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Funky Donnie Fritts: The GRITZ Interview

 by Eric Gebhardt

There is a unique blend of southern R&B, soul, and blues that is known the world over. Closely related to the sounds of Stax Records and folks like Rufus Thomas, but with a slightly different blend of spices and its own distinct flavor. Studios, sessionmen and songwriters from the northwest corner of Alabama put their stamp on records by giants such as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Clarence Carter, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and the impenetrable Rolling Stones. This scene, movement and cultural revolution was centered around a small town in which most of the folks were born and raised- Muscle Shoals Alabama.

Muscle Shoals is located on the Tennessee River in a cluster of small towns known as the Quad Cities. There is also Sheffield, where Muscle Shoals Sound is located and the fabled Jackson Highway Studio; Tuscumbia, which is famous as the birthplace of Helen Keller; and, on the north side of river is Florence, the birthplace of W.C. Handy and the home of Sam Phillips. The New Deal put Wilson Dam in the Tennessee River, one of many that comprise the Tennessee Valley Authority. Depending on which Drive-by Trucker's song you listen to, it was either a blessing or a curse. Alcohol sales on Sundays and tap beer were just recently allowed and still only in certain areas. Kids want a nightlife, city councils want a retirement community, but most people just seem tired. It's hard to fathom that at one time the Shoals area was a hit recording capitol of the world and churned out some of the most timeless soul records ever recorded.

However, sixty five years ago, in Florence, on Nov. 8th 1942, Huey and Helen Fritts and their son Wayne were grateful to be blessed with a brand new baby boy. I'm sure he was passed around from kin to kin, everyone smiling and dreaming, wondering what the Lord had planned for this tiny gift. The twinkle in the boy's eye could only be measured by his imagination. Soon, Alabama would call him The Leaning Man, and the world came to know him as Funky Donnie Fritts.

Donnie (don't you dare call him Mr. Fritts!) started out as a drummer in party bands around the area and later took up piano. His imagination saw to it that he became an architect of the Muscle Shoals Sound, writing songs recorded by Dusty Springfield, Doby Gray, the Box Tops, Ray Charles and Arthur Alexander. He was a writing partner with greats Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. Moving to Nashville put him smack dab in the middle of the Nashville revolution, where he had songs recorded by Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. He also struck up not just a friendship,
but also a brotherhood with songwriter extraordinaire, Kris Kristofferson who gave him a job as keyboard player for twenty two years and lead him into acting with roles in three of Sam Peckinpah's greats: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Convoy. Fritts was recently inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame by Kristofferson who turned down a movie role to stand at his brothers side. Donnie just released his third solo album which was recorded in Nashville at Dan Penn's Dandy Studios. His backing band on the record is the local Decoys, who are composed of sessionmen and pickers of strong reputation from the Shoals along with extra help from Spooner Oldham and Willie Nelson's Mickey Raphael.

First off, many people ask me about your role in Convoy, where you played a psychedelic preacher/ Where did that character come from?
(Laughs) Well, there wasn't much acting to it. The character's name Sam (Peckinpah) had used before. He did a movie called The Ballad of Cable Hogue and there was a preacher in there with the same name, Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloan, so he used the same name. More or less he didn't really tell me anything. In fact the scene's that I did got so far behind and he had to turn over a lot of our parts to a second unit director, James Coburn of all people, because we were good friends, and he directed most of my scenes on that movie. I just did it, you know. Didn't put a whole lot of thought in it. I kind of wrote what I said too, the 'brother rubber' and all that stuff.

Could you tell me about your childhood? What was the area like when you were growing up?
That's a good question. I grew up over in what they call East Hill. Way past east Florence and up through there. Really what they call ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ you know. But it was a beautiful place to grow up. There were great characters all around. I just really loved that place. I've talked about it with a lot of people, how I'd love to just capture that community there. It was very tight nit. People didn't have any money and we all kind of took care of each other. My daddy was in construction, and then he started his own company just him and this guy. They had one piece of equipment they rented and it just went on and on and finally got to be a pretty good company. He was also a great musician. I mean he could really, really play. He played guitar and upright bass. So I was around music through him you know. That's where, I guess, I got my love of music. My
brother could play pretty good.

What kind of music did you listen to growing up, and what got you into performing and writing?
You know, growing up as a child, say 8 and 9 years old, I was listening to just whatever was on the radio mostly. But mostly I listened to what my daddy played. He played that big band stuff which I love. When I got to be 12 years old I started to listen to Ray Charles. That was about '55 I think, and that just changed my whole life. From then on it was Ray and all the guys on Atlantic (Records), and the thing was, I grew up and one of my best friends of all time was Wexler, Jerry Wexler, Who I'm still really close to. (Interview conducted prior to Wexler’s passing.) I mean he produced all those early records I was listening to when I was 13,14 and 15 years old by Ray, and all those great records, the Drifters, and all that stuff on Atlantic. So that was pretty cool, you know.

