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Nashville Scene Pop History

Francis Craig and Nashville's first-ever hit record

By Noel Murray

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Earlier this year, a contestant on the popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? lost $218,000 when he guessed that Whitney Houston's recording of "I Will Always Love You" held the record for consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Nashville surgeon Robert Ikard didn't see that episode, but if he had, he would've been screaming the right answer--Mariah Carey's "One Sweet Day"--at the screen.

The 62-year-old Dr. Ikard has no special fascination with modern pop music, but he's very familiar with this bit of trivia: Carey's ballad may hold the record for the Hot 100 at 16 weeks, but Ikard knows well that the all-time Billboard chart champ is "Near You," by Nashville's own Francis Craig, who topped the magazine's now defunct "Honor Roll of Hits" for 17 weeks in 1947.

Ikard spent most of 1998 and 1999 researching and writing about the life of Francis Craig and the phenomenon that was "Near You." The results were published last year by Franklin-based Hillsboro Press as the 178-page book Near You: Francis Craig, Dean of Southern Maestros. Ikard's reasons for immersing himself in this subject are many, but primarily he says that "people need to know how valuable ['Near You'] was. Most of them can't hum the tune, but it was as huge as it gets."

Of course, a song as big as "Near You" doesn't disappear completely from the public consciousness. It pops up frequently on radio stations that play big band music, and the 1974 George Jones/Tammy Wynette cover of the song occasionally appears on country stations. But unlike some of the standards recorded by Frank Sinatra or Louis Prima, "Near You" has never had a real revival. And the story of the song's success has been all but forgotten, even though Francis Craig was the first pop musician (or musician of any genre) to achieve national prominence while based in Nashville. In fact, Ikard insists that the country music recording industry might not have come to this town had not Craig blazed a pop-music trail; the business, he says, "probably would not have succeeded had 'Near You' not succeeded."

Near You is Ikard's second book, following 1997's No More Social Lynchings, about the 1946 Mink Slide race riot in Columbia, Tenn. He credits his interest in this latest project to "restless authorial activity."

"I don't golf," he chuckles. "I'm an amateur historian."

The inspiration for writing a book about Francis Craig came while Ikard was thinking about the fight song for their mutual alma mater, Vanderbilt University--a song that Craig wrote. "I've listened to 'Dynamite' about a 1,000 times," Ikard says, "and always thought it was underrated as a fight song." Thinking about "Dynamite" led him to go over what he knew about Craig's life. He had heard "Near You," and he knew about Craig's long association with Nashville's historic downtown hotels, particularly the Hermitage Hotel, where Craig's orchestra was the house band for decades. He also knew that several Nashville music personalities had served time in that orchestra, including Dinah Shore, Kitty Kallen, Snooky Lanson, and James Melton. But he had never heard anyone say anything too kind about Craig's music.

Ikard decided to do some research, because, he says, "I didn't figure anyone else would write about it." As he untangled the history, he came to the opinion that Craig's life and work had been underrated and misunderstood. He was also surprised to learn that Craig was related--a cousin, actually--to the Craigs who founded the city's once dominant National Life Insurance Company. "The Craig name is receding somewhat," Ikard admits, "but in a certain social set, it still packs a huge wallop."

The heyday of Francis Craig and his orchestra lasted from the late '20s through the early '40s, when the straitlaced bandleader was the first person to call for a major social event in Nashville--especially at Vanderbilt, where he played all the big dances. Craig also had a regular radio show on WSM and appeared on the station's first-ever broadcast (and not just because the station was owned by his cousins). His show was frequently broadcast nationally on NBC, often late at night, and whenever Craig's band was on tour, he made it a point to seek out whatever radio station was in town and do an appearance.

The bandleader was semi-retired when he recorded "Near You" at the newly formed Castle Recording Studios in 1947. Recorded music was just beginning to challenge live radio broadcasts for the ears of music lovers, and Craig wanted to make a record for his children and grandchildren, to preserve his legacy. With the aid of vocalist Bob Lamm, he cut his signature tune, "Red Rose," and on the B-side he put "Near You," which he had written with lyricist Kermit Goell. "Red Rose" stirred little interest, but "Near You" began getting some play from Southern stations, where deejays remembered Craig from college tours a decade previous. Released on the local Bullet label, it quickly became a jukebox favorite among teenagers, and the phenomenon spread north to New York.

The story of the song's success spurred it to even greater success, and soon the tune was so ubiquitous that it was being parodied by Spike Jones and snuck into the corners of popular comic strips. Meanwhile, the fact that a small label from Nashville had produced such a blockbuster brought more music business into town. In the ensuing years, Castle Studio hosted sessions by Rosemary Clooney and Ray Anthony...and, more significantly, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, and Hank Williams.

Asked about what made "Near You" such a craze, Ikard posits that "It was catchy. It had an unusual arrangement. It opens sort of barroom-style, and then the singer comes in with a nice big-band arrangement. It had an old-time style, and young people were unfamiliar with it." As for the possibility that the record's somewhat unusual origin helped turn it into a hit, Ikard is less willing to concede. "How can you diagnose [what makes a hit]?" he says. "If you knew what it took to do it, you'd do it every week. Certainly, the song's momentum was enhanced by its quaintness. There was a stronger sense of regionalism then, and the South was thought of as more of a backwater spot."

To help those who may crave to hear Craig's work while reading the book, Hillsboro Press has included a CD consisting of radio appearances from throughout his career. Ikard collected these with the help of Craig's children and grandchildren, and he points out that the disc not only gives a sample of the bandleader's music but also his demeanor in interviews. "They were valuable," Ikard acknowledges, "because they had his voice and his alleged motivation."

Despite his year or so spent immersed in Craig-analia, Ikard acknowledges that the historical judgment of Craig as a musical lightweight is largely justified. "I was talking to one of his grandsons the other day, and I admitted that I may have pulled some punches," the author says. Aside from his one hit--and a momentum-fueled follow-up, "Beg Your Pardon"--Francis Craig made little dent on the national consciousness, and any nostalgia for his mild, unspectacular swing music is mostly stoked by the presence of Craig's band at so many memorable Nashville functions.

That's why Ikard expects that Near You--which has been selling briskly in Nashville bookstores--will remain only a regional bestseller. "Some thought [the book] would get a play in New York or Los Angeles, but I didn't. I figured there'd be more local interest."

Staying local, Ikard is already planning his next amateur historical project--a book about the successful Nashville Business College women's basketball team. "If I could truly make a living [writing], I'd retire," he sighs. "I get a lot of satisfaction out of learning." As for any book royalties, Ikard laughs, "That's mayonnaise on the sandwich."

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