 1958. Cramer cut 50 instrumental albums and reached Number Two on the pop charts in 1960 with his biggest hit, “Last Date.” Cramer scored two more Top 10 hits in 1961 with “On the Rebound” (Number Four) and “San Antonio Rose” (Number Eight). He won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental in 1979 with “My Blue Eyes.”
Floyd Cramer (piano; born October 27, 1933, died December 31, 1997)