“So be my guest, you’ve got nothing to lose—won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?”
The lyrics to Frankie Ford’s 1959 hit “Sea Cruise” are embedded in the DNA of every lover of New Orleans music. The irrepressible, eternally youthful Frankie is a legend in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll. At least I thought so.
Before heading across the river to Frankie Ford’s Gretna home, I informed a younger colleague that I was on my way to interview a “real rock star—Frankie Ford.” The blank expression revealed no hint of recognition. Then I pointed out that Frankie is the artist responsible for one of the greatest of all New Orleans R&B songs—“Sea Cruise.” This was something my young colleague was familiar with. Given that the rollicking “Sea Cruise” has been utilized in countless commercials for soft drinks and beer, and featured in the soundtracks of motion pictures and television programs, it is perhaps one of the most widely recognized songs ever recorded in New Orleans.
Frankie Ford, who continues to regularly tour the world’s concert halls and casinos, is the recipient of this year’s Best Of The Beat “Living Legend” Award. We spoke in his kitchen, with a cuckoo clock erupting in the background and his swimming pool and backyard jungle of tropical vegetation, the day before December’s first withering freeze, just outside.
You were born August 4, 1939. Were you born in New Orleans?
Born in New Orleans. But I’m an adopted child. My godfather was an attorney and he acquired me from my mother and father, who could not have children. I was three-months-old, they told me. I know nothing about my parents—I have not tried to inquire about anything. It was a closed adoption. I could probably find out about my parents but why open that can of worms?
So Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Guzzo came along, adopted you and encouraged you to enter show business.
Yes. They told me that the moment we walked into a restaurant or bar, when I was a toddler, I would go to the juke box and stand there and hold on to the front. If they wanted me to eat, they had to come over there and feed me at the juke box. So at five-years-old, I was on stage. I was one of these precocious kids. Me and the dog act nobody wanted to follow.
I always sang, I could remember the lyrics. Before I was even in school, my godfather was a friend of Ted Fio Rito, who was Carmen Miranda’s bandleader. They were working at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and we went to Fio Rito’s suite one afternoon and my godfather said, “Cheech, sing for him.” So I started to sing and Fio Rito went to the piano and said, “He’s right on key!” The next night I was in the show. I sang “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”
I was 12 when I went on the Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. I won 13 straight amateur contests—all of ’em around Louisiana. Tony Almerico had the Parisian Room—116 Royal Street—and every Tuesday night, he had an amateur contest. The first ones to win were the New Orleans Saints—a Dixieland band with Murphy Campo and Peewee Spitaleri. I won the second week and went to New York and I was on Ted Mack. It was the last show of the season. An opera singer was on ahead of me and I was second—I wonder what happened to him?
You returned to New Orleans and joined a band called the Syncopators.
My first year in high school at Holy Name of Mary in Algiers, we got together. We were a dance band. We had stock arrangements and all that. The saxophone player and me, we got into listening to Poppa Stoppa [the legendary New Orleans R&B disc jockey]. When the mothers and fathers would come for the first set, we’d play “I’m In The Mood For Love.” Then when they’d leave, we’d play “Bony Maronie.” The parents would say, “We paid for those music lessons and you’re playing that trash!”
We ended up a rock ‘n’ roll band. At Behrman High School, we won the Battle of the Bands. I used to go to Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s house in the afternoon and he’d help teach me to play piano. I’d say, “What’s this lick?” and he’d show me. Later on, Huey Smith and Fats Domino would show me a lot of stuff.
With the band, we’d sneak into the Joy Lounge and “Pos” Marcello, who owned the place, would come out and say: “You—out! Ya too young! I’m gonna tell ya daddy on you!” I’d say, “He’s probably in the back dancing!”
I told the story to Ray Charles one time that we couldn’t go in to see him but we’d stand on the sidewalk and the guitar player would write down the chords. Ray said, “Why didn’t y’all come in?” I said, “Ray, ’cause I’m white.” He said, “You don’t sound white—I heard your records.” When Ray Charles said my name, I called my father at his office, which was a no-no, and I said, “I’m alive!” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Ray Charles said my name!”
When did you cut your first record?
