Someone should tell Frankie Ford he doesn’t need to work this hard. On a Sunday evening in July, Ford’s big black Lincoln Town Car—the one with the “ooh-wee” personalized license plate—has brought him to the St. Bernard Cultural Center. The New Orleans Musicians Alumni Association is holding a benefit dance in a back ballroom. A succession of the organization’s members has been onstage all day, but Ford is the event’s marquee name.
When he agreed to donate his time for this show, he probably didn’t realize he’d be performing on two hours’ sleep, after jetting in from a gig at a reservation casino in Minnesota. But without sleep or pay, Ford—alternately pounding away on the keyboards, crooning at audience members, and mugging for video cameras—bowls over the middle-aged crowd of 400 or so with an hour-long set that runs the gamut from “Cheatin’ Woman,” the first song he ever recorded, to “Hot & Lonely,” the title cut of his new CD (released by Ace Records, the company that issued Ford’s trademark “Sea Cruise” 36 years ago). He spikes the between-song pauses with his trademark one-liners: “At the Indian casino, I told them I was half-American Indian and half-Italian—I’m a wop-a-ho.”
The crowd eats it up. As he strolls along the lip of the stage during a particularly suggestive “Hot & Lonely,” he must dodge the groping hands of one matronly woman who has lost control of her hips.
It’s not exactly 1959, but it ain’t bad. That was the year that Ford secured his place in local rock legend with “Sea Cruise,” one of the definitive singles of the golden age of New Orleans rock & roll (he’s in the national Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, too, now that a red jacket that his mother embroidered with sequins and beads has been enshrined). It spent 12 weeks in the Top 40, and Ford was a certified Teen Idol.
After a few more hits, Ford was drafted. When he came back from the army, the British Invasion had washed away the market for R&B-based rock & roll. He drifted to California, then came home to be a lounge entertainer on Bourbon Street.
But for the last few years, he has returned to rock & roll, and business is booming. “The Frankie Ford Show” logs 100 dates a year at casino resorts, clubs and auditoriums, generally as part of an “oldies” package; he has bookings through the summer of 1996. Also, he and Ken Keene, his manager of 27 years, are partners in their management company. Together, they oversee the careers of Jimmy Clanton, Jean Knight and a host of other veteran artists.
A Thursday afternoon in July found Ford padding around his memorabilia-packed West Bank home (which has been called “Graceland South,” a description he scoffs at) in a baggy red muscle shirt and matching warm-up pants while Ken Keene took care of business from the breakfast room table. Since today was an off-day, no jewelry adorned his wrists and fingers.
We talked for two hours at the bar in his cramped den, a room dominated by a high-backed sofa and big-screen TV. Glass doors open onto a pool and rock waterfall, banana trees and other foliage that make his yard an exotic little oasis in suburban Gretna. Overlooking the well-stocked bar is a framed original Harold Long nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe (“they airbrushed her feet, because they were rotten-looking,” Ford reveals. “Women’s feet are usually ugly, from those stupid shoes”). Gold and platinum singles adorn one wall. The paneling in the hallway is covered with celebrity shots (photos of Frankie and the late Rickie Nelson are favorites) and Frankie Ford publicity photos in chronological order, from dreamy teen idol through Afro-ed lost years to glitzy present-day entertainer. Anecdotes from all stages of his career would come to light during our talk.
Ford is one of the most enduring characters from the 1950s, but dismisses all attempts to make him out to be something special: “I’m a working musician, that’s all I am.”
One of the lesser-known facts about “Sea Cruise” is that there are no guitars on the track.
There was no guitar on the track. Huey [“Piano” Smith, the song’s author] didn’t like guitars because they were louder than the piano. Couldn’t blame him. And there were two pianos on “Roberta” [the song on the flipside of “Sea Cruise”]—James Booker [and Huey Smith]. And for years Huey wouldn’t say anything. We were vowed to secrecy. Booker was on it—that’s how they got that run. It’s impossible [for one person] to do that run.
So Booker was there at the same session?
Well, I wasn’t even in town when they cut the tracks. I was in Philadelphia. They did it, but it was sworn to secrecy.
I have the original loose-leaf piece of paper that I wrote “Sea Cruise” on, as Huey sat at the piano telling me the words. I spelled “oohwee” wrong, and I spelled a number of the other things wrong, too.
