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THE FRANK-O JOHNSON STORY, PART 1 (1950-1990)


Frank-O, America’s greatest songwriter – that’s how I started off with Terry Woodford, and I want to go back doing what I did then: to introduce stuff for new record companies, for individuals, and go back making money doing that. I’m open to all styles singing, writing and production work, for all countries, everywhere.”

If you’re interested in Frank’s services – and after reading these two articles I think you are – you can contact him at frankojohnson@aol.com. Add to that still that on his Facebook page, Frank these days publishes spiritual cartoons. “People don’t like to read the Bible, but they like to read cartoons, so this is the way I’m speaking God’s word around.” Let’s go back to the very beginning.

VISITS IN A BLUE LIGHT

Frank Lee Johnson was born in Florence, Alabama, on January the 28th in 1950. “It was very nice growing up in North Alabama. South Alabama was a lot rougher for black people. North wasn’t as difficult. We really didn’t experience the difficulties that people had in Montgomery and Birmingham. North Alabama was more towards Tennessee, towards Huntsville. Florence was where Rick Hallstarted Fame”, Florence Alabama Music Enterprises.

“Black and white people got very well along there. We grew up together, played together and ate together in each other’s houses. I had one lady tell me in Dayton, Ohio – she was from Montgomery, Alabama – ‘you’re not a true Alabamian. You don’t do anything in civil rights and things.’”

“My father, Horace Johnson, died, when I was five. I remember him coughing and then he called me to his side and said ‘dad is dying, take care of your mama and sister for me.’ Then his hand fell down out of the bed, and he was gone. I remember wearing a grey suit and cap for the funeral. I touched him and he felt hard like wood. This memory will stay with me forever.”

  “One of my daughters died in my arms at 13. She and her friends wanted to ride on a hayride in back of a truck. Somehow it flipped over killing several children, but my daughter didn’t have a scar on her. The doctor said ‘she can’t hear you, she’s in a coma.’ I said ‘if you can hear me, then squeeze my hand.’ She squeezed it. I said ‘I will always love you.’ Then she passed on to glory. Her name was Conswelo Tireing Tallecta Johnson. At first she would visit me at night in the form of a beautiful blue light. My mother Adella said she was letting me know she was fine. Her visits became less and less, but it was comforting to know she’s happy. I thank God for all my children. The oldest LaWanda is deceased. She was in Desert Storm, became State Patrol and then a prison guard in Buffalo, NY. Barbara has beat death several times – cancer, heart attacks -, Mona, son Conswello, Watu, US vet, social master, William Horace Andrew Johnson, a cook and Frank Jr.” Today also known as New Frank (F1J@icloud.com), Frank Jr. writes short stories, has eBooks published on Amazon and is also a motivation speaker. He appears also in context of music in this article later.

  “My mother raised me and my sister, Mame Sadie Mae Johnson, now Foster. My mother supported me in anything I wanted to do. When I was six years old, I started my piano lessons. I don’t know how in the world my mother could pay for all that stuff. She was picking cotton. She received 2 dollars and 50 cents for every hundred pounds that she picked. A church lady taught me the piano lessons, and later I started guitar lessons on my own.  I got a scholarship for cartoon art in 1964, but I turned it down and stayed in the music business, because it was a struggle for black artists at that time, very difficult. I had two guys coming down from New York, but I decided to go ahead with my music. In song-writing I didn’t have anybody to teach me the structure or anything. I just picked it up from radio stations.”

  “First I started off in elementary, which was a two-row schoolhouse called Pine Ridge School. Many years later I recorded material on a rap group called the Pine Ridge Kids plus One. I went to Burrell-Slater High School that was an all-black school and stood on the same land as W.C. Handy Museum. Then I moved to Bradshaw High School in Florence, Alabama – three years there and then one year in UNA, the University of North Alabama. I was drafted in the US army, but since I was a soldier’s only son, they wouldn’t let me go. I was 4F.”

JIMMY, ARTHUR, PERCY...

  Frank didn’t have to look far for his early musical idols. “Right up the street was Jimmy Hughes, who in 1964 had Steal Away with Rick Hall at Fame, also a friend of mine in Muscle Shoals, Arthur Alexander, who had You Better Move On in 1962. Percy Sledge I met only in 1966, after his When a Man Loves a Woman. Also all of the artists from the Big Band era: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and then - as we went into the 70s - I started moving towards the Motown and Stax eras. Muscle Shoals became the capital of the recording industry at that time. Everybody was coming there, so that gave me a good chance to get my songs placed.”

  “I was about 19, when I left Florence for the first time. I went to Michigan City, Indiana. My half-sister had moved there. She was the only child my father had by his first wife. I got married real early, before I got out of the high school. When I left Michigan City, Indiana, I came back to Florence, Alabama in 1971. Later I came back to Fort Wayne, Indiana. I worked for Pullman-Standard, which was a railway company. Then I worked for Betlehem Steel. Over the weekends I would go over to Curtis Mayfield in Chicago. I would hang out with the guys at Curtom Records.”

WEAKER THAN WATER

  Frank’s first single was released on Dee Vee Records out of Florence, Alabama. Issued under the name of Frank Johnson, both sides were also written by him. Weaker Than Water is a mid-tempo toe-tapper, while You Gave Love to a Dying Man is a slow, “desperate man” song.