How did all of that listening to the radio and to Ray Charles get you into playing and writing yourself seriously.
Well, it took a while. I started playing in bands when I was about 15. I played drums then. I met this guy who was the manager of the Shoals Theatre, Tom Stafford, and Tom and I talked and talked, talked about dreaming, and dreaming of being in the music business. All those talks became the studio above the drug store. He put the money up for that and he brought in Rick (Hall) and Billy Sherrill and later on Dan Penn and all those guys. But it was from all those talks we had when I was 14 and 15 years old. Tom was really a strange guy, but he was a really smart guy and he, like me, just loved music and had that dream. We knew James Joiner had had one hit here in country. All that just kind of came together around 1958, when we first got the studio above the drug store. That was the year I met Arthur Alexander and Arthur was a big influence on me. Always trying to get me to write: "Donnie you gotta write!" Well I was playing drums at the time and I had to slowly get started playing a little bit of piano. Spooner (Oldham) and David Briggs helped me get started. It just took me forever to learn, but I learned it so I could write songs. First time I wrote a song I took it straight to Arthur and he really bragged on it. Arthur had 'You Gotta Move On" and we said "Shit, man," here we are, really kids you know. From that dream of me and Tom, we actually made it work. We had a fucking hit. Out of this little bitty town here in Alabama. And it just kept growing. Rick left and started his own thing (Fame) and he had Jimmy Hughes; he cut Jimmy's records. It just kept right along building.

And you right along with it.
Well it was a great experience starting when I was 15 years old. It was just an amazing thing to be a part of, to watch it grow. Of course I've always bragged on Muscle Shoals, the engineers and all. But consider all the guys that started when I started and a little bit after. All these guys went on to have incredible careers in the music business, which is amazing when you think about it. That's a tough damn business! Say all of us would be sitting in a room, every one of them went on to have amazing careers, Dan (Penn) and Spooner (Oldham). Look what they did. David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, Norbert Putnam, they churned out hundreds and hundreds of hits. And I went on to work with Kris (Kristofferson) and wrote my songs and got to do some movies. Everybody there went on to do well, which to me, that's a story that's not really been talked about as much as the recording thing. ‘Cause it kept building up and people cut hits here but, God, just think about the kids that came from here and stayed at it and had amazing careers.

A pretty magical thing to be a part of.
Absolutely it was. Just a total magical thing that happened, and then, for me, I went on to Nashville and started writing. I didn't move from here for a long time, but I signed to a publishing company up there. But, say from '68 to about '76, that was the most magical time to be in Nashville, cause things were changing. Waylon (Jennings) started having hits, and Willie (Nelson). Then Kris came along and changed everything. He changed the way everybody wrote songs, a much more intelligent way of writing songs. His songs were incredible, just brilliant. So to be a part of that too, seeing all that change in Nashville, it was unbelievable. I mean we were out every night. I was out with Waylon every damn night. It was a lot of stuff we didn't have no business doing. But seeing all these guys like Waylon and Kris and Willie and Johnny Cash become giants, just giants. Those guys would walk in a room by themselves and you'd know they were a star. I mean Cash, I knew him for years, but when he'd walk in or I'd see him somewhere, I was always in awe of that cat. There was the president of the United States you know, he was just such a presence, and they all were. And to be able to be a part of that scene was just amazing.

Both Muscle Shoals and the Nashville revolution.

Yeah, the timing was just the right place at the right time.

Do you remember when Jerry Wexler first came into your life and how you guys hit it off so well?
Yeah, I remember meeting him, let's see, probably '67. He was down here with somebody. The thing that we hit it off with was, I knew he read a lot and I did to. I said "I got a book you gotta read, man." He said "What is it?" "'The Gospel Singer' by Harry Crews" he said "I bought it two nights ago. I'm just about through with it." I said "That's one of my favorite books of all time." and he said "Mine too." So from that we started exchanging books. I'd send something and he'd send me something and to this day we still do that. Just this thing we had in common and there's no telling how many books
he sent me or I sent him. It's always been a good connection for us. And every time we were in New York I'd go visit him or he'd come to the show.