We did exactly 13 takes. There was no punching in—you had to do the song all the way through.
The original 45 of “Roberta” b/w “Sea Cruise” is quite a double bill.
I tried to convince [Ace Records] to do one or the other. “Roberta” was the A side.
It was “Roberta” backed with “Sea Cruise.” If they would have put “Roberta” out, then “Sea Cruise,” it would have been two [huge hits]. I told them, “Do an instrumental on the other side [of ‘Roberta’].” But who’s going to listen to a 17-year old? What did I know?
Huey Smith has said that “Roberta” was originally titled “Loberta.”
“Loberta.” Yes. White kids could not…who’s “Loberta”? It was changed. It was to be the follow-up to “Don’t You Just Know It” [by Huey Smith and the Clowns]. I was to be the new lead singer of the Clowns, because Huey didn’t travel. So he just stayed home, and said “Frankie and I will stay home and do the vocals, then we’ll send somebody else who will travel.”
White records were selling a lot more than black records. You could market a white act, especially a white boy that sounded black. They didn’t publish a picture of me until after “Roberta” was on the charts for like three months. As soon as they published a picture of me—it was No. 1 on R&B—it fell off the charts immediately.
The race politics of music has always been…
It’s gonna be that way. When I started there was two [local musicians] unions—the black one and the white one. I was called before the white union for using a black band.
And what was your defense?
When white boys can play like that, I’ll hire ‘em. [Laughs] They just dismissed it.
Supposedly on your recording of “Roberta,” the old background tracks were used and the singers are still saying “Loberta”.
No. It was redone. That was done on two tracks on an old Ampex [recorder] at Cosimo’s [Matassa’s studio]. The Clowns were on another microphone. That Cosimo sound—you moved the microphone. We didn’t have knobs.
Huey Smith was apparently very unhappy that Ace wanted to release the version with you singing lead instead of him.
That upset me when I heard it. I answered a question with a question: why did he collaborate with me later on Imperial? I do remember Huey Smith coming into the office on Baronne Street and getting money every time the owner of the record company came in. I was sitting right there, because I was the one who picked the owner of Ace Records, Johnny Vincent, up at the airport, and brought him back.
They all signed stuff away. Huey signed “Sea Cruise” away. On some things, I have part writer. We had a deal—that whatever I wrote, and whatever he wrote for me to record, we would share. I went to his house and we wrote “Chinese Bandits” [a novelty hit about the Louisiana State University football team’s defense] and all of these things. He may be upset with me now. I was told second-hand by his attorney that [he believes] he made me a rich man. Well, maybe he made himself a poor man. But what I’m saying is why did he collaborate with me later on that Imperial stuff if he was so upset with me?
Joe Caronna, who was managing me then, managed him also. Why did he record an album with me with Imperial—which they have no idea where it is. We used [Huey’s] orchestra.
Why did you switch from Ace to Imperial?
If [Ace owner] Johnny Vincent hadn’t done a Hitler and outshot his supply line, overextended…he wasn’t taking care of us at the time. He admits that. That’s why I went to Imperial. It wasn’t a money thing, it was the attention. They’d call tonight and say tomorrow we have to cut a session, because we need a record right now. When I was six months overdue for a record. It was poor planning.
But no one knew what the hell was going on then. When I did Alan Freed’s show in New York, you endorsed the check back to him. And he was putting it through his personal account—that’s why they caught him. And I didn’t feel Alan Freed stole any thing—I was happy to do it. Because you did Alan Freed, and the record distributor in New York ordered a hundred thousand records. So I didn’t think anything was wrong with it.
All these diehard artists that say they were stolen from—get up, don’t curse the dark, put the lights on and do something about it. I’m sure there was money that I didn’t get, but they gave me the chance. And I ran with it like a mullet.
What happened to the album you cut for Imperial?
We had enough material for an album, and nothing happened. I was drafted, and Huey went off. And of course the British Invasion came in. Every time I work with one of those guys, I say, “I didn’t like you then, and I can’t stand you now.” [Laughs]
Beginning of ‘65, I got out of the service, and I couldn’t get arrested. So I went into clubs. Thank goodness. I didn’t realize how good that was.
