“Far across deep blue waters . . .”
If you are of a certain age and lived in a household where the radio was tuned to certain stations, you know the rest of that lyric:
“lives an old German’s daughter.”
The year was 1957. The song was “Fraulein.” The words and music were written by Fort Worth’s Lawton Williams.
Lawton Edgar Williams was born in Tennessee in 1922, son of a fiddle-playing sharecropper. Music making appealed to Lawton more than sharecropping did, so he traded his hoe for a guitar and began to perform locally. Then, while he was in the Army during World War II, he met singer-songwriter Floyd Tillman, who encouraged him to write songs. Williams performed, recorded, and wrote in the late 1940s but without much success. Then he wrote a song inspired by his broken romance with “a little blonde-headed German girl” he had met during World War II. In the song the fraulein is in Germany, but during the war Williams had actually been stationed in Houston.
By 1948 Lawton Williams had rebounded from that broken romance and married. By 1952 he and wife Jeanette were living in a small wood-frame house at 312 West Hammond on the South Side, two houses from the Katy railroad track. The house has since been demolished.
Bud Kennedy told me that Lawton Williams once told him that Williams was living in Poly when he wrote “Fraulein.” Sure enough, the 1955 telephone book lists Lawton Williams at 3432 Avenue D, just east of Texas Wesleyan University. The house of “Fraulein” still stands.
Then came 1957. Singer Bobby Helms, freshly signed to the Decca record label, released “Fraulein” on a single in January. The song resonated with ex-GIs who had been in Europe during the war. “Fraulein” hit the country chart in February, fifty-six years ago this month. And it stayed there a full year, four of those fifty-two weeks at no. 1. And you didn’t have to be “country” to know of the old German’s daughter. “Fraulein” crossed over to the pop chart and rose to no. 16. “Fraulein” was named Country Song of the Year at the Billboard and Cashbox awards in 1957.
The song came to be known as the “Texas national anthem” because of its two-stepability and was credited by some with reviving national interest in country music.
All this for a song that was the B side of Helms’s fourth single. The year 1957 was a ten-gallon hat-trick year for Helms. He had three hits: “Fraulein” (no. 1), “My Special Angel” (no. 1), and “Jingle Bell Rock” (no. 7).
After the Helms hit, “Fraulein” would be been recorded by many artists, including Ernest Tubb, Hank Locklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Willie Nelson, Boxcar Willie, Steve Lawrence, Roger Miller, Conway Twitty, Chuck Berry, Bill Monroe, and David Allan Coe. Townes Van Zandt also recorded “Fraulein” (when Van Zandt was young, his father had agreed to buy Townes his first guitar only after Townes promised to learn to play “Fraulein”). And Kitty Wells recorded an “answer song”: “I’ll Always Be Your Fraulein.” And, yes, if you are wondering if “Fraulein” was ever recorded in Mandarin Chinese, Singapore singer/songwriter Fu Suyin did just that in 1967.
“Fraulein” made Lawton Williams a ten-year overnight success in 1957. He continued to write songs, but by the early 1960s he also was a performer and emcee on KRLD radio’s Big D Jamboree program broadcast Saturday nights from the Sportatorium in Dallas. He also hosted a country music program on radio station KPCN in Fort Worth and was program director of KCUL. In the 1970s he wrote a weekly column in the Star-Telegram.
And he continued to record, including on the Le Bill label of Fort Worth’s Major Bill Smith (producer for Paul and Paula, Bruce Channel). But Lawton Williams is remembered for the songs he wrote that were recorded by others.
Many artists had hit records with Lawton Williams songs, including Bobby Bare (“Shame on Me”), Hank Locklin (“Paper Face” and “Geisha Girl,” an Asian equivalent of the Teutonic “Fraulein”), Jim Reeves (“Señor Santa Claus”), Gene Watson and Little Jimmy Dickens (“Farewell Party”), and George Jones and Elvis Costello (“Color of the Blues,” co-written with Jones).
Songwriting success would move Lawton and Jeanette Williams to a substantial home in the hills of Woodhaven Country Club Estates.
Lawton Williams died in 2007. Suffering from a respiratory illness, at the end he did not have enough breath to talk, but he continued to write songs, mouthing the words silently as he wrote. Lawton Edgar Williams is buried in Laurel Land Cemetery, not far from another music maker, Smith Ballew.
Bobby Helms sings “Fraulein”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqQZot84iQc. (That’s Tommy Jackson on fiddle.)