Born: Florence Alabama November 8, 1942
Died: Birmingham Alabama August 27, 2019 (at 76 years of age)
“See The Legendary Alabama Leaning Man
Back home they say he grew that way before he tried to stand
The nickname some folks gave him then was Cool Breeze and it fits.
As easy as an undershirt on Funky Donnie Fritts”
- Kris Kristofferson, from the liner notes of Fritts’ first solo album Prone To Lean
With the exception of those of a certain age that pride themselves as ardent followers of American Roots Music and specifically, Southern Soul and Country, the general music appreciative public would not be familiar with Donnie Fritts. But those same people might know some of his songs that have been covered by such diverse artists as Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Lulu, Robert Plant, John Prine, The Box Tops, Waylon Jennings, Tony Joe White, and Dusty Springfield to name but a few.
It might also be of interest to know that Donnie Fritts, AKA “Funky” Donnie Fritts, AKA “The Alabama Leaning Man” was – as a songwriter, session musician, and bandmate – an unsung, behind the scenes titan of Soul music in Alabama in the 60’s and beyond; and a major factor in the “Country Outlaw” movement prevalent in 1970’s Nashville. A pioneer of Country Soul, the man that John Prine referred to as “a living walking character actor”, through his association with director Sam Peckinpah, also had roles in 9 Hollywood films. Included in those productions were: Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, (that also included Bob Dylan), Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, and Convoy. Suffice to say Donnie Fritts was truly one of many talents.
And it doesn’t stop there. Fritts was known for his easy going manner, and his out and out soulfulness in the course of displaying a deep passion for his craft. Having made his statement in a confluence of Country, Soul, and Southern Rock, he broke down musical, racial, and socioeconomic barriers. But that might not be his most enduring legacy. Rather, that gift was his championing and encouragement of a new generation of artists in both the Muscle Shoals music community in particular and community at large. Although the expression of their art may differ – sometimes widely – from Fritts’ approach, Fritts made it known that it was no less relevant and played an integral role in keeping the spirit of the music alive. Alabama singer / songwriter / guitarist Jason Isbell, (of Drive By Truckers et al fame), said as much: “Donnie Fritts was a legend back home and a guide for many of us when we started writing and making music”.
It was indeed a long road for Fritts that began at home with a father who lit the musical fuse. A contractor by day, Fritts’ father played around the house and was a “weekend warrior” – he played bass and guitar in swing bands in the 20’s and 30’s. Fritts recalls his father being “a great musician… a big influence”.
Donnie, who would become known for heartfelt songs and his signature Wurlitzer piano, actually started his musical journey as a drummer at 15 years old. The most noteworthy of the bands that Donnie kept the beat for were The Mark V’s and The Pall Bearers (both led by future song writing partner Dan Penn); and Hollis Dixon & The Keynotes. Noting that they were all kids learning to play their instruments, Donnie said that the various outfits got their chops while making their money and presence felt by playing R&B on the local frat circuit.
At the same time, Fritts’ more than a passing interest in movies, would lead him to strike a friendship with a local movie buff, (and music fan), Tom Stafford. It was a friendship that would circuitously lead to the jumping off point for Fritts as a songwriter. Stafford, (and his business partner Rick Hall), established Stafford Publishing And Recording, (SPAR), with a studio on the floor above Stafford’s father’s store – City Drugs – in downtown Florence Alabama; (that would serve essentially as the legendary FAME’s original location).
The studio became a gathering place for – among other resident personalities – Fritts, Dan Penn, David Briggs, and local bellhop Arthur Alexander, a budding songwriter and singer that would be instrumental in Fritts’ songwriting career. It was the start of a close, life long relationship with Alexander who encouraged Fritts to hone his craft as a songwriter. Fritts elaborated:
“Arthur was a big influence on me. Always trying to get me to write… I was playing drums at the time and I had to start to slowly get started to playing a little bit of piano… It just took me forever to learn, but I learned it so I could write songs …The first time that I wrote a song I took it to straight to Arthur and he really bragged on it”.
As it happened, when Rick Hall split with SPAR and Stafford in 1961 to establish FAME, (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises), Studios in Muscle Shoals; Fritts, Penn, and Alexander followed. It was Alexander’s initial recording, the much covered, “You Better Move On” that served as FAME’s initial release and put the company on the map. Alexander and FAME would benefit later with his recording of “Rainbow Road” – the first Fritts / Penn co-write.
Fritts stayed on as a staff writer at FAME, (along with Penn, Spooner Oldham, and others), till the mid 60’s when he opted for the promise of more lucrative opportunities in Nashville. Although Fritts didn’t immediately move to Music City, (choosing to remain in the Muscle Shoals area). He initially signed a songwriting contract with Nashville producer Shelby Singleton and subsequently wrote for other companies while showing promise as a noteworthy writer.