I'll tell you a little story. One time -again, it's just how things work out. You can't plan this stuff- One night, we had already met John Prine, and got to be friends with him,  him and Stevie Goodman in Chicago.They were just playing little bitty clubs and, actually, Stevie opened for us at the White Knight. That's how we got to meet John. So, of all things, there was a guy, Paul Anka of all people, was in town that whole time when we were there. We were there about a week or a week and a half. So he was playing the big hotel in town. Well, he'd come and hang out with us and Kris and Paul and this actress that Kris was going with, Stevie took them over to meet John. And they were just knocked out. Of course he had 'Sam Stone', 'Hello in There' and 'Paradise', he'd already written those songs. Hell, he was only like 23 years old or something, so everyone was just knocked out by him. So, cut to about a month later, Paul Anka arranged for them to come to New York to shop 'em around, John and Steve. We were there playing The
Bitter End and it just so happened, I kept begging Jerry to come meet Kris and he wanted to meet Kris, so he comes to the show. John and Stevie come in to the second show and Kris gets John up to do a couple songs and I go out to sit with Jerry. He said "Who the hell is this kid?" 'cause he did 'Sam Stone' and 'Hello in There' and everybody just went crazy. So I said "I'll introduce you to him when the show's over." And Jerry signed him about two days later.

Can’t let John Prine slip by you.
Hell no! No matter how R&B you are, or whatever. That was an R&B label but he knew that that guy there was one of a kind.

Prine is a good friend of yours as well, right?

Yeah, we met him in 1971 and that's right when I introduced him to Wexler. I'll never forget that night after he met Wexler. Me and John, Billy Swan and Kris went to Paul's penthouse. He said "Ya'll like movies?" I said "Shit, I love them!" He said "Do you want to see any that's out now?" I said "John Wayne's new movie." He had all the brand new movies at his house, and back then it wasn't video, he had the damn 35 mm projector there. So we watched the John Wayne movie that night. I'll never forget that. Just those crazy things like that you remember. It was like 4 in the morning and somebody knocks on the door so me and Billy go to the door and Tom Jones is there with a couple of his body guards and some gorgeous gal. It was just one of those weird damn nights, you know?

What prompted your move to Nashville?

Well, I don't know. I just thought I could get more money and actually I did get more money than what Rick (Hall) was offering as a writer down here. Who knows whether I made the right decision or not. I feel like I did, only because of what it led to. I just got there and they gave me a pretty good draw. Didn't get many songs cut with them, but one thing leads to another. I got with someone else and then I got with a company, and had I not gotten with them I wouldn't have gotten close to Kris. It was CBS owned. They were in the same building as Combine Music which Kris, Billy Swan, Tony Joe (White) were signed to. They all became very close friends of mine. After I got with Kris I signed with Combine too. You know, all that one thing leads to another, being in the right place at the right time.

How did you first meet Kristofferson?

I just met him around. I spent so much time down stairs with those guys. A
lot of those guys would be up every night. It'd always be Kris, when he was
in town. He was doing two weeks out of Baton Rouge flying a damn helicopter
and two weeks in town. Mickey Newbury would be there every night. He
didn't write for that company. He wrote for Acuff-Rose, but he would always
be there hanging out, him and Chris Gantry. It was just a great place to be
around these brilliant writers. So that's where I really started hanging out
with Kris, and with Billy Swan, and Tony Joe when he first got there. He got
there about '67 or '68 and became one of my closest friends and I wrote a
lot of songs with him. I remember seeing him (Kris). I went to New York the
first time because of that publishing company I was signed to. It was a CBS
owned company so they had their headquarters in New York. I went up, and
Tony Orlando, remember that guy?

He was running the publishing company and
we hit it off and he brought me up there just to meet everybody and write
with some of the writers and that's when I met two of my favorite people
still, Chip Taylor and Billy Vera. I remember that first time I went up
there, I was on the way home, Kris was there and he and I had the same
flight back. He'd been up there for some award thing, I don't know. But we
just started hanging out. We took a trip together. Me and him and Billy Swan
went to Fort Worth for one of those long weekend parties put on by a real
wealthy friend of Kris's. Dennis was there, Dennis Hopper, that was the
first time I met Dennis. We got there on Friday and stayed all weekend and
all these just amazingly wealthy people, and Billy and I didn't have 15
dollars between us. We were with Kris so everything was alright. We stayed
at this man's house who became a very close friend of ours. But everything
was centered around this guys house. That's where the parties were. That's
where we really got to know Dennis. Over the years, I wasn't around him a
lot, but we always had a good time. Even when he was going through his
hardest times, when he was crazy, I always had a good connection with him.
He never ever gave me any problems and very few people could say that. I
just keep rattling off cause I just keep remembering stuff. He came up to me
and Billy and it was when "Easy Rider" was out and it was just tearing the
country up. It was doing so well and I loved that movie. He came over and
said, "I hope ya'll aren't mad at us for the way I ended that movie?" I said
"Fuck no, that's the way it is in the south." Talking about the two
southerners who killed the guys, remember that? I said "Hell, that's the way
it is down there! I know guys just like that!" I said "No, don't apologize
for that, you got it right." And after that we were all friends.