That’s when you started playing Bourbon Street?
It was the Pompeii [club] originally. And then I went back to California. I couldn’t even get Dick Clark on the phone, he was just so busy with the new music.
You had done his show?
Ohhhh, God. I’ve got film of me on the Dick Clark show in ‘58, before “Sea Cruise.” One Mardi Gras, a man I knew from Bourbon Street called me [in California] and said, “Look, come back and work for two weeks during Mardi Gras.” So I came back and worked at the Ivanhoe then. One night he came out and said, “Let me show you something.” And behind the 500 Club was a patio. He said, “If you’ll stay, I’ll build a club here for you.” So I went back to California, packed up, and came back. That was 28, 29 years ago.
What were you doing in California?
When I got out of the service, most of ‘65 and ‘66 I was a bum. I just did nothing. [Laughs] I had a new little Spider convertible, stick shift, $5 a week for gas. I moved with a couple of guys into a house up on Twin Peaks. I paid my rent for a year up front. What did it take to eat? I had enough [money].
You had money put away.
Well, my father wouldn’t allow me to have any. And when I was in the service, at Ft. Knox, I went into Louisville and found a club that didn’t have a band. I said, “Why don’t you have a band?” “We can’t afford one.” I said, “You can now.”
Being the enterprising young man you were, you wanted to augment the pittance the Army was giving you.
Thank you! Eighty-seven dollars a month.
Were you performing your material?
You had a band of servicemen?
I put signs all over the service clubs: “Professional musicians only. Others need not apply.”
I had guys that worked Atlantic City. We were working Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights at first. I was paying them $8 a night.
Which was big bread if you’re making $87 a month.
Thank you! Hello! And you get free food.
I wouldn’t go get my [army] pay. One time the MPs came to get me and said, “You’ve got to come get your pay—you’ve got 600 bucks!”
Why weren’t you taking your pay?
[Whining] Whhhyyy?! You had to get up early in the morning and go get it. [Laughs]
I was the first private at Ft. Knox National Bank to get a loan. [Confidentially] Oh, they would have given me anything.
Why did you need a loan?
I wanted to buy a car. And my father said, “If you’re going to buy a car, get a loan. It’s insured, and if something happens to the car, it’s paid for. Use somebody else’s money—don’t use your own.”
You went through basic training, the whole bit?
I was in Missouri for basic training. Later, I was in Special Services, and that was all I did. I performed at the general’s mess, at the general’s house. His wife and I were big friends. I played all her parties. She was a dear, dear lady.
You enlisted under your given name, Frank Guzzo?
Oh yeah. They came to get me from out under the bed. I had a gig—I didn’t want to go in the Army. I got deferred for about two years. I had a “Doctor Feelgood” downtown [laughs]: “He has this, he has that.” After about two years, they said, “That’s it, you’re gone.” And I wasn’t pleased.
It wasn’t a situation like when Elvis went into the army, where it was a big deal and a publicity coup.
Oh no, no. Didn’t even make the papers.
After I was there for two weeks, the radio station found out “A Man Only Does” was on the national charts then. They were playing it, and I’m sitting on my bunk, not saying a word. All of a sudden, later on that afternoon, I got a call. I had a black captain. He said, “Why didn’t you tell me who you were?!” I said, “I’m from New Orleans, I got a black captain, I’m gonna say, ‘Do you know who I am?’” He laughed and said, “Yeah, I probably would have had you sweeping in the kitchen.” “That’s why.”
I was working at the officers’ club right after that. But I finished first in my class in basic. I had never touched a firearm before in my life, but when I found out that if you didn’t put it together right, it could kill you, I learned very rapidly. And I fired expert. I fired expert with a .45 also, which is difficult. But I haven’t had a gun in my hand in years.
I was not into humping hills. I told them I wouldn’t do it. I said, “Throw me out.” They put me in tanks—was that funny. One sergeant gave me a can of paint and a brush, and he said, “I want you to get in that turret and paint it.” I said, “What do you want me to paint in here?” I saw the lieutenant standing behind him. He said, “Every damn thing!”
So I got in there and I painted scopes, I painted dials, I painted everything. When they called me in the office that afternoon, I said, “Lieutenant, didn’t he tell me to paint everything? You told me when I came in this army, ‘Do not think.’ And I didn’t think. I did what you told me.”
