Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Songwriter Lawton Williams, 85, dies

His country smash 'Fraulein' also was a pop hit in 1957

By BEVERLY KEEL Staff Writer
Published: Saturday, 07/28/07

Songwriter Lawton Williams, known for the 1957 song of the year "Fraulein," as well as "Geisha Girl" and "Color of the Blues," died of a respiratory illness Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas. He turned 85 on Tuesday.

Country singer George Jones said, "He was always very, very nice and a real talent. He finished up 'Color of the Blues' with me, and wrote one of my all-time favorite songs, 'Fraulein.' '' About every third album, Jones wants to recut that song, which he once covered.

"He was pushing all the right country music buttons for that era," said songwriter/producer Bobby Braddock. "He was writing songs that were unique and original and that were hard country at a time when so much country was being influenced by rock and roll and rockabilly. He was a great songwriter and he certainly was an influence on the country part of me."

Born in Troy, Tenn., the fiddler's son was stationed in Houston during World War II. There he learned songwriting from Floyd Tillman.

Mr. Williams enjoyed his first cuts by artists such as Cliff Bruner and Laura Lee McBride and
performed on radio stations. He began recording for Sultan and Fortune labels in the late 1940s, and later signed with Four Star, Coral and Imperial.

Songs fit post-war era

Hank Locklin hit No. 4 with "Geisha Girl" and Bobby Helms took "Fraulein" to No. 1 in 1957. This year marks the 50th anniversary of "Fraulein," which was Country Song of the Year at the 1957 Billboard and Cashbox Awards. It spent 52 weeks on the country charts and became a No. 16 pop hit. "They called the song the Texas national anthem because it was such a great two-step song," Braddock said. "The people who had been overseas after World War II and stationed in Germany and dated German girls identified with that song. He did the same thing for those who had been stationed in Japan with 'Geisha Girl.' " Jim Reeves cut "Senor Santa Claus," Gene Watson and Joe Nichols recorded "Farewell Party" and Bobby Bare released "Shame on Me." Mr. Williams, who recorded for Mercury and MCA, once said, "As long as country music fans want to hear traditional country music, that's what I'll be writing and recording." Copyright © 2007, tennessean.com. All rights reserved.

KXOL Radio

I worked for Lawton Williams in the late 60's in Ft Worth radio. It was my second radio job and my first "real" radio gig at a serious station, KXOL. One of the DJs there was a young George Carlin and one of the news guys was Bob Schieffer before he went up to CBS. I was just a teenager with a deep voice and no idea what I was doing, who thought country music was dumb, but I wanted to be in radio so bad that I was willing to play literally anything just to get a gig. My mother, bless her heart, had to

Joe 1969

drive me to my first week on the job because I didn't have my driver's license yet. I had three different radio names as a DJ on the FM station, a Newsman, and as an AM DJ on the weekends. This is where I learned the country music canon and the difference between Willie Nelson, who was obviously very, very hip, and, say, Bill Anderson, who seemed like a cornball, whether he really was or not. Later I learned that even the cornballs in Nashville were usually pretty sharp operators who were a lot hipper than they let on. You don't break into the Bigs by being a dumbass, and even if you do, you sure don't stay there long. One time I was interviewing Willie for an Armadillo Texas Tour after he moved back to Texas and he was doing his outlaw thing and none of the hippies knew who he was yet and I asked him if anybody in Nashville smoked dope (this was how we distinguished the hipsters from the squares) and his reply was "everybody in Nashville smokes dope". He was of course only half serious, but he was also making a point. Nashville was never as square as the face it tried to put on itself for the benefit of the audience, and if those square Moms and Pops from Indiana who were making pilgrimages to the Opry to see all those clean, nice young people sing those clean, nice songs, knew what kind of hanky panky was going on backstage and on the buses and at some of those parties, they'd have had their minds blown. Hell, the cleanest, squarest person on the Opry stage was probably a cross-dressing farm-animal fetishist in his spare time.