I was working at the Alibi Lounge, out on Airline Highway. It was right before you got to Jefferson Parish. This guy [Joe Caronna] came in and heard us and he said, “I’m a representative for a record company [Ace]—would you like to record?” I said, “Well, certainly!” I wrote my number down on a napkin.
Not long after, he called me one afternoon and said, “Can you get down to the studio? The owner of the record company [Johnny Imbragulio a.k.a. Johnny Vincent] is here.”
I remember walking in and here’s [pianist] Huey Smith, [saxophonist] Red Tyler, [drummer] “Hungry” Williams, [saxophonist] Robert Parker, [bassist] Frank Fields. He said, “You got any original material?” So I played “Cheatin’ Woman” and “The Last One To Cry.” He said, “Okay, we’re going to do that.” I said, “When?” He said, “Now.”
So Cos [studio owner Cosimo Matassa] cut an acetate for me. I had recorded with Cos in’49 over on Rampart Street, when I was a kid. I brought the acetate home and said to my father, “I have a record.” My father said, “That’s not a record until you’ve got it in your hand.” So I didn’t say anything about it. On Friday, June 13, 1958, “Cheatin’ Woman” and “The Last One To Cry” came out. [New Orleans disc jockey] Jack the Cat played it and he told me what time he was gonna play it. We were at the VFW Hall on Monroe Street, working, and we went out to the car to listen to it. I was 17, still in school.
Who played piano on that first record—you or Huey Smith?
It was Huey Smith. I played piano but if you’ve got Huey Smith, you don’t need me. I used to sit and watch at Record Sales, 640 Baronne Street, a lot of these guys would come in and sign away their lives for a few dollars right now. Huey was fine to work with. At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, there’s a loose leaf sheet that I wrote the words to “Sea Cruise” on, with all the misspellings and everything. Huey sorta went through a period and “forgot” a lot of things. There was an interview he did where he was annoyed that I “stole” “Sea Cruise.” No way did I steal “Sea Cruise.” It was supposed to be his follow-up to “Don’t You Just Know It.” They were just bringing the white kid in. If he was so annoyed with me, why did he go to Imperial Records with me and collaborate with me? We wrote “Chinese Bandits” together—we wrote a whole bunch of stuff.
I was working in Philadelphia at the Uptown Theater with [disc jockey] Georgie Woods. Joe Caronna and Johnny Vincent met me Sunday night. We got the redeye back to Atlanta, then a plane back to New Orleans. That afternoon, they called me down to the studio. And Huey sat at the piano and taught me “Sea Cruise” and I wrote it down. Huey wrote the song. The tracks were cut while I was in Philadelphia. It was agreed, standing right there in Cos’ studio, “Huey, you don’t need a record right now. Put it out with Frankie.” All of the music was on one track and my vocal was on another track.
When did they add the foghorn?
That was later. They went to the library. That’s not a ship’s horn or a ship’s bell—those are harbor sounds that we sped up to try to get in the key of C. It was Joe Caronna’s idea. I remember Mac Rebennack was at the studio and he said, “You’re gonna mess up this great song!” Other than “Splish Splash,” I don’t know another record with sound effects that is that identifiable.
The record is unique because, at the time, overdubbing was almost unknown.
All of those musicians were on one track. Most stuff was cut with one track. When we got to “Time After Time,” it was cut with two tracks and it was taken to Nashville and put on to four tracks so the Anita Kerr Singers could sing on it.
“Sea Cruise” was cut in September of ’58 and came out in February of ’59. It laid around here. It got on the charts here but only in the ’teens. We were doing a gig in Jackson. I was in the backseat of Joe Caronna’s car and he woke me up and said, “Listen—‘Sea Cruise.’ It’s Hoss Allen [the influential Nashville disc jockey]. The next couple of weeks, Dick Clark will pick it up because he has someone who monitors what Hoss Allen plays.”
A little later, they said, “It’s going to be on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.” We ran home at 3:30 to hear it. Then it took off nationally.
I begged them: “Do not put ‘Roberta’ and ‘Sea Cruise’ on the same record.” So did Cosimo. I wanted an instrumental on the back. As soon as Dick Clark picked up on it, it was all over.