I was in Special Services the next day. I performed for Jack Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. In ‘64 I was on the Bob Hope Christmas show in Korea. He was a nice, nice man. The first day, he called me to his tent and said, “I’d like to get to know you, if you’re going to work my show.” We sat for maybe 45 minutes. He’s a stickler for little puzzles, so he would sit there doing a puzzle and talking to me.
What did your father do for a living? You said he managed your money.
Oh, he worked for Avondale. He was a refrigeration man. He built two ice plants in Gretna, one in Marrero, one in Lafitte, one in Patterson. He had a mind for business, and he kept me on key.
What did he think when you started into rock & roll?
Oh, he didn’t like it. Get that music off the radio! I’d put my transistor radio under my pillow at night so I could listen to Jack the Cat and Jacqueline the Kitten. He’d be going to the bathroom and yell, “Get that crap off the radio!” Then all of a sudden I went from the high school band making $8 a night to making $50 a night. Hello. That wasn’t bad in ‘57, ‘58. Working three nights a week—some executives didn’t make that at the time.
All through my life, my mother and father would stand in the back, and tell me what I did wrong and what I did right. Entertainers, we’re all egotists and show-offs. I was that little presumptuous, aggravating little kid that nobody wanted to follow at the Saenger Theater, in between the movies. Al Hirt reminds me of that—he says, “I was playin’ second trumpet!”
They knew we’re like racehorses—you don’t break their spirits. You say, “Well, this didn’t work very well.” They were very tactful. But they weren’t pushy.
They would come to most performances?
Oh, everything. I was on Ted Mack’s amateur hour in 1952 in New York. We drove. You know what it’s like for people from New Orleans to drive to New York and the cultural shock that that was? My mother ordered a po-boy sandwich. [Laughs]
When the money started rolling in, did your father just announce that he would be handling your money? You were of legal age.
I think until my father passed away almost 10 years ago, I would tell him what I was going to do. I’m an only child, and I’m an adopted child. I don’t know if that made us any closer, but I was always taught that I was chosen—I just didn’t happen. I was told I was adopted on my sixth birthday. My godfather, he was an attorney, and he got me.
I think my first public zinger was when I had to stand up in the first grade, and Ms. Clare—who I love ‘til today, I hope she’s still alive, she’d have to be 812—said we had to stand up and say our names. I stood up and I said, “My name is Frank Guzzo.” And this kid Ralph said, “And he’s adopted.” He was a freckle-faced red-head kid, and I turned around and said, “Yes, my mother and father picked me out. Look what yours got stuck with.” He was an ugly kid. [Laughs]
I always consulted my father. The only thing he disagreed on was me buying this property [where Ford’s house is now]. And he was wrong. [Laughs] This was old Indian burial ground—it was swamp. But then I built [a house] for them [Ford’s parents] a block and a half behind me.
You said that when you would come off the road, he would have your royalty checks on the kitchen table, and what would he say?
“Did you have that yesterday?” I’d say, “No.” “You won’t have that tomorrow.” And he’d keep the money and invest it in the house and stuff like that. I came back one time with an amount of money, and I paid their house off. Not having any brothers or sisters, it was all going to be mine anyway. It was all “ours”—it was never “yours,” “mine,” whatever.
You lived with them all that time?
Until I got back from the service I lived with them. When I was there—I was always gone. It was no use keeping an apartment—I just had my room there.
Any specific memories of when a young Mac Rebennack was in your band, before he became Dr. John?
[Laughs] I read Mac’s book. Mac missed a lot of stuff. He was working at the Moulin Rouge in Marrero with me. There were two bandstands at the Moulin Rouge, and we played a half hour apiece—Frog [Clarence “Frogman” Henry] on one end, us on the other. So we worked Sunday from 4 in the afternoon til 10 at night, a half hour on, half hour off. One Monday afternoon, Mac’s mother called my house and asked if I’d seen Mac. Well, Mac and [drummer] Paul [Staehle] were still in the back seat of the car at the Moulin Rouge. They’d fallen asleep, they were so tired or so whatever.
