A longtime jewel of Louisiana music, Carol Fran was named for a major national honor this week. The soul and blues singer/pianist is one of nine artists who’ll receive a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts this September. This is the nation’s highest honor for folk and traditional arts, instituted to “recognize folk and traditional artists for their artistic excellence and efforts to conserve America’s culture for future generations.” The fellowships include an award of $25,000.
Carol Fran’s previous awards include a Slim Harpo Award (as a “Slim Harpo Music Award Legend”), presented to her by our own Jan Ramsey in Lafayette last year. Like Harpo, Fran recorded for the legendary Excello label, which released her debut single “Emmitt Lee’ in 1957. Born Carol Martin in Lafayette, she came to New Orleans and played clubs on Bourbon Street before breaking through. More singles followed for other labels, including “Crying in the Chapel” (which she recorded just before Elvis Presley did) and “A World Without You,” written by eternal cool cat Bobby Darin. She also drew from her Creole heritage by singing some of her early rock tunes in French. Beginning in 1982 she worked mainly with the late guitarist Clarence Holliman who also became her husband; the two recorded on the late, lamented Black Top label, and last made the album It’s About Time in 2000. Fran also performed alongside other Excello alumni at the Ponderosa Stomp in 2011.
The award winners will be featured in an awards presentation at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC on September 25, and in a free concert at George Washington University on September 27. Among the other eight winners are San Antonio ceramicist and clay sculptor Verónica Castillo, Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe storyteller Ralph Burns, North Carolina balladeer/storyteller Sheila Kay Adams, and Chic ago cimbalom player Nicolae Feraru. All are notable American artists, but none of them can sing “The Great Pretender” like Carol Fran can.