Having remained in Muscle Shoals, he befriended 22 year old singer, songwriter, and guitar player Eddie Hinton. Hinton, a Jacksonville Florida native, arrived and settled in Muscle Shoals in 1966; and found a kindred spirit in Fritts. Together they would go on to write a number of major hits including “Choo Choo Train” for The Box Tops, “You’re All Around Me” for Percy Sledge, and the duo’s biggest claim to fame, “Breakfast In Bed” for Dusty Springfield. “BIB” appeared on the classic 1969 release Dusty In Memphis as well as serving as the B side for Dusty’s hit “Son Of A Preacher Man” taken from the same album. When invited to submit songs by producer Jerry Wexler – and knowing that established songwriters such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David would be forwarding material as well – Fritts and Hinton sensed that they would have to provide something more refined than gritty Southern Soul. “BIB” broke with their established writing style, thankfully was well received, and became an album standout. The success of “BIB” went a long way in providing credibility for both Fritts and Hinton as songwriters.
At the end of the decade Fritts made the move to Nashville and signed with Combine Music, the music publishing arm of Monument Records. At Combine he met Monument recording artist Kris Kristofferson, (and Tony Joe White who would also prove to be a huge influence). Donnie accepted Kristofferson’s offer to join his band in 1970, beginning a musical association with Kristofferson that would last over 20 years, and a friendship that would last a lifetime.
Fritts noted that his years with Kristofferson were very special as were his years in Nashville. In Nashville he enjoyed growing success as a songwriter providing hits for major Country artists, (e,g, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ronnie Milsap, and Dolly Parton); and playing a role in the emerging Outlaw Country scene. The Outlaw movement was led by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson; (and followed closely behind by Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson).
The Outlaw phenomenon – exemplifying a hard living lifestyle – was a Nashville marketing strategy, and, as laid out for public consumption it was, for the most part, independent of the underlying call for changes that really defined the movement. The legitimate Outlaw stance, as spearheaded by Jennings, was one of a demand for artistic freedom. That is, having the right to record material that they wanted to record while employing songwriters and musicians of their choosing. Specifically, the songwriting issue came to the forefront in that the “new breed” insisted on recording their own material as opposed to material provided by in-house writers. In the course of fighting the accepted style and approach of the sterile Nashville Sound, Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson changed the way things were done in the capital of Country Music forever. As Fritts recalled, it was an exciting time for all concerned:
“That was my favourite time, by a million years, to be in Nashville. Things were changing and a lot of it was due to Kris and his style of writing…All of those songs were brilliantly written…Waylon started having hits, and Willie. Then Kris came along and changed everything. He changed the way everyone wrote songs to a much more intelligent way of writing songs.”
The change in approach to writing songs wasn’t lost on Fritts. Writing Southern Soul inflected material was already second nature to him. Now, in addition, as in the case of the aforementioned “Breakfast In Bed”, Donnie’s songs started to take on a more advanced, poignant quality. Reflecting these properties and having personal significance for Donnie was “We Had It All”, written with Troy Seals for Waylon Jennings’ 1973 ground breaking release Honky Tonk Heroes. The song went on to be covered by others including Tina Turner, Dolly Parton, and, much to Donnie’s delight, Ray Charles. Speaking of the Ray Charles cover, Fritts couldn’t contain himself:
“It’s never been a hit but it’s the most important song I got because I got to hear Ray Charles sing it…I listened to it and I got tears in my eyes…After that no matter how low I got, if there wasn’t anything happening or whatever I could put that on and say you know what? That’s Ray Charles singing my damn song”.
The above display of unabashed fervour comes through in every song that Fritts ever wrote or recorded. Many of them are treasures and captured on the five albums released under his name:
Prone To Lean (1974)
Everybody’s Got A Song (1997)
One Foot In The Groove (2008)
Oh My Goodness (2015)
June (A Tribute To Arthur Alexander) (2018)
In keeping with the love and regard held by Donnie’s friends and contemporaries, supporting musicians on the various releases reads like a celebrity who’s who including: Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Lee Roy Parnell, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Brittany Howard, Jason Isbell, and Jack White. All the albums have something to offer and are delivered in a rough-hewn voice. That voice might take some getting used to; but there’s no mistaking the desire and commitment evident in Donnie’s vocals.
If allowed to weigh in, my personal favourite, is the debut Prone To Lean – produced by Jerry Wexler and Kris Kristofferson – recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, and backed by the Muscle Shoals house band and a star set of guests. It features a number of gems including Fritts’ versions of “We Had It All”, “You’re Gonna Love Yourself In The Morning”, and “Rainbow Road”. All are delivered in a Band like lazy groove.
Donnie Fritts moved back to the Muscle Shoals area in 1990 and was a local fixture there for the rest of his life. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame in 2008; and continued to perform well into his 70’s. When “Funky” Donnie Fritts passed in his sleep after a series of ailments in 2019, he left behind not only a treasure trove of great songs but also a boatload of fond memories for those that knew and loved him.
A DONNIE FRITTS PLAYLIST
- Three Hundred Pounds Of Hongry
- When We’re On The Road
- You’re Gonna Love Yourself In The Morning
- Sumpin’ Funky Going On
- Prone To Lean
- We Had It All
- Rainbow Road
- Short End Of The Stick
- A Damn Good Country Song
- Breakfast In Bed
- One Foot In The Groove
- Memphis Women And Chicken
- Tuscaloosa 1962
- Lay It Down
- Choo Choo Train
- Oh My Goodness
- I’d Do It Over Again
- Rico Ferrara, July 2022