His grandmother and my grandmother were sisters. When Mac lived with his parents on Robert E. Lee, I used to go wake him up and put him in the car for the gig. Of course, Mac is a certified genius.
Tell a story from one of those early tours, when “Sea Cruise” was hot.
We were doing bus tours. The first major tour I did was with Chuck Berry, Frankie Avalon, the Skyliners, and me. We carried a regular rhythm section, and every time we got into a town, they hired horns. This is before the Big Three tragedy [when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa]. Chuck would follow the bus in his car. They were Greyhound buses. It was not attractive.
So there were no bunks?
Bunks?! No, no. But when you got your seat, that was your room, and no one entered that unless they were invited. The thing I remembered, I could fit in the luggage rack overhead. That’s where I slept. I went to Woolworth’s or something, and got a pillow and a blanket. I put it up over the rack, and anything that was there, no one would touch. It was sort of an unwritten law.
There was no bathroom on the bus. So what we’d do, we’d open the bus door and stand there as the bus is going 75mph. The wind would take of everything, it was no problem—except when you’d had a bit to drink. One of the acts I was working with…you know that long handle they had on the bus door? They made you put your arm through the handle. Well, the bus door opened and he’s hanging out there, with everything exposed, on a winter night. It was not attractive.
One of your other big hits from that time was “You Talk Too Much.” Joe Jones recorded that originally, then two record companies ended up fighting over the rights to it and Imperial was able to sneak your version into the stores.
Dave Bartholomew called one Monday morning. He said, “Can you sound like Joe Jones?” I said, “I should have stayed up all night.” [Laughs] Joe is a dear friend, but we used to tease, because Joe is not the greatest singer in the world—but he got the job done. There’s a lot of great singers ain’t getting it done.
So Dave says, “Do you know ‘You Talk Too Much’?” I said, “Yeah,” because it had been pitched to Fats Domino. Reggie Hall, Fats Domino’s brother-in-law, wrote it. It was pitched to me. In fact, there was a lounge out on Tulane and Carrollton, across from the Fountainbleu Hotel, that Joe was playing. I was taking Johnny Vincent to the airport one night and we stopped there and [Jones] played this song. We got in the car and Johnny said, “What did you think of that song?” “It sucks.” [Laughs] I hated it. But what did I know? And how could you say no to Dave Bartholomew, a fifty-six million seller.
Joe had recorded it for Roulette first. Then he gave the tape to Ric. They put it out, it started to be a hit on a Ric, and they did injunctions.
We went in the studio and used, with the exception of one, the same musicians [as Jones did on his version]. Cosimo told me that was the only time a metronome was used in the studio, so we could get it exactly right. I know the difference, but it’s almost the same thing. They kept playing the [Joe Jones] record [in the studio] so they could play it exactly. Joe used to tell me, “You stole my song.” I said, “You gave it away.”
We cut it Monday afternoon. Monday night, it was hand-carried to Los Angeles to Imperial. It was mastered Tuesday morning, at the pressing plant Tuesday afternoon. Thursday, it was on the bus to the record stores. The record stores used to play the records for you: “I want that record ‘You Talk Too Much.’” They’d put [Ford’s version] on, “Oh, that’s it.” Nobody knew the difference.
I did very well on that. That was my second gold record. In fact, I made more money on “You Talk Too Much” than on “Sea Cruise.” Lew Chudd [the owner of Imperial], bless his soul, paid very well. And Dave Bartholomew, bless him, always made sure his acts got just due.
Back in those days, you weren’t throwing off those little one-liners during your shows.
Oh, no. Off, on, goodnight. No bull at all. When we traveled like that, there were five, six acts. You got up, you did maybe two songs and the hit, and you were gone.
So that element of your show, the campy aspect, that came in when you were working on Bourbon Street?
Yeah. When you’re doing clubs, I said there was only one thing someone could say to me that would upset me: “You’re under arrest.”
You could say anything you want; and on Bourbon Street, you may hear everything. So I’ve heard it all.
On Bourbon Street, you weren’t really doing much of your rock & roll hits.
Well, I was doing what they wanted to hear.
You were doing requests.
