Memphis native and journeyman musician Frederick Swain Schaefer passed away at his Nashville home on February 16, at the age of 70. Though his playing never made him a household name, he was beloved by many in the Memphis and Nashville music communities, and was one of those players who made the local rock, country and soul scenes hum. Many of his colleagues will gather on Sunday, March 3 at Huey's Midtown to pay their respects and play music in his honor.
courtesy Swain Schaefer Memorial Page
Schaefer began his life in music with one foot in the big band era, having studied piano with Memphis bandleader and music store owner Berl Olswanger. But as a teen, he quickly jumped into the rock 'n' roll game, playing bass with the Scepters. By 1965, only a year after they'd formed, the group was in Royal Studios recording their first single. The A side, their version of Bobby Emmons' "Little Girls Were Made to Love," took off with regional DJs. As Ron Hall writes in Playing for a Piece of the Door, the single "did extremely well in the tri-state area and made the guys local celebrities."
But the B side, written by Scepters guitarist John Wulff, offers more surprises:
Schaefer played with other groups from the same era, keeping his keyboard skills sharp with combos like the Memphis Blazers. His multi-instrumentalist talents culminated in his short tenure as the Box Tops' bassist, starting in heavy touring year of 1969, when Alex Chilton and Gary Talley were the only original members left. Indeed, Schaefer was in London with the group when Chilton's disenchantment with their management came to a head, partly due to a travesty of tour planning that left them stranded there with no gigs. Yet, as related in Holly George-Warren's Chilton biography, when the singer announced he would leave the group while in London, Schaefer threatened "to beat him up and put him in the hospital."
The Memphis Blazers, ca. 1967, with Swain Schaefer on organ
Such incidents notwithstanding, after the inevitable collapse of the Box Tops, Schaefer was a regular visitor to Ardent Studios, often with Chilton, in those pre-Big Star days. "Alex and I'd get loaded and go into Ardent," Schaefer told George-Warren. "I'd play organ, and he'd play piano. He liked Scott Joplin and played a couple Joplin tunes like 'The Entertainer' pretty well."
From there, Schaefer built a life around music, rubbing shoulders with a number of greats. Here's a song he co-wrote with Dan Penn, featured on Irma Thomas' album My Heart's In Memphis - The Songs Of Dan Penn, released in 2000.
Indeed, Schaefer's writing and arranging skills earned as much respect as his playing. As The Daily Memphian's H. Scott Prosterman writes:
Schaefer co-wrote the song "Happy Holidays" on Alabama's double platinum 1985 "Christmas" album. Among the Memphis and Nashville musicians Schaefer worked with over the years were Delbert McClinton, Ronnie Millsap, Don Nix and Sid Selvidge. He collaborated with Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Griffin and John Paul David, and performed with Tony Joe White, Levon Helm, The Pointer Sisters, and with Ed Bruce on Austin City Limits. He was a member of the bands Wind Mill and Brother Love.
Jimmy Crosthwait, a bandmate and surviving member of Mudboy and the Neutrons, created marionette shows at Memphis' Pink Palace Museum with Schaefer's help. "Swain and I worked together recording the music and narration of several productions that I performed through many of those years," Crosthwait said. "He did so without monetary compensation, and for very little recognition."
A service was held Monday at the Church of Hope in Nashville, where Schaefer was the organist and musical director. In Memphis, a musical tribute hosted by Jimmy Crosthwait and Jimmy Newman will take place at Huey's Midtown, on Sunday, March 3, 3-7 p.m.