FLORENCE — Donnie Fritts' close relationship with the Shoals music scene goes back to its earliest days when budding young musicians gathered on downtown movie theater balconies to talk about music and plot their futures.
His death, longtime friend David Hood said, will leave a huge hole in the local music community.
The songwriter, singer and actor had been in the palliative care unit of UAB Hospital since mid May, recovering from heart surgery.
Fritts died in his sleep late Tuesday night. He was 76.
Fritts released five albums during his long career and had bit parts in nine movies, many alongside his friend, Kris Kristofferson, with whom he toured as a keyboardist beginning in the 1970s.
In 2018, he released his final album, "June," a tribute to rhythm and blues legend Arthur Alexander on Single Lock Records.
He was known for songs like "Breakfast in Bed," "Short End of the Stick," "Memphis Women and Chicken," and his best-known track, "We Had It All," which was co-written with Troy Seals and recorded by Dobie Gray, Ray Charles, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and others.
Hood said his relationship with Fritts goes back to high school when Fritts was a drummer in the Coffee High School Marching Band drum line with the late Jerry Carrigan. Hood was a member of the Sheffield High School Marching Band.
"That was a killer drum section," Hood said. "We were all fans of them. Then he started playing drums with Hollis Dixon and the Keynotes."
"I've played on several albums with him," he said. "I played with him in The Decoys. This year's Handy Fest is the first time for him not to sit in with The Decoys."
The Decoys became Fritts's unofficial backup band, and accompanied him on a two-week tour of Japan where they were received like rock stars.
Decoys guitarist Kelvin Holly said he's known Fritts since he arrived in the Shoals 30 years ago.
"He was pretty much like family," Holly said. "He came to all the kids' plays and ballgames and birthdays. He kind of adopted us as his band whenever he had some type of gig. He took us to Japan. We did records with him."
He and Hood both said they had a hard time finding Fritts something to eat when they were in Japan. Hood said Fritts loved well-done hamburgers and did not like fish.
"I think a long time ago he got sick on some seafood," Holly said. "We never could get any fish down him. I told him, 'Before you kick the bucket, I'm going to get you to eat some fish.' That never happened."
"We Had It All" is Holly's favorite Fritts track.
"It's the most heartfelt song that he had," Holly said "'We Had It All' is just gut-wrenching. He was proud of it because it was recorded by so many people."
Fritts was also fond of sitting in with Holly and guitarist Will McFarlane, who performed together as "Fathers and Sons" Tuesday nights at FloBama in downtown Florence.
"It was like part of the show when Donnie got up and did three (songs) with 'Fathers and Sons,'" McFarlane said. "I met him when I first came to town, which was 1980."
McFarlane said before he went into the hospital, Fritts was singing and looking better than he had in awhile.
"He was just a delightful character," McFarlane said. "He was just funny, quick. Sometimes his reactions were so funny to me. We stood together, mic to mic, next to each other many times, singing harmonies, looking at each other smiling and singing."
Decoys keyboardist N.C. Thurman said his memories of Fritts go back to 1968 when Fritts was pitching songs at Quincy Recording Studio from a reel to reel tape recorder. "
"I never saw him again until '99," Thurman said. "Since then we've done a lot of shows and wrote a few tunes, and the trip to Japan was a great experience."
Songwriter/guitarist Earl "Peanutt" Montgomery said he remembers working with Fritts at the Princess Theatre in Florence.
"I remember Donnie working as an usher, working behind the counter popping pop corn and selling candy," Montgomery said. "At night, we'd all gather in the balcony and talk music. From there we went to the (City) drug store playing music, recording music and making demos."
Shoals guitarist Travis Wammack said he and Fritts both wished they'd met each other earlier.
"I moved down in 1969 and he moved away with Kris Kristofferson," Wammack said. "We became friends about 15 years ago. We became close friends and did a lot of shows together."
