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Michael Franks — Featured Smooth Jazz Artist Archives (2015)

July 2015

Michael Franks – Charity & Song Make The Man

All he ever thought he would be was a songwriter; however his musical career opened up to so much more. Franks is a proficient songwriter and vocalist. He plays several string instruments such as the guitar, banjo and mandolin. Along with the strings, he plays the cabasa, which is a metal shaker/scraper in the percussion family. Michael Franks’ musical style is understatedly cool, yet he has an incrediblyMichael Franks powerful demeanor in his ability to rhyme with reason. He has an eclectic genre which consists of jazz, pop, rhythm & blues, samba, Brazilian bossa nova, folk, and anything else that might strike his imagination.

Franks has such phenomenal control of the English language. He uses various double entendres in his music where he uses a word that will have one interpretation, and then switches it into another context. The lyrics in his songs are ingenious and usually risqué; that’s what makes his fans come back for more. One of his entendres is in his most popular song, Popsicle Toes, with the lyrics “We oughta have a birthday party, and you can wear you birthday clothes, we can hit the floor, and go explore those popsicle toes. You got the nicest North America this sailor ever saw. I’d like to feel your warm Brazil and touch your Panama.” How risqué and captivating is that?

Franks was born and raised in La Jolla, CA. His parents, Gerald and Betty Franks, were not musically inclined, but they loved swing music. To no surprise, some of his early influences were Ira Gershwin, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Irving Berlin. His siblings weren’t interested in playing musical instruments, but his sister Christine’s son Connor Sullivan caught the music bug, and he’s the lead singer and rhythm guitarist in the band Royal Nonesuch.

When Franks was 14, he bought his first guitar that included six private lessons, and those werewas the only music lessons he ever received. In senior high school, he played in a couple of different bands that dabbled in blues, folk, and rock and roll.

The young teenager had an epiphany when his best friend’s father, who was from New Orleans, wanted to introduce the aspiring guitarist to another genre of music. It was the wonderfully sophisticated sound of jazz. He had the honor of hearing the album from the jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal Live at the Pershing, which totally blew him away. A song by jazz pianist Mose Allison, “Your Mind Is On Vacation,” and “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet also had a considerable impact on him.. Once Franks heard Dave Brubeck’s songs he said, “I felt that I had like this kind of musical cataract surgery and then I could suddenly see things that I hadn’t really been able to see before, and I never went to school and studied music per se. It was a real kind of education listening to those Dave Brubeck’s records, ‘Time Out’ and ’Time Further Out.’ He gave you a little bit of information about each tune, what time it was in and how to count it. That was like fascinating for me. It was like all this new information, and it was like a real kind of moment of enlightenment musically and educationally.”

While in high school, Franks was inspired and captivated by the poetry of Theodore Roethke with his introspection, off-rhythm, and natural imagery. This inspiration carried on through his college years.

Franks went to the University of California in Los Angeles, CA, and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in comparative literature in 1966. In 1968, he received his Master of Arts degree from the University of Oregon. Once he finished graduate school, he acquired a part-time job at his alma mater, UCLA. He also started writing songs during this time.

The lyricist began teaching the History of Popular Song in America, which was ironic since he didn’t know that much about the history of popular song. Nevertheless, while preparing and researching material for his classes, he learned a lot and enjoyed what he was doing. He actually had quite a few musicians take the class, and through some of these connections, he heard about a record that was going to be made over at A&M Records with two blues musicians whom he admired, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.

In 1973, Terry and McGhee recorded three songs that Franks wrote — “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” “Jesus Gonna Make ii Alright,” and “You Bring Out the Boogie in Me,” on their album Sonny & Brownie. Franks also played the guitar, banjo, and mandolin on that album and joined their accompanying tour.

That same year through the benefits of working with Sonny and Brownie, he recorded his self-titled debut album on a newly established record company, BRUT. The album was later reissued in 1983 as Previously Unavailable, which included the minor hit “Can’t Seem to Shake This Rock ‘n Roll.”

In the 70s, early in his career, he composed music for an anti-war theatrical production, Anthems in E-Flat, which featured future Star Wars star Mark Hamill. He also composed music for three 1974 films, Count Your Bullets, Cockfighter, and Zandy’s Bride.

It took three years before Frank’s next album, The Art of Tea was released. This was his first critical success with the hit single, “Popsicle Toes.” It also established Frank’s sound, with its smooth jazz sound and crossover pop appeal.