Oh yes. I brought Fiddler on the Roof to this town. No one had heard it yet. I came from a classical background. When I first came up, it was Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Kay Starr, the Mills Brothers—that’s where I came from. In school, we played stock arrangements—“I’m In the Mood for Love,” all of that. At the end of this wedding, Aunt Hazel, who was a little tipsy, said, “Don’t ya’ll know ‘Boney Maroney’? So Buck Baker the horn player and I discovered rock & roll the second part of the set. My friend I went to school with at St. Joseph’s, his sister used to listen to Poppa Stoppa in the afternoon. That was just wonderful. That’s what turned me on to it. I was in grammar school.
For your sets on Bourbon Street, you were doing all types of music?
Being able to read vocally, I applied reading vocally to the piano. I didn’t play originally. But then I found out you couldn’t get a job with a band if you didn’t play. When they auditioned me for the band in high school, we didn’t have a guitar player, but I got the guitar charts and put them in the piano book, and I’m playing the chords, and the guys are like, “Man, we didn’t hear all that in there.” Applying that later, I read both. Anything you put in front of me, I can read. Studying theory for all those years, there’s not much you’re going to sing wrong. If you do, you’re in trouble.
I had people come in and bring music: “Sing this!” OK. A guy walked in one night and said, “I’ll give you $500 to do ‘Un Bel Di’” from the opera Madame Butterfly. I said, “For another $500, I’ll do it in Italian. And I did. He paid up.
Have you ever tried your hand at straight stand-up comedy?
Three, four years ago, we did a tour of North and South Carolina, and we were staying at a hotel for three nights. There was a comedy club in the basement. After our show, I went [to the club], sat down and ordered. This guy comes over with a bottle of what I’m drinking, a bucket of ice and two glasses. He says, “I caught your show at the university tonight. You’re funny. Would you sit in?” I did an hour and 20 minutes—no singing.
Last year, I did a private party at the Marriott in New York. I did an hour and 45 minutes and only did six songs. I kept going, “Is it time to leave?” And they’re going, “No!!”
In a way, it’s similar to Little Richard’s act, except you have more lines.
I love what Little Richard said about me. Richard said, “It’s not bad enough Pat Boone stole my songs. Frankie Ford stole my act—and he’s doin’ it good! Shut up!”
The first day I think I knew I was alive was when Ray Charles said my name. That’s still stuck in my head. I had met him about three months before. Then I walked in and said, “Hello Ray, how are you.” He said, “Frankie Ford, how ya’ doin’, darlin’?” I called home and told my dad, “I’m alive—Ray Charles said my name.” He said, “I think you’ve lost it.” But can you imagine—Ray Charles saying your name.
Ella Fitzgerald came to the Pompeii Club [on Bourbon Street] one night with her whole quartet, and then invited me to her show Sunday night at the Blue Room. She came over, and was scattin’ and singin’, and tapped me on the cheek and said, “…and Frankie Ford sings too good.” Ohhhh! I called my vocal coach immediately: “We done good!”
What got you off Bourbon Street and back on the road? Was that your oft-praised appearance in the film American Hot Wax?
The oil crunch was coming in then. Executives that I saw once a week were coming in once a month. A couple of politicians I talked to said, “If you can get out of here, get out now.” That’s when Bourbon Street fell apart. There was a time that I worked Bourbon Street where you didn’t see a man without a coat and tie. Not that there’s anything wrong with what’s going on now, but it’s so corporate. There was a time I knew every barker on the street. We used to go in the LA-One with Uncle Earl [Long] and Blaze Starr. I talked to her in Baltimore not too long ago—what a sweet lady. She wasn’t a stripper—she was a lady. I worked Bourbon Street when the streetcar was still on it. I remember as a kid going home to my grandmother’s house sitting at the window so you could see—maybe the doors [to the strip clubs] would open.
And there was the resurgence. We filmed Hot Wax in ‘78. It took three days to do three minutes. That was the last scene for the movie. I think one of the most frightening experiences of my life was seeing it on the big screen for the first time. You’re gonna be 30 feet high—every ugly is gonna come out! I think my mother gave me a Valium to settle me down—which is very rare. I was so nervous.
Moving on to the new record. Give a capsulized version of how the renewed association with Ace Records came about.
Well, they called and asked. And I figured that at the moment, it was the only ticket in town, and you can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket.