He said Fritts would come play the Sunday Positive Vibes jam sessions at Stephano's in Sheffield.
"He was kind of like me," Wammack said. "This is what keeps us going. It's what kept him going, it's what keeps me going. Music gives you something to go for."
Fritts joined Kristofferson's band as a keyboardist in 1970. He became a part of the "outlaw country" scene that included Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
He co-wrote with numerous songwriters, including Troy Seals, Gary Nicholson, Dan Penn, John Prine, Spooner Oldham, Eddie Hinton, John Paul White and others.
White posted several photos of he and Fritts to his Instagram feed Wednesday morning.
"I will miss Donnie Fritts every day for the rest of my life," White said. "He taught me that there was honor in being a songwriter. He so loved the craft, and he loved the folks that loved it the way he did. He had a million great stories, and a Rolodex of friends to die for, but the thing that will endure for me is his passion for the song."
Fritts was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Director Sandra Burroughs said the hall of fame family is saddened by the news of Fritts' death, and their hearts and prayers go out to his entire family and the talented musicians who are mourning along with them.
"Alabama has lost a true icon with the passing of Donnie Fritts," Burroughs said. "There will never be another one like Donnie."
Over the past five years, Fritts has worked with the artists and management of Florence-based Single Lock Records, which released "Oh My Goodness" in 2015 and "June" in 2018.
“Donnie was an important part of the creation of the Muscle Shoals sound, and I think his most enduring legacy will be the way he poured into and encouraged a new generation of artists in our community," said Reed Watson, of Single Lock Records. "All of us at Single Lock have lost the soul of our label, but more importantly, we’ve lost a true friend. We will deeply miss Donnie.”
Several friends, including Hood, Holly, McFarland, Watson, White, Lenny LeBlanc and Andreas Werner, visited Fritts in his hospital room. Judy Hood said Lenny and Will played guitar for him.
While he did not react verbally, Werner said Fritts reacted to the music.
"That was certainly special for all of us being there to connect with him that way," Werner said. "He was so sweet. That's why everyone loved Donnie Fritts. He had more funk in his little pinkie than most people have in their whole bodies."
Werner and Fritts played duo shows with Fritts on piano and Werner on guitar.
"I genuinely felt like he was as excited to be on stage with me as I was being on stage with him," Werner said. "I'll never take that for granted."
Patterson Hood, co-founder of the Drive-By Truckers, said he is "beyond sad" about Fritts's death.
"I adored funky Donnie Fritts," Hood said. "We had our own very close friendship that went outside and beyond our musical and family connections."
Both of them, he said, have been lifelong "avid film nuts" whose conversations would often delve deeper into that than anything else.
"Beyond his awe-inspiring musical accomplishments, he was an actor and was one of the last surviving members of Sam Peckinpah's film clique," Hood said. "As a member of the academy, he received screeners of every Oscar-considered film and watched them with his unerring eye, and we'd have deep conversations about them."
"I had hoped of having him out to Portland (Oregon) one day to host a 35 mm screening of 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' but his health issues intervened," Hood said.
His father, David, said Fritts's wife, Donna, was always a huge supporter of her husband.
"It's a bigger thing that people realize not having Donnie around," Hood said. "He was the closest thing to a star we had around here. He was friends with everybody and everybody loved him."
Fritts touched the lives of younger Shoals artists like Eric Gebhardt, who performs as the raucous blues artist "Red Mouth." He said Fritts once invited him to his home for piano lessons.
"He’s the one man in Alabama to never say my work is weird, that it’s mad," Gebhardt said. "He only ever complimented me sincerely on my songs, and his admiration of my ability to perform. He was also one of the first to take note of my ever-improving vocal chops. He was my rare support from that old guard, and now that I’m nearly an old guard I look forward to passing that back down."
"I hope St. Peter doesn’t call him ‘Mr. Fritts’ as he ushers him through the pearly gates," Gebhardt said. "Simply ‘Funky’ will do just fine."