Essentials: The Top 10 Donnie Fritts Songs

Country soul is one of the great sub-genres of music and is a cornerstone of what subsequently became called americana, and it does what it says on the tin, it mixes country and soul music. What is so surprising about this is that while the ground zero album is Ray Charles’ ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’ in 1962, the majority of the music was recorded in the triangle of Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama at time of racial tension in the South that culminated with the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 in Memphis. After 1968 the practice of recording black singers with local white musicians in the South reduced, and most of the white studio musicians from Muscle Shoals and Memphis eventually headed to Nashville.

Donnie Fritts, born in Florence, Alabama, in 1942 was a key architect of what came to be called the Muscle Shoals sound that took form in his home town around the FAME Recording Studio founded by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Tom Stafford in the 1950s, where local black singers sang country songs backed largely by white kids. These white kids included Dan Penn, David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, Norbert Putman and Spooner Oldham, replaced by a second generation of David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, and Jimmy Johnson, known collectively as The Swampers after the first generation were lured away to Memphis and Nashville. With his keyboard work and songwriting, Donnie Fritts was at the centre of the Muscle Shoals sound, particularly with the groundbreaking work with Arthur Alexander, still the only artist to be covered by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan before he moved to Nashville as a songwriter.

Numerous artists have covered his songs, including Arthur Alexander, Waylon Jennings, John Prine, Dusty Springfield, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bonnie Koloc, the Box Tops, Ray Charles, and Dolly Parton. It was as a staff writer in Nashville that Donnie Fritts fell in with fellow writer Kris Kristofferson and subsequently joined his touring band for four decades. It was through his connection with Kristofferson that he became an actor in the ‘70s appearing in ‘Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid’ amongst a handful of other films. While he was a prolific songwriter, touring and recording musician, he only recorded 5 solo albums in his sixty-year career, but each album was not only a celebration of Donnie Fritts’s music but also the sound of the other contributing musicians and that unique sound of the Muscle Shoals, Memphis, and Nashville triangle. Donnie Fritts sadly passed away in 2019, but his legacy lives on through his songs and recordings.

Number 10: ‘One Foot In The Groove’  (2008)

To his friends and other musicians, Donnie Fritts is often known as “Funky” Donnie Fritts and if anyone doubted the description they only have to listen to the ‘One Foot In The Groove’ album. It was produced by Dan Penn at his Dandy Studios in Nashville, with the Muscle Shoals based Decoys as the core backing band. The Decoys include Swamper David Hood, legendary keyboard player Spooner Oldham, and Capricorn stalwart Scott Boyer, with Kelvin Holly, NC Thurman and Mike Dillon. The inspiration behind the song ‘On Foot In The Groove’ was a life saving kidney transplant Fritts had in 2001, and when asked by a friend just after the operation and feeling good due to his system still being full of the drugs he’d been given, he told him “I’ve got one foot in the groove.”

Number 9: Memphis Women and Chicken’  (2015)

Donnie Fritts’ ‘Oh My Goodness’ is probably his best album in that it is the best representation of Fritts as a performer and singer. It was recorded in Florence, Alabama with the current generation of leading Muscle Shoals musicians, plus guests like John Prine, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and old friends like David Hood and Spooner Oldham and produced by John Paul White and Ben Tanner on their Single Lock imprint. Donnie Fritts wrote ‘Memphis Women and Chicken’ with Dan Penn and Gary Nicholson and the song first appeared on Dan Penn’s ‘Do Right Man’ and it is a very simple song set to a bluesy tune that perfectly captures the culinary delights of Memphis, Tennessee. Nobody would claim that Donnie Fritt’s vocals matched Dan Penn’s, but his take on the song is earthier than Penn’s version which is closer to country blues. While Dan Penn is seen as one of the leading architects of country soul, it should be noted that he didn’t like the term being applied to his own music saying that “I was from the country, but I didn’t have any country music in me. It had all been chased away by Ray Charles”.

Number 8: ‘Everybody’s Got a Song’ (1997)

If John Prine is a fan of your songwriting then you must be a pretty good songwriter, and John Prine thought so much of Donnie Fritts he got him to record an album for his Oh Boy Records appropriately titled ‘Everybody’s Got a Song’. The album was not just a celebration of Donnie Fritts’s songwriting, it also included his whole circle of musical friends including Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton, Dan Penn, Billy Swan, Eddie Hinton, Tony Joe White, Lucinda Williams amongst others on old and new songs written by Fritts. While Donnie Fritts just oozes funky music his vocals can be an acquired taste, though like all great musicians he did make the best of the vocal talents he had, and the proliferation of his friends who joined him on vocals on this album was to help him bring the songs to a wider audience. Fritts wrote the title track with Dan Penn, and Kris Kristofferson and Penn join Fritts on vocals. Donnie Fritts said, “Kris was the perfect person to sing the verse about writing a song that the whole world can sing. He sure has written a lot of those”.

Number 7: Adios Amigo’ (1994)

It is always wise to show a degree of caution when approaching tribute albums as more often than not they fail to do justice to the artist or genre they are celebrating and can include too many inappropriate versions of well-known songs. There are exceptions, and 1994’s ‘Adios Amigo: A Tribute To Arthur Alexander’ is one of the better ones, with artists like Roger McGuinn, Nick Lowe, Robert Plant, Mark Knopfler, Marshall Crenshaw, John Prine, and Frank Black working with a house band that included Donnie Fritts, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, and Mickey Clery provide very appropriate support. Arthur Alexander was one of the first Muscle Shoals artists and he was a lifelong friend of Donnie Fritts, and Fritts and Penn celebrate him with a song that Fritts wrote with Alexander, ‘Adios Amigo’. While the song was written in the ‘60s and was played live by Arthur Alexander, it was never recorded until this version. You get a real sense of the friendship that existed between Fritts and Alexander.