There was a few little things that I wanted to do. Total creative say-so—because I have lived with some bad records. I remember them pulling me in and saying, “We need a record now!” and doing some real crap. I cut some crap. I knew they were wrong then, but I had no say-so.
It took about two or three weeks to sit with the material. You have to sit with it for a while, then get up and walk away. We cut two or three vocals a day. I work relatively fast.
I was very pleased, and thought it was a good omen that we were back with Ace again.
How was it different dealing with Johnny Vincent this time?
Well, I wasn’t 18. But I am smart and wise enough to listen. When I’m told, “Why don’t you try this?” I’m smart enough to try it. He was right many times, he was wrong many times. I was right many times, I was wrong many times. I think the only thing that surprised him was when he’d say, “That’s it!” and I’d go, “No, I can do it better.”
You don’t write much material.
In the Bourbon Street club days, I sang every great song ever written. So sometimes when I write things it gets a bit redundant, so it sort of breaks your spirit. And give me a time slot when I’m supposed to write. When you’re out more than a hundred days a year, there’s not a lot of time.
Did you play piano on the new record at all?
No. I did not have time. They did a test track, and then they cut the track, and I went in and did the vocals.
Judging from your performance on Hot & Lonely, your voice hasn’t lost anything.
Well, everything is in the same keys. A lot of singers I know, they’re down, either a whole step, or some are a third. Some of the bogus (oldies) groups out there—which aggravate me very much—the songs are not in the same key. And the audience notices.
I’m a stickler. I do not have perfect pitch. I have relative pitch. But I know where it is. That was not a gifted thing—it was a learned thing.
It is important for artists that have been in the business for a long time to continue to put out new material, so as not to be perceived strictly as an “oldies” act.
“Not available in any store”—that was my name for a number of years. [laughs]
In other words, “Tape this performance, because you won’t find my records in the stores.”
Thank you! No, but since I went back out [on the road]…I’ve always been known as the “bread and butter” artist. I can sweep it up in a minute. I’ve had promoters tell me in writing that if the star is weak, they bring me in to make ‘em work. Because a lot of people in this business feel all they have to do is show up.
I’ve been taken off of second-to-closing act [on multi-act oldies shows] and put in the first half, because the star’s management said, “Get him away from my act.” Because it’s strong—I come out there like a truckload of bullfrogs.
Do you exercise? Obviously you put a lot of energy into these performances, and you do a helluva lot of them. What is your regimen?
I have two speeds: fast and off. I’m one of these people…we work a club in Canada, and I have an hour and a half between shows. I’ll sleep for an hour. I’ll go back, put my neck on a pillow—don’t mess the hair up!—and sleep.
The promoters and managers will come back and say, “You were sleeping with both arms crossed—we thought you were dead.” They couldn’t understand how I’d wake up. They’d just go, “Frank.” And I’m awake, get dressed, and go back on.
For vocals, the best is rest. I swim, I putter around the garden—you’d never know it now, it’s too hot to do anything out there—when I’m home. It’s difficult to get me out of the house.
But if I’m home any more than a week, I want to knock walls down. I’m a true gypsy when it comes to that.
The older blonde-haired woman at the New Orleans Musicians’ Alumni Association gig the other night got a bit carried away during “Hot & Lonely.” That was probably somebody’s grandmother.
Yeah. But how wonderful. John Jay was cutting my hair yesterday, and he said, “You handled that so beautifully. You played with her, but you didn’t play down to her.” You can’t do that. I was about five, six years old and Sophie Tucker told me, “There’s no such thing as a bad audience—it was a bad act.” If you allow an audience to be bad, then you’re bad.
It was amazing to look at the faces of many of the women there—they still see you as a teen idol.
I’m a saloon singer. They sell beer out there. That’s all I think of. I’m supposed to just go do my job, and do not put your underwear in the cash register. [Laughs]
Have you thought about doing an autobiography?
We’re talking to major publishing houses. I can’t spell [but] I have all the old itineraries. I still have Nehru jackets. I have clothes I had made for me in the Orient in 1964. I had one of the first Polaroid cameras, and I have some marvelous pictures. I have some pictures that I hope people get rich again, because I’m going to sell them back to them. [Laughs]
When we did these tours, we did six months of one-nighters. We had two days off in six months. All we did was eat, sometimes sleep, sing, and drink and play cards. And I took a lot of strange pictures. A lot of strange pictures.
