Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

July 28, 2020

Floyd Cramer, “Night Train,” RCA-Camden LP, released 1967

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FLOYD CRAMER, “Night Train,” 1967 RCA-Camden LP

A1   Night Train 3:00
A2   Half As Much 2:47
A3   Theme From A Dream 2:30
A4   Long Walk Home 2:21
A5   Secrets 2:35
B1   Woodchopper’s Ball 2:48
B2   Town Square 1:58
B3   On A Fling Ding 2:00
B4   Shaggy Bop 1:54
B5   Want Me 2:15

 

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Good old-style thrift stores/junk stores have gone the way of real rock’n’roll—-they’re still out there, but harder to find….and when you do find them, they are often corrupted by the commercialism and pretentiousness of the present day and the evil influence of Ebay. If anyone is a thrift store musical artist, it’s pianist Floyd Cramer (although based on my excursions in the last two years, Billy Vaughn wears the crown of most-common thrift store LP artist!).When I was in Central Louisiana a few years ago, catching the horse races at Evangeline Downs, I explored the small towns in the area and stumbled across a junk store that did not have much worthwhile, especially the record section, which was mostly trashed copies of things like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER or Neil Diamond. The sole good thing I saw was about 20-25 Floyd Cramer albums, all in what could charitably be called VG condition and all for two dollars each! As I was traveling and as I am gradually selling off most non-essential items in my record collection, I decided to pass on them….except for one, an album that I owned back in the 80’s (and got for 99 cents) and had clear memories of, NIGHT TRAIN.

If you are not familiar with country pianist Floyd Cramer, he was one of the two most popular piano instrumentalists (as opposed to pianists who also sang, like Moon Mullican or Charlie Rich or Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousin Mickey Gilley) in country music, the other being Del Wood, a lady who played in a kind of honky-tonk/ragtime style. Cramer, on the other hand, had an instantly identifiable “slip note” style, which had him playing the melody of a song (and it was all about melody on a Cramer record!) in a relatively straight-forward manner, but with many of the notes he played, particularly at climactic moments, he’d “slip in” a second note a few steps away from the main note maybe a half second after the first note. If you can’t imagine that, just go to You Tube and search for his song “Last Date.” By the end of the first thirty seconds, you’ll know whether you like that style or not. Like many musical artists with a gimmick, Cramer brought that gimmick to MANY albums. If you liked his style, then obviously, you’d LOVE to hear it applied to your favorite country and pop hits. I would guess that during his heyday, from the late 50’s through the late 70’s, he probably recorded 3-4 albums a year, and that’s not counting re-packaged items and budget-label product, such as the album under review today. Much of Cramer’s output would be put in the “easy listening” category, if no one told you that it was considered “country.” Cramer was actually a fine player, a crack session musician (he’d been house pianist at the Louisiana Hayride!), and he appeared on many of Elvis Presley’s best Nashville sessions, but the “slip note” gimmick was what made him famous, and he continued to deliver the goods album after album after album…and many of those albums, at least for the first decade or so, were produced by Chet Atkins, who was doing a similar thing on his guitar instrumental albums.

Camden was RCA’s budget label, and to save on mechanical royalties, their albums usually offered only 10 songs as opposed to 12. Camden was used by RCA to reissue older material that might not sell at full price anymore, but would sell at department stores for 99 cents (mono) or $1.99 (stereo) to the kind of people who did not frequent record stores but enjoyed a new album now and then by a familiar name. It was also used to create albums of material by popular artists who had tracks that fell between the cracks–many of Elvis’ soundtrack songs from movies that did not have enough songs to create a soundtrack album would wind up on Camden LP’s for their initial release (if an EP was not issued), though Camden also issued new material among the re-treads. In perhaps the most outrageous example of that, Elvis’ smash hit Burning Love was first issued on a BUDGET album after its success as a single. It could have become the core of a successful full-price album, but Colonel Parker got a lump sum for each Camden album and was not a man who thought about long-term strategy.

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NIGHT TRAIN would seem to be an album full of tracks that fell between those cracks. Many of the Cramer albums I’ve heard had a theme to them, or at least a consistent sound throughout the album. This one does not. If Discogs is to be trusted (sorry, but I don’t know the Cramer discography intimately, although I’ve probably owned a dozen of his albums over the years and maybe 6 or 7 singles), the majority of the tracks were first released here, with a few tracks coming from a 1965 album and another track being a non-LP b-side, the album closer, WANT ME (see pic).

The album is an odd mixture of various styles. It opens promisingly with a cover of the R&B classic “Night Train”, which is performed in a crime-jazz style, and you could imagine Craig Stevens strutting down a dark alley at 2 a.m. in a PETER GUNN episode while it played. The second track is in the classic Cramer style, its first notes echoing “Last Date,” and it’s a cover of the country classic “Half As Much,” associated with Hank Williams. It’s got the light frosting of strings and ohh-ing and ahh-ing backing vocals that one expects in the “country-politan” style of the day, a sound very much associated with Cramer’s producer and good friend Chet Atkins. The next song, “Theme From A Dream,” sounds like a direct carbon-copy of the Duane Eddy style, but with the plonk of Cramer’s piano substituting for Eddy’s guitar twang. The military drumming and vaguely “western panorama” feel of the piece certainly evoke Eddy, and in case the listener is too pre-occupied with cooking dinner to make the connection, there are a few guitar “twangs” tucked into the mix. The next song, “Long Walk Home,” sounds like it could be the theme song from some TV-movie mystery, circa 1971, starring Gene Barry and Yvette Mimieux–I can see some stylish mansion, with a dead body draped over an ornate writing desk in the plush study, stumbled across by Mimieux at 3 a.m. She pauses, her jaw drops, the film’s title appears on the screen, and the Cramer musical theme starts playing. Etc. Etc.

Every song on the album is atmospheric in one way or another. It’s the perfect piece of thrift store vinyl, (and speaking of Discogs, I see you can STILL get a copy for 99 cents), kind of the music equivalent of the cheapo comic books I often review here. Someone probably enjoyed this dollar album for 20 years, playing it hundreds of times while frying up pork chops, dusting the living room furniture, or balancing the checkbook right before payday. Now YOU can get that copy yourself, and you can let it be the soundtrack to YOUR life activities. I can’t really call this a “lounge” album, but it certainly qualifies as easy listening, and it’s got everything that’s great about thrift-store LP’s. Cramer was born in Shreveport, a great music town, and passed away in 1997. He explained his slip-note style this way: “”The style I use mainly is a whole-tone slur which gives more of a lonesome cowboy sound. You hit a note and slide almost simultaneously to another.” His last chart hit was in 1980, a cover of the theme from the TV show DALLAS, which somehow seems fitting. Getting a thrift-store LP is like seeing a film at the dollar theater….your expectations change and you’re open to a wider variety of expression, finding the valuable in what others look down their noses at. Ahhhh, but it’s their loss. Floyd Cramer’s NIGHT TRAIN LP will be the best 99 cents you’ll ever spend….and if you’re lucky, you might even score the 8-track tape version of it (see pic).

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