Number 6: ‘June’ (2018)

Donnie Fritts released his last album in 2018. It was his second album for Single Lock Records and it was ‘June (A Tribute To Arthur Alexander)’. This time the album was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound and is very loose in a way that you know the musicians are also very tight. The sound suits Donnie Fritts who is confident enough to put his own stamp on some of Alexander’s best songs, some of which were written with Fritts. There is one new Donnie Fritts song on the album, ‘June’, the title track and also the nickname of Arthur Alexander, Jr. Donnie Fritts wrote the title track on the way back from his friend’s funeral in1993, and while the lyrics simply tell the story of their friendship and the honesty of that friendship which started back in the ‘50s between two teenagers, one black and one white, who had to deal with the attitudes of the time in the deep South.

Number 5: ‘Oh My Goodness’ (2015)

The title track from his greatest record is a co-write with Spooner Oldham and the only instrument is Oldham’s piano which ensures a truly intimate feel to this love song to his beloved, a sense of devotion that will extend beyond the grave. It shows that Donnie Fritts never lost his songwriting ability and with age and experience he was able to get magic even out of his gruff vocals. Donnie Fritts died in 2019 just after releasing his tribute to Arthur Alexander, and ‘Oh My Goodness’ shows what a vital artist he was to the very end.

Number 4: ‘A Damn Good Country Song’ (1997)

Donnie Fritts wrote ‘A Damn Good Country Song’ for Jerry Lee Lewis in 1975, and it fitted the singer perfectly. The lyrics covered the challenges he had had in his life up to that point. When Fritts covered the song on ‘Everybody’s Got A Song’ it seemed only right that Waylon Jennings should join him on lead vocals. Jennings had recorded Donnie Fritts’s ‘We Had It All’ on his landmark album ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ in 1973. The great Reggie Young is featured on lead guitar on a song that is exactly how the title describes it.

Number 3: ‘If It’s Really Got To Be This Way’ (2015)

Arther Alexander recorded his third and final album, ‘Lonely Just Like Me’, in 1991 shortly before his death. The album was part of Elektra/Nonesuch’s ‘American Explorer’ album series and was recorded in Nashville and featured the cream of Muscle Shoals and Memphis musicians including Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, and Reggie Young. Donnie Fritts played and wrote some new tunes that featured on the album, and the lead-off track ‘If It’s Really Got To Be This Way’ is one of the best. Fritts wrote it with Arthur Alexander and Gary Nicholson, and it is a breakup song that has a sense of the real world about it. He recorded his own version on 2015’s ‘Oh My Goodness’, which added to the various versions recorded by numerous artists including Robert Plant, Bill Kirchen, and Marcia Ball.

Number 2: ‘Breakfast In Bed’ (1997)

Eddie Hinton had everything as an artist, he was one of the greatest blue-eyed soul singers, a great songwriter, and a guitarist good enough for Duane Allman to try and form a band with him when they were both Muscle Shoals session players. Unfortunately, he never got the breaks needed to establish a solo career, and this disappointment led to psychological problems later in his life. One of Eddie Hintons greatest songs was ‘Breakfast In Bed’ which he wrote with Donnie Fritts in 1969 for Dusty Springfield who was recording her album, ‘Dusty In Memphis’. The song was an adult take on relationships and was included on ‘Dusty In Memphis’ and as a B-side to 1969’s ‘Don’t Forget About Me’. For some reason, ‘Breakfast In Bed’ was covered by various reggae artists in the early ‘70s, which led to the Chrissie Hynde and UB40 version in 1988. Donnie Fritts recorded his own version on 1997’s ‘Everybody’s Got A Song’ with Lucinda Williams sharing lead vocals. Though Eddie Hinton appeared on the album, he didn’t appear on this track which features the guitar playing of the great Stephen Bruton.

Number 1: ‘Rainbow Road’ (1974)

All lists are ultimately subjective no matter how much thought is put into them. There is the selection of tracks that make the final cut, and then there is the even more fraught question of the order of those final tracks. Why is ‘Rainbow Road’  Donnie Fritts’ number one essential song? It was written with Dan Penn early on in his career while he was still active in Muscle Shoals, and never troubled the charts even though it was recorded by numerous artists including Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge, Kris Kristofferson, and Steve Goodman. It is a song from its time, looking as it does at the promise of social mobility and the move out of poverty with the harsh racial prejudice and violence that were commonplace in the American South of the 1960s. Because it was a song of its time it also captured the essence of the Muscle Shoals sound which was based on black and white musicians working together as equals.

Donnie Fritts recorded the song on his debut album ‘Prone To Lean’. The album was recorded for the newly formed Atlantic Records Country Music Division in 1974, and was produced by Jerry Wexler and Kris Kristofferson and is of a piece with Doug Sahm’s  ‘Doug Sahm And Band’ and Willie Nelson’s two Atlantic albums. ‘Prone To Lean’ is not just Donnie Fritts debut album, it is also a celebration of the country soul sound of the Muscle Shoals, Memphis, and Nashville musical triangle. All the major studio players are featured, as well as Rita Coolidge, John Prine, and Tony Joe White. At this point in his career, Donnie Fritts hadn’t quite worked out how to make the best of his limited vocal abilities,  but ‘Prone To Lean’ gives a glimpse of what was possible, and ‘Rainbow Road’ is something of an anthem for the societal issues and change that drove country soul. Finally, for those musical completists out there, Bob Dylan is reputed to have made an appearance on the album because the recording sessions overlapped with the filming of ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Paul Higham

Doesn’t John Prine refer to Fritts as “the leanin’ man from Alabam” on one of his live albums?