Lawton was also the announcer at Big D Jamboree at the Dallas Sportatorium on Saturday nights over KRLD-TV and had that kind of smooth old-style radio voice like Grant Turner at the Opry. The Jamboree came on television every Saturday along with the Panther Hall preview show "Cowtown Jamboree,"(the acts who were playing on Saturday night at the dance hall would do a couple of songs on TV to promo it),The Ernest Tubb Show, The Wilburn Brothers (I would later spend a memorable, alcohol-fueled day with Doyle when we escaped the clutches of FanFare and went to a bar instead) and the goofy local Cowboy Weaver Show, who had a Saturday Night Country Music Review in his front yard or something. He was awful, like watching a car wreck. The prototype for Roadhog. Bill Anderson had a TV show too, and he was so worried about his weak voice that he called himself "Whispering Bill" and he used a really expensive Neumann U67 studio microphone and had them put a ton of reverb on it, which nobody else did at the time. TV sound was, in those days, an afterthought and almost uniformly lousy, so I noticed that stuff. On a lot of those shows you couldn't really even hear the band because they were using only one mic, on the singer, and letting the band bleed into it, just like the old radio show days. The Roadhog records parody that kind of thing when you hear him ask somebody in the band a question and they answer from 'way off-mic across the room. The steel player would take a solo and you'd barely hear him, and the drummer might as well have not even showed up.

Working for Lawton was a trip since I had grown up seeing him on TV. He was a Nashville insider and big-timer, of course, and he'd throw names around like "Chet" and "Willie" all the time, and he was putting in a new country format at KXOL-FM (this was when FM radio wasn't listened to; nobody had FM receivers and it was where all the experiments took place) that Chet was urging him to try out, playing a lot of country music with strings like Chet's "Countrypolitan" Nashville sound. It was around then that Ray Price and Eddy Arnold took off their overalls and silly hats and put on tuxedos and added strings and harps and stuff to their records and tried to appeal more to women working at home and less to redneck male barflies listening to jukeboxes in little joints. Our format was really revolutionary because it presaged the whole movement of country music away from its male, middle-aged, low-income, rural and transplanted-country-folks-in-the-city-beginnings to a more female, middle-class, urban, younger audience. Chet Atkins started it and it never stopped moving in that direction, because that's where the money is, and Chet was tired of a big country hit being 10,000 45's sold primarily to jukeboxes when pop acts were selling a million LPs. Even Willie tried to do it Chet's way, putting on turtleneck sweaters and wearing sharkskin suits and beatle boots and singing real jazzy and slick with zero vibrato ("The Party's Over" had a whole string section on it, and it was a great arrangement, too) and combing his hair real nice.

When Lawton would talk to you, it would sound like an old-time country person. He'd say "mil-yone" for "million" and he'd try to say "I" in a more "refined" fashion than a hayseed "ah" and it would come out "Aaaeee" sort of long, and goofy. I think being around him was very eye-opening because it caused me to realize that the big time wasn't actually out of reach for a kid from Ft. Worth, that it was something very real and very there for the taking if you were smart and tough and lucky and talented. He wore a stetson sort of cocked in a jaunty angle, bigger than the Open Road style that LBJ wore. He would soon leave for another job, I think perhaps at KCUL where Bill Mack and some of those guys worked, and I never saw him again.

1 comment:

Nick said...

The news of Lawton Williams' death didn't make it down here as far as New Zealand, so I may be the only one who would be saddened by it.

I have clear memories of Garner State Park in the early 1960s, where Fraulein was still a favourite on the juke box. It remains a classic of that area, I'd say.

It was only years later that I heard Townes Van Zandt's version, with the story (from memory) that his father agreed to buy him his first guitar if he would learn to play Fraulein on it. And a damn good job he did of it, too.

About 10 years ago, walking through a supermarket here in New Zealand, I heard the original version, somehow interspersed into the unmemorable mix that you get in such places. I had to stop pushing my trolley to listen through to the end of it, amazed to have had such a memory come back in that way...