When you’re on the road now, what is your set like?
I do “Sea Cruise.” I stick to a New Orleans-based thing. I do Fats sometimes, I do Huey, of course—he helped me [learn] how to play. So did Frog [Clarence “Frogman” Henry]. And I’ll do “Rockin’ Pneumonia,” which a lot of people don’t do. You do a half hour on most of these shows—at most a half hour. So by the time you do “You Talk Too Much,” “Sea Cruise,” and an opener, you’ve got two fillers. And I do “Hot & Lonely” now, because a lot or the places we sell product. And that has been going absolutely wonderful. I have to do this [record a new album] again! [Laughs]
So you don’t do “Cheatin’ Woman” and other songs of yours?
No, unless it’s a specific thing. “Cheatin’ Woman” was only a regional hit. It was a big thing in Philadelphia—it was a big black record in Philadelphia. But unless I have to, I really don’t. There’s not that much time. In Minnesota [at a show at the Indian reservation casino] the other night, we had three acts and it was an hour show. Bobbie Vee, Tommy Roe and moi. You had 20 minutes. That I find difficult about the job—getting out there, getting moving and trying to get a focus, continuity on an act, in that amount of time. But that’s what they wanted, and that’s what they got.
If you had to pick one to be your bread and butter, you’d take singing over piano playing.
Oh yeah. I did an album with Ry Cooder that I played piano on, and when the album came out, the piano was way in the back. Of course, Ry did a song in D, and had only one chord. There’s not a lot you can do with D. I said, “Does this change chords anywhere?” “No.” “Then why’d you write a chart?!”
You are an entertainer. That’s a big part of the show now.
The first time I did income tax, they said “Occupation” and I said “Entertainer.” I never said “musician,” I never said “singer.” It’s entertainer. I think that covers it.
You definitely seem committed to the lifestyle of an entertainer.
I don’t know anything else. What else do I know? Absolutely nothing. I could probably sell used cars. [Laughs] Which you can see nobody believing me, cause I probably couldn’t lie that good. I’m fortunate that I’ve never had to do anything else. That’s why when things get aggravating and the plane is late and the fat lady next to you’s got all this luggage, I go [to myself], “Shut up. You could be somewhere else.” I try to keep my feet on the ground. I scream and yell, and everybody ignores me. But I get it out, and it’s over.
I didn’t go to my homecoming dance in high school because I was working. I knew back then there’d be certain things [I’d sacrifice]. Saturday night, if I’m not working, I’m a mess. I feel unwanted.
Those nights are rare—business for you is definitely booming.
Oh, it’s wonderful. Someone asked me the other day where I wanted it to go. I want it to stay here—it’s wonderful! I mean, how much is there to go around? You can only slice an Italian so thin. What is that…how many Italians does it take to shingle a roof? Only two, if you slice ‘em real thin. [Laughs]
Are you making more on the road now than ever before?
That’s all relative. You gotta figure, when you’re out on the road in the ‘50s and ‘60s making three grand a week, that was a lot of money then. But it didn’t stay forever. For weekends now…[the money is] wonderful. I’m doing better than the average bear. [Laughs]
You don’t play much around here.
[Laughs] Don’t make me say that. [Pauses] No, I don’t [Laughs]
You can make more money elsewhere.
That’s the bottom line. I’m sorry about that but there are so many acts around here, putting it discretely, that don’t work as much as I work out of town that will work [for less money than Ford]. I figure, all it’s going to take is another two or three hours to get on a plane, and you’re going to make what you’d make in a week here. I’m not saying anything about any other acts—as I said before, as long as I’m making what I want to make, I’m happy, and I don’t care what anybody else is making.
I’m guessing that you do better than all the local artists from that era, with the exception of Fats Domino, who makes a pretty penny in Europe.
I never ask what anyone else is making. It’s none of my business, as long as I’m making what I want to make. People have said to me, “Do you mind me asking how much you make?” And I’ve said, “No, if you don’t mind me not telling you.” [Laughs] I’m very pleased. I’m in a position now that when it stops being fun, I’m gonna quit. But it don’t seem like it’s going to stop being fun.