As regular visitors to the GMC know, I sometimes write about how I’ve stumbled upon a tune that’s very familiar from my childhood. Today’s subject is a guy who was responsible for two of those, songs that were big hits in the post-war years even though his breakthrough didn’t come until he was more than two decades into his career. It occurred when pianist/bandleader Francis Craig generated a #1 hit with “Near You” and followed up with “Beg Your Pardon,” which did nearly as well. (And was also recorded – in a way – by yours truly, as you can read in an earlier post.)
A Tennessee native, Craig was the son of a minister but probably received his musical sensibilities from his mother, who was a talented pianist. Even so, his deeply conservative parents didn’t take well to his interest in a musical career. Nevertheless, after fulfilling his military obligation he enrolled at Vanderbilt in the early 1920s, and his musical side began to show. He not only formed and led a student band, but also wrote the university’s fight song, a piece called “Dynamite!” that’s still played at many athletic events.
Within a few years Craig was leading a professional orchestra that had settled in for what would be a long gig at a large hotel in Nashville. For the next two decades Craig and his group found success as a regional musical attraction, often teaming up with stars and future headliners like Dinah Shore and Phil Harris. They also appeared regularly on radio and hit the recording studio from time to time, but in the late 1940s lightning struck.
In addition to his distinctive piano style and leadership abilities, Craig was a talented songwriter, and in 1947 he chose a song he’d written for his grandchildren for his attempt to reach a national audience. It worked out amazingly well, as “Near You” — with a vocal by blind singer Bob Lamm — shot to the top of the charts and eventually became a popular choice for other artists too. The same could be said of Craig’s follow up, “Beg Your Pardon,” which even inspired a certain young singer.
Although Craig’s orchestra generated a number of good records through the years, including “Tennessee Tango” and his theme song, “Red Rose,” he never really made his mark on the national charts again. However, he did stay musically active until his death in 1966.