Alabama musician, songwriter, and actor Donnie Fritts, an architect of Southern soul music whose songs were covered by dozens of artists from Waylon Jennings to Dusty Springfield, died Tuesday night. His publicist confirmed Fritts’ death at the age of 76.
Fritts’ friend and fellow songwriter Gary Nicholson posted a tribute to Fritts on Facebook early Wednesday morning, writing in part, “There aren’t words to describe what his loving friendship has meant to me through the years, so many songs and stories, it’s gonna take awhile to process this one.”
Also known as the longtime keyboard player for Kris Kristofferson, Fritts had roles in a handful of films, including the Sam Peckinpah-directed Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Convoy. He also appeared in the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, and his most recent on-screen role was in the 2012 film Jayne Mansfield’s Car, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. But it was his early involvement in the Muscle Shoals music industry and his iconic songs like “We Had It All,” “Breakfast in Bed,” and “You’re Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning” for which he is best known.
Born in Florence, Alabama, in 1942, Fritts began playing drums in local bands at 15, later developing into a session keyboard player and gaining his first studio experience in a recording space above the City Drug Store in Florence. As a teenager he worked with local music legends including Rick Hall, Dan Penn, and David Briggs, and would co-write his first minor hit, “Sorry I’m Late, Lisa,” cut by “Dizzy” singer Tommy Roe.
In 1965, Fritts signed to a Nashville publishing company, where his songs would be recorded by Charlie Rich and Jerry Lee Lewis. Fritts would also have his songs cut by Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones, Arthur Alexander, Lulu, Robert Plant, John Prine, and the Box Tops, among others. Sheryl Crow’s new LP Threads, which will be released Friday, includes her version of “Border Lord,” a track first issued in 1972 by Kristofferson, who co-wrote the song with Fritts, Stephen Bruton, and Terry Paul.
In 1974, Fritts recorded the solo album Prone to Lean, co-produced by Kristofferson and Jerry Wexler. The liner notes, penned by Kristofferson, described not only Fritts’ unique posture but also his musical reputation among his many comrades: “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.”
Other solo albums by Fritts include Everybody’s Got a Song, released in 1997, 2008’s One Foot in the Groove, and Oh My Goodness, the 2015 LP produced by John Paul White with Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and featuring special guests Jason Isbell, John Prine, Brittany Howard, Amanda Shires, Spooner Oldham, and the Secret Sisters. In 2018, Fritts released June, a tribute to his friend and fellow songwriter Arthur Alexander.
Donnie Fritts was a legend back home, and a guide for many of us when we started writing and making music. I met Prine while working on Donnie’s album, and when I met Kristofferson and Willie all I had to say was “I’m a friend of Donnie Fritts.” Very proud to be able to say that.
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) August 28, 2019
Following news of the musician’s death, Isbell, an Alabama native, tweeted that Fritts “was a legend back home, and a guide for many of us when we started writing and making music.”
Donnie Fritts was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008.