by Patterson Hood
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 his liner notes to Donnie Fritts’ 1974 album, “Prone to Lean”
There was never a time when I didn’t know Funky Donnie Fritts.
When they were teenagers, he and my mama lived in the same neighborhood, and for years, Donne was one of my dad’s peers in the fertile music scene of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He played for nearly three decades in Kris Kristofferson’s band, co-wrote with the late Eddie Hinton the Dusty Springfield classic “Breakfast in Bed,” and was friends with Bob Dylan, John Prine, Tony Joe White, T-Bone Burnett, Spooner Oldham, Willie Nelson, and Sam Peckinpah. He acted in movies and played thousands of shows on the endless highway.
He was a touchstone and legend, but to me he was, more than anything, a dear friend.
Donnie was 76 when he passed last week, but he lived many lives within those years. He lived hard and played hard. He received a kidney transplant two decades ago and was pretty much sober from then on. He achieved some success very young but continued to create to the very end, releasing what may have been his masterpiece, “Oh My Goodness,” in 2015.
Donnie began as a drummer in his high-school band before transitioning to keyboard, especially his signature Wurlitzer Electric Piano. That Wurlitzer was the sound of Donnie. An avid movie lover from his childhood on, he befriended a boy around his own age named Tom Stafford, who worked at a local movie theater. Tom would let Donnie in for free, and Donnie saw everything that came to town. Tom’s father was a pharmacist at City Drug in downtown Florence, and around that time Tom and Donnie began a friendship with a bellhop at the local hotel.
That bellhop was named Arthur Alexander and FAME Recording Studio began when Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, Norbert Putnam, Jerry Carrigan, and David Briggs recorded Alexander’s “You Better Move On” in FAME’s original location: upstairs from City Drug.
“You Better Move On” was the spark that lit the fire of the Muscle Shoals Sound. It became a hit, and a scene was born. Arthur Alexander went on to have another hit with “Anna (Go to Him).” He was reportedly the only artist to ever to have his songs recorded by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.
Although Donnie didn’t play on “You Better Move On,” began a lifelong friendship that lasted until Alexander’s untimely passing in 1993. In 2017, Donnie released his final album, an Arthur Alexander tribute called “June” that received rave reviews and capped off nearly 60 years of musical kinship.
In the early 1970s, Donnie began his journeys with Kris Kristofferson, playing keyboards in his band and forging a close friendship that lasted a lifetime. His decades on the road with Kristofferson took an interesting detour when Kris became a big film star in the mid-70s. Legendary film director Sam Peckinpah cast Kris alongside James Coburn, Jason Robards, and a songwriter named Bob Dylan to be in his movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Fritts went along because … well … wouldn’t you?
Peckinpah ended up putting Donnie in the movie — and then he ended up in most of the rest of Peckinpah’s films, including Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where we saw Donnie, one of the nicest guys on Earth, really shine as a murderous biker. Donnie went on to have walk-on parts in the Streisand/Kristofferson version of A Star is Born, Peckinpah’s Convoy, and Billy Bob Thornton’s Jayne Mansfield’s Car in 2012.
In Muscle Shoals, Donnie had many deep friendships. Everybody loved Funky Donnie Fritts. How could they not? Our own friendship took a slightly different turn, though, because of our shared obsession with movies. Like me, Donnie was more than a casual film buff, and though Muscle Shoals is a great music town, most of the movies folks like Donnie and me love never came to the local Carmike multiplex.
Because of his acting career, Donnie was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Thus, every year when Oscar nominations rolled around, the Academy sent screeners of all the nominated files to his home in Alabama. When I moved to Portland, Oregon, I found a city with hordes of cinemaphiles and theaters where you can see every award-nominated film.
There was Donnie in Alabama, with his encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of films — and often no one to talk to about them. So, over the last several years, we spent more time discussing cinema than music.
Film nerd or not, Donnie was an amazing songwriter. Beyond “Breakfast in Bed,” he co-wrote “The Oldest Baby in the World” with John Prine and “Memphis Women and Fried Chicken” with Dan Penn and Gary Nicholson.
But one of my favorites among Donnie’s songs was “Where’s Eddie,” which he and Eddie Hinton co-wrote around sunrise one morning. They got drunk, climbed a tree, and wrote the tune while sitting among the limbs. The British artist Lulu ended up recording it for “New Routes,” the album she recorded in Muscle Shoals. Years later, my band Drive-By Truckers recorded it for our album “Go-Go Boots.” Donnie later told me that he and Hinton drunkenly argued over whose name would grace the title. Fortunately, neither fell out of that tree.
In 1974, Jerry Wexler signed Donnie to Atlantic Records, and he and Kristofferson produced his most infamous record, “Prone to Lean.” A master class in greasy, deep-groove greasy Southern soul, it featured guest appearances from Tony Joe White, Rita Coolidge, Mickey Raphael, John Prine, Billy Swann, and the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section. (Legend has it there’s an uncredited Dylan cameo on there.) The record didn’t sell much, but it became a beloved collectors’ item.
Forty years later, Donnie teamed with John Paul White and Ben Tanner to make my favorite of his albums, “Oh My Goodness,” which came out in 2015 on White and Tanner’s Single Lock Records. Stripped down to the bare essentials of Fritts’ weathered vocals and that Wurlitzer electric piano, that masterful record showcased an artist who had survived with his soul, grace, and humor intact. It leads off with one of the most beautiful songs I know of, “Errol Flynn,” which Fritts didn’t write himself, but could have. It tells the story of a sidekick and best friend to the early film star and matinee idol, told through the knowing eyes of the sidekick’s son — a loving remembrance that easily parallel’s Donnie’s own life story. The narrator’s father closely paralleled Donnie’s own relationship with Kristofferson, whose star had also shone so bright. It is told not with bitterness or regret, but with tenderness and love and a sense of pride for having been a supporting character to such a figure. Donnie’s voice didn’t express weary acceptance, but a loving sweetness, like so many of us feel about him.
It’s easily one of my favorite vocal performances of the past decade — on an album that still grows each and every time I play it.
In the spring of 2018, I played the first Bitter Southerner Stage at the Word of South Festival in Tallahassee, Florida. My father, David Hood, was a featured player, alongside John Paul White and his amazing band … and Donnie. Donnie answered questions during panels. He premiered songs from his then-upcoming Arthur Alexander tribute album in a set that was beautiful and well-received. And on the final day, I — along with Donnie, my dad, and John Paul and his band — played a highly impromptu musical tribute to Donnie’s old pal and collaborator, Eddie Hinton. It ended with a version of “Breakfast in Bed” so beautiful, people were crying as John Paul brought the vocals, backed by Donnie on his Wurlitzer, my dad on bass, and Reed Watson on drums.
I had a blast hanging out with Dad and our friends and peers. There were wonderful dinners and great camaraderie. Donnie and I discussed trying to put together a 35mm screening of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in Portland. We planned to host a Q&A afterward, followed by a short set of Donnie’s music. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse shortly afterward and our idea never came to pass.
Donnie crossed the rainbow bridge late in the evening of August 27. He passed peacefully in his sleep surrounded by people who loved him dearly.
Tributes have been pouring in from far and wide. Author Stanley Booth posted a clip of Keith Richards performing Donnie’s song “We Had It All,” Richards’ wonderfully craggy voice soaked with pathos and longing on a song once recorded by the great Ray Charles. Stanley wrote how much he and Keith would be missing their old friend.
I will never forget my close friend and how much my own life has been enriched by our friendship and the times we spent hanging out and talking about the things we both loved so much.
There’ll never be another one like the ol’ leaning man, Funky Donnie Fritts.