Francis Craig (September 10, 1900 – November 19, 1966) was a song writer and leader of a Nashville dance band. His works include Dynamite and Near You.
Considering his background, education, and family business orientation, Craig seemed an unlikely composer of such a smash song. Born in Dickson, Tennessee, on September 10, 1900, he was the son of Robert Craig, a Methodist minister, and Fannie Frost Craig, a talented pianist. Their family was raised in several Middle Tennessee towns, following the Reverend Craig’s postings.
Francis was a natural pianist, performing songs “by ear” at an early age. His jazz playing was anathema to his straight-laced parents. At Vanderbilt University in 1921, he formed his first orchestra. The band quickly gained popularity, playing dances throughout the mid-South. Craig met his wife, Elizabeth Gewin, while performing in Birmingham. They married in October 1924.
The Craigs returned to Nashville in 1925 for Francis to pursue a career in popular music, a choice looked upon with disfavour by his family. Based on a number of assured engagements, his orchestra was fully employed. It was favoured on college campuses, especially at Vanderbilt, throughout the 1930s. His consistently reliable performance jobs though were at the Hermitage Hotel, radio station WSM, and the Belle Meade Country Club. Craig played lunch and dinner music at the Hermitage’s Grill Room for two decades. His orchestra performed on the 1925 opening program of WSM, a powerful and influential radio station owned by National Life and managed by his cousin, Edwin Craig. In addition to local radio appearances, the orchestra had a Sunday night NBC network program. Craig was ubiquitous at Belle Meade, providing music for club, fraternity, sorority, and debut dances.
|L-R: Craig, Adrian McDowell & Beasley Smith|
Yet Craig’s career was not over. He was asked by record producer Jim Bullet to record a popular song for his company, Bullet Records. In addition to Craig’s theme song, “Red Rose,” the band recorded “Near You.” Craig had written that melody as a gift to his grandchildren, and New Yorker Kermit Goell wrote the lyrics. The recording featured Craig on the piano and blind singer and trumpet player Bob Lamm doing the vocals.
From the unlikely combination of a nationally unknown musician and an obscure, independent record company, “Near You” became a phenomenal hit. It gave Craig fame and showed that the recording business could succeed in Nashville. That capability added to the already present writing, publishing, and performing skills assured the city’s status as a music mecca.
|Dinah Shore with Francis Craig|
The maestro’s run at the Hermitage Hotel may have been the longest ever for a hotel orchestra. “Near You” was an extraordinarily popular hit that was a catalyst in the development of Nashville’s music business. Francis Craig ceased performing in the early 1950s. After his period in the spotlight Craig returned to comparative obscurity, but remained active until he died November 1966, in Sewanee, Tennessee, aged 66.
(Info mainly edited from article by Robert Ikard @ The Tennessee Encyclopaedia of History & Culture)