Donnie Fritts, a songwriter, singer and piano player who helped shape both the soul music made in Muscle Shoals, Ala., in the 1960s and the outlaw country sensibility that bucked Nashville norms in the 1970s, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Birmingham, Ala. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by his friend and musical collaborator Andreas Werner, who said Mr. Fritts had been in declining health and had recently undergone heart surgery.
Though better known to enthusiasts of American roots music than to the general public — and probably better known as the pianist in Kris Kristofferson’s band than as a performer in his own right — Mr. Fritts was a creative force in Southern popular music for more than two decades.
As part of a close circle of songwriters working in Northern Alabama in the ’60s, he wrote or co-wrote signature songs for the likes of the soul singer Arthur Alexander (“Rainbow Road,” with Dan Penn) and the Box Tops (“Choo Choo Train,” with Eddie Hinton). “Choo Choo Train” is also featured on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
Mr. Fritts and Mr. Hinton also wrote the disarmingly intimate “Breakfast in Bed,” a centerpiece of Dusty Springfield’s landmark 1969 album, “Dusty in Memphis,” which originally appeared as the B-side of her Grammy-winning Top 10 pop single, “Son of a Preacher Man.”
“That’s one of the great honors, to be on that album,” Mr. Fritts said of “Dusty in Memphis” in a 2017 interview with the weekly Nashville Scene.
Upon moving to Nashville in 1970 to take a job as keyboardist with Kris Kristofferson, Mr. Fritts injected the down-home musical values of Muscle Shoals into the often middle-of-the-road ethos of Music City.
In 1973, the prototypical Nashville outlaw Waylon Jennings had a Top 40 country hit with “We Had It All,” a bittersweet ballad written by Mr. Fritts and Troy Seals. It was subsequently recorded by artists ranging from Dolly Parton and Tina Turner to Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones.
During Mr. Fritts’s tenure with Mr. Kristofferson, he appeared in three movies directed by Sam Peckinpah in which Mr. Kristofferson was also cast, including the 1973 neo-western “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” which starred Mr. Kristofferson as Billy.
A colorful character onscreen and off, Mr. Fritts appeared alongside Mr. Kristofferson in Frank Pierson’s 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born.” He also played keyboards on the movie’s theme song, “Evergreen,” written by Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams, which won an Academy Award for best original song and a Grammy for song of the year.
Donald Ray Fritts was born in Florence, Ala., on Nov. 8, 1942, the younger of two sons of Huey and Helen (Brown) Fritts. His father was a building contractor who played guitar and bass in a local swing band on weekends. His mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Fritts played drums in local rock ’n’ roll bands in high school before graduating to the Mark Vs and the Pallbearers, two formative groups led by his future co-writer, Mr. Penn. He switched from drums to piano when he decided to try his hand at songwriting.
Mr. Fritts was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Donna (Frazier) Fritts. His brother, Luther, known as Wayne, died in 2014.
Possessed of a rough-hewed voice akin to Mr. Kristofferson’s, Mr. Fritts was a late bloomer as a recording artist. He released only a handful of albums, and he did not release the first — “Prone to Lean,” a mix of humorous and tenderhearted originals produced by Jerry Wexler for Atlantic Records — until 1974
That album derived its title from “the Alabama Leaning Man,” an enigmatic nickname conferred on Mr. Fritts by Mr. Wexler. In the liner notes, Mr. Kristofferson chose a more decipherable — and apposite — sobriquet to describe his friend’s approach to writing and playing music: “Funky Donnie Fritts.”
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