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Losing a Songwriter: Donnie Fritts

August 30, 2019

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I’ve been thinking this week about the last conversation I had with Donnie Fritts, other than a quick hello backstage at the birthday concert thrown for him at the Shoals Theater in Florence for his 75thbirthday. We’d talked about his career before but this time we turned to his songwriting.

He’d started as a drummer, sitting in with bands like the Decoys in high school and beyond, when some of the people he worked with started having success writing songs-Arthur Alexander, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham.

“It was so exciting when things were getting started. We were still kids right here in Muscle Shoals trying to get going.  We were glad when anybody had a hit. Just excited when Arthur had his first hit. We were all a part of that–to hear it on the radio, to see it on TV. That more than anything proved to us we could actually do it too. I see this guy every day of my life and then I see him on American Bandstand.”

They convinced him he could write too. That’s when he took up the keyboard, since drums aren’t the ideal instrument for creating melodies to go with lyrics. He studied music theory, learned to play chords watching David Briggs and Spooner Oldham.

“I’d watch Spooner,” he said. “I loved the way he made chords. I really watched him. that helped me a lot.  Got my own style.  I’d just think, Wonder why he did that? What was that he just did?

“I’ve had people ask me the same thing over the years. B. B. Thornton called me up the other day and said he couldn’t figure out what the chord were on a song of mine. I told him, it’s just four chords. It’s just the way you make ‘em.”

Donnie said the first of his songs to be recorded by someone else was one he wrote with Dan Penn that ended up on the flip side of a million seller, one of Tommy Rowe’s big hits “Everybody.”

“But it was a horrible song,” he claimed. “’Sorry I’m Late’… just as bad as the title sounds.

He said the ones he liked best included a lot of love songs, “Breakfast in Bed,” and “We Had It All,” for example.

“I guess most writers write love songs, but then you kind of veer off and you write story songs–or just whatever can come to your mind—maybe to fit a melody you’ve got. For me anyway, I’ll bet 90% of my songs come from an idea—a title, I hear something somebody says or I sit around and somebody you get an idea and right then we start: How does this idea strike you? We’ve got this title for a song. How should it sound? We’d decide this has got to be a ballad or this has got to be an up-tempo song.”

He said some song ideas just don’t go anywhere. “I like co-writing much better than by myself–somebody like John Prine or Kris or Dan or Spooner. It’s still one of the greatest things in the world when you finish a good song.”

When I asked him if he could tell when a finished song was a good one, he said, “I think so. If it’s not that good, you might not even finish it or might not be that excited about it. But you know when they’re really good. It doesn’t happen that often. But it does happens, obviously.”

When I asked which of his songs was his favorite, I wasn’t surprised when he named, “’We Had It All’ just because I love Ray Charles so much. He’s been my inspiration over the years. There’s only one Ray Charles. And he cut one of my songs.”

That was the one of his songs he enjoyed singing the most too, his most recorded song—The Stones, Rita Coolidge, Willie and Waylon too.

He said he enjoyed writing funny songs too, like “Memphis Women and Fried Chicken” and “300 Pounds of Hungry.”

“I’ve written a lot of stuff with Tony Joe White that’s so much fun to do. There’s something funky about those—like “Short End of the Stick.”

While he was first writing, he was still playing drums in other bands.

“But of course, I went from there. I had a while when I was just a songwriter. I wrote for a lot of different companies. Then I got with Kris [Kristofferson], one of the best things that ever happened to me.  That was a great 22 years.”

Kristofferson first laid his nickname on him, “Funky Donnie Fritts,” when they were recording “The Pilgrim” for the on the Silver Tongued Devilalbum.

“He was just talking: ‘Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson. . .’ then he just came up with Funky Donnie Fritts—and it just stuck. Jerry Wexler gave me the name Alabama Leaning Man, said I was leaning all the time. He put that in an article he’d written about Swamp Music.”

Reminiscing about that time on the stage, he said, “I loved it.  It was really great touring with Kris. “We had a ball, like a family. We toured the world.  A little guy from  Alabama gets to go all over the world. Me and Billy Swan and Kris.” When we talked, he told me some of the guys had died.”

He talked about his acting debut:

“I got very lucky. We I had been in a couple of movies when Kris first started. Then Kris and I went to Mexico with Sam Peckinpah. He had already signed Kris to do Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. This was four months before he started shooting. He was auditioning actors in Mexico City, asked Kris to go with him. I was just there, sitting on a stool. Sam said, ‘I want you in this movie.’  Nobody loves movies more than me, but I’d never acted.

“He said, ‘Just do what I tell you and you’ll be fine’. Great great great! He used me in three movies. He didn’t have to do that. This guy was tough to deal with.  Kris and I were shocked. Actors were just scared to audition for him. I didn’t have to go through with that. I was just there. He said, ‘You look like you’d be part of Billy the Kid’s gang if you were living back then.’

“I went on to act in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, some huge cult classics. I was in Convoywith him. From AlfredoI got to be good friends with Warren Oates, and he got me into another movie.”

Of all the movies, he said his favorite was still Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,since it was his first movie—“And I didn’t get killed right off the bat. I was in it all the way through from the beginning to the end. And all those great character actors, great Western actors in that film. Kris and I spent about four months with Bob Dylan in Mexico. I had no lines the way it was written, but Sam said, ‘You’re going to have to say something.’

“I told him, ‘There’s nothing for me to say.’ I was nervous as I could be. But Sam tole me, ‘Just repeat what people say.  I did that.

“I had a lot of dialogue in a low-budget Kris and I did: The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico, more of a country Spinal Tap.”

When we spoke, Donnie had just finished his penultimate CD Oh My Goodness, produced by John Paul White and Ben Tanner’s Single Lock Records. He said, “I’m happier now than I’ve ever been with my singing. I hated my singing. But if you don’t sing it, you can’t pitch it. People want to hear you do your songs. I’m in a good place now with this album. I feel real comfortable.”

I couldn’t help observing that whenever Donnie Fritts was around, everybody else felt real comfortable too. We’re sure going to miss him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 30, 2019 7:14 pm

    I’m so glad you were able to talk to him. Did you record him? You know I always love your posts, Cuz!

    Based on something from your piece, I want to tell you something about Jay. Whenever he heard another musician play a lick that he wanted to know, He’d go to the person and offer $25 if he’d teach him the lick. Those musicians! They’re precious.

    I meant to ask you when you were here . . . have you read my book or at least some parts of it? Just wondering. Love you!!

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