Did you get to sing it on American Bandstand?
Oh yeah—I was on the daytime show eight times and I was on the Saturday night show about four times. A funny story—the first time I was on the Saturday night show, Tony Mammarella, who was Dick Clark’s partner, hired a very buxom woman to be a mermaid. As I’m on a rubber raft singing, and the stagehands are making it rock, I’m supposed to pick her up out of the water. Well, her top kept falling! Oops! The last time I saw Dick, he reminded me. He said, “I’ve got a kinescope of that woman.”
A pre-Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction!
Another thing about that show, they had jeans for me that were all ripped and a sailor cap. The wardrobe guy had washed and faded the jeans. I think I was wearing a 28-inch waist then. Well, the jeans had shrunk to a 26. When I got up there, Tony Mammarella said, “You can see his appendix in those pants!”
I’ve always thought it was astounding that you and Mac Rebennack were white teenagers recording with much older black musicians in New Orleans during the days of strict racial segregation. Unlike Mac, you didn’t get into drugs.
Oh, it was there when I was a kid. They used to call ‘em [marijuana] muggles. I tried stuff but I didn’t like anything that controlled me. I’m a Leo—we’re not pushy, we just have better ideas. I was really busy working on my craft and I didn’t want anything to come between that ’cause I knew what I wanted to do the rest of my life and thank the good Lord, I’ve never had a day job!
After your tour of duty in the Army, you returned to New Orleans in the early ’60s and the music scene had totally changed.
Ahhhh! You couldn’t get arrested! Musicians were carpooling out of this town. The British Invasion came about and there wasn’t a horn player working in New Orleans. It was nothing but guitars.
When I got home I had money put away. I was home about three months. My father got home from work about 4:30—never did he walk in my room without knocking. He threw the door open and I was still in bed. He said, “Boy, you changed your hair, you changed your clothes, you changed your teeth. Either change your attitude or change your address!” Italian wisdom.
I had a job the next night. I went down to a club called the Pompeii and I said, “Why don’t you have entertainment?” “We can’t afford it.” I went to work on a Thursday night. Saturday night I went to get my pay and I got a raise because the owner said, “They’re gonna try to steal you.” I created that job.
I was doing all the standards, songs from Broadway musicals. They were lined up at 8 o’clock at night and I didn’t go on until 10. So I went from there to California and that’s when topless dancing first came in. Every musician was carpooling out of there—my timing was not the best.
Frank Caracci, who owned the Ivanhoe and the 500 Club, called my mother and I came back for two weeks of Mardi Gras. He told me, “If you’ll come back and stay with me, I’ll build you a club here.” And I had a piece of it. I stayed there for the longest until Mr. Frank left. Me and the piano. Then I was at Lucky Pierre’s until ’78. The stories about that place!
It was all prostitutes, right?
Oh no no no—we had the carriage trade. We had the Uptown people. Most of the girls that came in there, that did work, they were in mink coats. They weren’t hookers—they were strutters.
What does that mean?
It means you could’ve taken them to the Blue Room. In any restaurant, they knew how to act. I had been around the French Quarter for so many years—like that hadn’t been going on since the beginning of time. This is a port town. That’s why they moved the capitol to Baton Rouge: so the politicians could get something done. As far as the working girls, it was an elegant place and they fit in. I made great, great money there. I built two houses, one for my parents.
A man was in one night and said, “I’ll give you $200 if you can do ‘Un bel di’ from Madame Butterfly.” I said, “For 500, I’ll do it in Italian!”
Frankie, do you think you’ll ever retire?
No. Sophie Tucker, when I worked with her at the Blue Room, Sunday was a kids’ matinee with kids running all across the stage and so I came off just in tears. She grabbed me and said, “Look, let me tell you something. There’s no such thing as a bad audience. They allow you to be bad. And you’re nothing but a saloon singer. They sell beer out there. So don’t take yourself too seriously.” Sixty years I’ve been on stage but I’m still insecure. Any performer, worth his salt, is an extrovert.
What’s your advice for a young performer?
Perform for anyone who’ll listen. There’s an old vaudeville saying: “What you lack in talent, you dazzle with b.s.” I love what I’m doing. I’m one happy little man.