His third album, Sleeping Gypsy (1977), which includes the song “The Lady Wants to Know,” was partially recorded in Brazil. Around this time, percussionist Ray Armando gave Franks a cabasa, which became a signature instrument for him to play on stage when he was not playing guitar.

He enjoyed a string of successes over the next few years, including hit singles “The Lady Wants to Know,” “When I Give My Love to You,” “Monkey See, Monkey Do,” “Rainy Night In Tokyo,” and “Tell Me All About It.” His biggest hit came in 1983 with “When Sly Calls (Don’t Touch That Phone)” from the album Passionfruit.

Throughout his illustrious musical career, he became a prominent songwriter. His material has been covered by the Manhattan Transfer, Ringo Starr, the Carpenters, Patti LaBelle, and Carmen McCrae, among others. His own albums featured prominent guest vocalists, among them Brenda Russell, Art Garfunkel, Bonnie Raitt, Flora Purim, and Kenny Rankin; as well as a vast amount of notable jazz instrumentalist with the likes of Chuck Loeb, Jeff Lorber, Kirk Whalum — and the list goes on…

In the 90’s, Franks composed a musical, Noa Noa, about the life of French painter, Paul Gauguin. It was briefly work-shopped off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1995. There have been numerous selections from this musical that appeared on Frank’s albums Blue Pacific (“Vincent’s Ear,” “On the Inside” and “Woman in the Waves” and Abandoned Garden (“Without Your Love” and “In the Yellow House”.)

Over the course of 42 years, Frank’s music has been witty, sensual, thoughtful, and full of literary eloquence. His extensive discography of albums includes Michael Franks (1973) Brut, The Art of Tea (1975) Reprise, Sleeping Gypsy (1977) Warner Bros., Burchfield Nines (1978) Warner Bros., Tiger in the Rain (1979) Warner Bros., Michael Franks with Crossfire: Live (1980) Warner Bros., One Bad Habit (1980) Warner Bros., Objects of Desire (1982) Warner Bros., Passionfruit (1983) Warner Bros., Previously Unavailable (1983) DRG (reissue of 1973’s Michael Franks), Skin Dive (1985) Warner Bros., The Camera Never Lies (1987) Warner Bros., Indispensable (1988) Warner Bros., Blue Pacific (1990) Reprise, Dragonfly Summer (1993) Warner Bros., Abandoned Garden (1995) Warner Bros., The Best of Michael Franks: A Backward Glance (1998) Warner Bros., Barefoot on the Beach (1999) Windham Hill, The Michael Franks Anthology: The Art of Love (2003) Warner Bros., Watching the Snow (2003) Rhino, Love Songs (2004) Warner Bros., Rendezvous in Rio (2006) Koch Records, Time Together (2011) Shanachie, Dream 1973-2011-five CD anthology (2012) Warner Bros.

With much appreciation, Franks also won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction And Composition (1986) and was nominated for the Soul Train Music Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance (2011).

Franks is grateful for all who have helped him along the way and for where he is today. He says, “Although I never studied music formally, I did spend endless hours studying it informally. Antonio Carlos Jobim, who was so well educated musically, once told me: ‘The ear is the best teacher.’ I have many musicians to thank for allowing me to learn, almost by osmosis, complicated harmonic ideas. On my early records, I’m especially grateful to Larry Carlton and Joe Sample, who were so helpful in translating the musical shorthand of my demos into the enduring shapes on the albums, The Art of Tea and Sleeping Gypsy. Thanks to them and to all the other great studio musicians it has been my pleasure to work with over the years, I can honestly say my lack of formal musical education has never been a hindrance.”

Franks is always full of surprises and truly enjoys life. He published a book, Poems from the Road, a collection of verses he wrote over the years and mostly while traveling. He sold it on his website and donated the profits to Hearts United for Animals, a charity near and dear to his heart. He is involved in several charities; he supports both his local Humane Society and is an advocate for the national no-kill shelter, sanctuary, and animal welfare organization Hearts United for Animals dedicated to the relief of suffering.

Franks’ wife Claudia is his muse and love of his life. She has been with him throughout his musical career, and it seems that’s the way it will always be. He is in his 70’s now and still touring and working on another album. There are no final curtains calls for him in the near future, and I know his fans are fondly appreciative of such a dedicated artist.

To read more about Franks and hear his amazing music, visit his website: http://michaelfranks.com/

See you next month on “The Ride,” and, quoting Michael Franks, “I wish you Peace, Love and Rescue.” — Rene Sutton