Let’s talk about “We Had it All.” That was a huge song for you, recorded by lots of great artists, yet, you are so humble about it. You seem so amazed that people like The Stones and Ray Charles cut versions of it. What does that song mean to you?
I have kind of mixed feelings about it. I love it. It's my favorite, I hate
to say favorite, but it's my favorite song cause Ray did it. Ray Charles, my
guy. But you know, it's never been a hit. It's been in the top 20 a couple
times with different people, Waylon and Dolly Parton, a lot of country acts.
So many people cut that song! But it's the most important song I got because
I got to hear Ray Charles sing it, something that I had a part of. I said
this to God, to myself, out loud, I said "Well if I ever get a song cut by
Ray Charles I'll quit." I didn't but...You know it was one of those deals
where it had been cut a few times so the publisher never even contacted me
when Ray cut it. So I'm at home, I knew this guy that owned this record
store. He called me, said "Donnie, I want to let you know I got your Ray
Charles cut in." I said "Man, don't lie to me! Don't tease me like that!" He
said "Hell, I just listened to it. I'm looking at the record and it's on
Atlantic Records!" Ray went back to Atlantic for that one record and he
produced it, found the songs. I went down there to the record store and
said, "I want every damn copy you got!" I listened to it and I got tears in
my eyes. So I went and found Troy Seals, he co-wrote it. Really he started
it and invited me in on it. After that no matter how low I got, if things
weren't happening or whatever, I could put that on and say, "You know what?
That's Ray Charles singing my damn song." You know what I mean? (Laughs)

The new album One Foot in the Groove is your third solo release. It doesn’t seem like making your own records is all that pressing to you.
You know, I never considered myself a singer. I'll be honest, only lately
have I gotten comfortable singing a lot. I never really thought to do it.
Over the last ten years, maybe not even that long, I felt much more
comfortable and I kind of found...well, Jerry Wexler gave me a great
compliment on that. He said "It's like you've suddenly found your voice
after all this time." And coming from Wexler it was a big compliment. But it
wasn't just suddenly. There was a lot of sitting at home singing by myself.
And I'm really proud of this CD now. I'm proud of the songs and even the
singing on most of it.

You’ve been doing a lot of stuff recently with the album, working with Billy Bob Thornton, being inducted into The Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and performing out more. After fifty years in the business, what are your thoughts on your life and career.

As you get older you really reflect, and things come to you that you hadn't thought about for a long time, or a song or something. And you think back and think "How in the world did that ever happen to me? I just feel really blessed and really lucky. Well, just to have been a part of all these people's lives. That's meant more to me than anything. All the songwriter's I've written with, all the musicians I've played with, all these actors. You know, these are great characters! And to have been a part of their lives. And to have a wife that really stuck by me when I really wasn't that great of a husband or person. It's incredible. I've been very blessed.

Despite your age and health problems in recent years and still working in an ever changing musical and cultural environment you still seem to always be looking forward to the next song. Just what is it about music that drives and inspires you and sparks the passion to keep doing it?
I think that's the thing that separates us, you too, you love music, you'll
always love music, ain't nothing going to change how I feel about music. So
that sparks me on. If you love music like we do, that's all it takes. If I
hear one of my friends songs or just some song on the radio, that's it. Then
those times I'll write something with someone. On this new album, there's a
song called 'She's Got a Crush on Me'...

That’s my favorite one.

Thank you. That may be my favorite to, but I go back and forth. When I wrote
that, I felt like I was twenty and wrote something I really liked. None of
that's going to change. It keeps me alive. You just come up with a little
bit different way of saying "I love you," and that's all it's about really.
That song's about an ol’ girl who's fat, lives in a damn trailer park and
she has a crush on me, (Laughs) but who cares, the guy loves her. I
love stuff like that!

Any final words?

Well, just that I'm one of the luckiest and most blessed people in the
world. Some people might not want to hear that and say "Well, God, you've
gone through so many bad things." And I have. I've gone through a lot of bad
health problems but you know what? I'm still here. I'm still here and still
doing it.

Two Donnie photos by Carl Gebhardt

Fritts and Billy Bob photo by Buffalo.

Eric Gebhardt is a writer and musician living in Florence, Alabama

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