CAMDEN By Ken Bridges
S.A. Historical Foundation
Few musicians have the opportunity to be part of performances by legendary artists or be part of new cultural sensations. Union County native Floyd Cramer happened to find himself playing with such legends as Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, Sr. Along the way, the modest and amiable Cramer became a Grammy Award-winning artist, respected by the biggest names in Nashville.
Floyd Cramer, Jr., was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in October 1933, the only son of Floyd, Sr., and his wife, Faye. Like many families at the time, the ravages of the Great Depression forced them to move in order to find work. The family soon moved to Huttig is southeastern Union County where the elder Cramer found work as a timekeeper at a local lumber plant.
Growing up, Cramer attended the local schools in Huttig. At an early age, he developed an interest in music and taught himself to play the piano. By the time he was five, he was playing by ear. Like many others, he was also interested in sports. Cramer was part of Huttig High School’s championship basketball team in his senior year. A photograph of Cramer with the team is on display at the Union County Sports Hall of Fame in El Dorado.
Once he graduated from high school, he moved to Shreveport to earn a living as a musician. He quickly found work as a backup pianist on the popular radio program Louisiana Hayride. It was the early 1950s, and rock and roll was emerging a popular new form of music. Many popular musicians at the time routinely crossed genres, going from country to rock to blues with ease. Cramer loved music and loved to play, no matter what type it was. This made him popular with musicians and producers alike.
Mostly he worked as a backup musician, playing in the background. Cramer played with Elvis Presley as he made some of his early hit records. He worked with Presley on his first two albums with RCA Records in 1956, the number-one rated, self-titled platinum albums Elvis Presley and Elvis. Cramer also worked with Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, and Hank Williams, Sr. He even crossed paths with and performed with fellow Union County native and music sensation Lefty Frizzell. As his fame grew, he began to be affectionately called “Mr. Piano” and was sought after to play background with many other albums.
Cramer released several of his own albums and singles. He popularized what came to be called the “slip note” style in his playing and became part of the popular “Nashville Sound” of the 1960s. His own single, “Last Date” hit the number two spot on the music charts in 1960, and he followed with two other Top Ten singles in 1961, “On the Rebound” and “San Antonio Rose.” His 1974 concert album peaked at number 25 on the charts. He won a Grammy Award in 1979 for his instrumental single “My Blue Eyes.”
One of his last memorable songs was not initially meant to be released at all. In 1978, Cramer recorded the theme for what was initially meant only to be a five-part mini-series on CBS. The program, Dallas, was an immediate sensation and became one of the most popular shows on television at the time. The theme was written by Jerrold Immel, and Cramer also helped produce and perform it. Dallas was so popular and the theme so catchy that the music was released as a single by RCA Records. Cramer’s rendition cracked the Top 40 country charts in 1980 and even reached the Top 10 in Canada. The theme song continued to be played throughout the series’ entire 1978-1991 run and its 2012-2014 revival.
He spent the last years of his life in the Nashville area as his health began to decline. He died in Tennessee on New Year’s Eve 1997. He continued to have great admiration among musicians long after his death. In 2003, he was posthumously inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. In 2008, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in Baton Rouge.
Bridges, a History Professor at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, can be reached at [email protected] The South Arkansas Historical Foundation is dedicated to educating the public about the state’s rich history. The SAHF can be contacted at PO Box 144, El Dorado, AR, 71730, at(870) 862-9890 or at http://soarkhistory.com