  “I knew Bob Jones, who owned a gas station, and I used to play my guitar around him. He was way older than me, and he’s dead now. He said ‘man, you ought to cut a record’, and one day he showed up at my mother’s house and said ‘hey man, I got some money, do you still want to cut that record?’ I said ‘sure.’ So we went over to Quin Ivy’s studios, where Percy Sledge recorded When a Man Loves a Woman, and did it. Quin rented out studio time to us, and - because he was a DJ at WLAY at the time - Bob got Quin to play it in Muscle Shoals a lot. I remember the studio was run down with egg boxes on the wall for acoustics. I believe Jeanie Greene and Jackie Dickson did background singing. Bob Jones didn’t know anything about record industry, but he managed to get copyrights and everything.”

  The single went without notice. In some sources it says that Frank’s single was released in 1964, but Quin’s Norala Studio with egg cartons was established only in 1965. He sold the place in 1969 and the new owners renamed it Paradox. Dewey Vandiver’s Dee Vee Records released at least four singles between 1966 and 1971, and Frank’s single is believed to be the third one on the label. Also, on the record it’s written that the publishing is by Muscle Shoals Sound, which came into existence only in 1969. These three matters indicate that the probable release year of Frank’s debut single is 1969. (Thanks to Peter Nickols for the research).

  “In 1971 I signed with the Wishbone production company under the leadership of Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey, and we used to go to Widget Recording studios to record artists and demos. Wishbone made independent production deals with all these major labels. My songs would come out on these artists that were with these labels. I was with them until Terry Woodford wanted to sell his catalog to Motown in 1976. The proposition was ‘we will buy your catalog providing that Frank Johnson will sign with us as a staff writer. We noticed that most of the songs in your catalog are written by him.’ I told Terry ‘sure, I’ll sign with Motown.’ I was with Motown until I signed with Malaco in 1982.”

  A U.K. label Hit and Run released in 2011 a single (HR 1512) with two songs that go back to Frank’s Wishbone days. Both the quick-tempo Love Slave and the melancholy Hurt All Over are Frank’s demos, cut at Widget Sound in Muscle Shoals in 1972 and produced by Clayton and Terry.

OVER 3000 SONGS

  “I’ve written over 3000 songs in 58 years. What was really funny about that was when I was invited to the Chicago Blues Festival for soul writers’ panel along with Bob Jones, Willie Clayton, Swamp Dogg... One of the panellist people asked me ‘how many songs have you written over the years?’ ‘Three thousand’ I answered. When they got down to Jerry Williams, Swamp Dogg, he said ‘I’ve written over six thousand records.’ That would teach me a lesson” (laughing).

  The number of artists that have recorded Frank’s songs is imposing. “Sometimes I think ‘oh yeah, Louis Williams and the Ovations cut one of my songs on MGM (I’m in Love). Then I think about Freddie North, oh yeah, he cut that You’re Killing Me Slowly but Surely (Z.Z. Hill covered the song). I think about Wounded Woman and Sandra Wright.” Today on BMI sheet you can spot over 200 Frank’s songs, and among many big-time artists there are some not so well-known names like Sunny Ridell, Nolan Struck, Ernie Johnson, Joyce Lawson and Roger K. Osborne.

  Frank has written three Grammy-nominated songs: I’m Not Strong Enough to Love You Again for Aretha Franklin in 1975 – it was first cut by Sandra Wright a year earlier –, You’ve Been Doing Wrong So Long for Thelma Houston in 1974 and It’s Just a Matter of Time for the Temptations in 1975, on their House Party LP. Some of his other Motown released songs include Let’s Share, A Night Like This in Georgia and If You’re Ever Gonna Love Me for G.C. Cameron in 1974 and Color My World Blue for the Supremes in 1975.

KEEP ON GETTIN’ DOWN

  “My next own record didn’t come out until I went to Los Angeles to be a staff writer for Motown. I had an agreement with them as a songwriter that any song they didn’t want I was free to take to anybody else that I wanted to. They made the first choice. There were a lot of songs they didn’t want. That was fine with me. One of the disco songs they didn’t want was Keep On Gettin’ Down, so I got with a company on the side.”

Released in 1978 on the M M-M Gold label – Mahogany Multi-Media Inc. – out of Hollywood, California, Keep on Gettin’ Down (MG 500) is a quick-tempo disco dancer. Horns were arranged by Mel Moore, and the company director, James Brazel, is the executive producer. The artist on this single is called Le Frank ‘O. “I write on a lot of AKA names. I decided that I’m going to use Frank-O as a stage performer. I’ve written at least under El Frank-O, Perry Jordan and Frank El Johnson. I’m all of them, with the same security number” (laughing).

SONGS FOR JOHNNIE TAYLOR

   “Jimmy Hughes came by my house and said ‘would you like to go to Memphis to Stax Records with me?’ I said ‘sure.’ I had earlier that week written that song We’re Getting Careless with Our Love. I wanted to get that song to Johnnie Taylor. How that song came about? I and my wife were at a juke joint and I heard a guy talking to a girl ‘we’re getting reckless with our love affair.’ I took my pencil and note pad out and I wrote that down. I couldn’t wait getting back home and start writing, but I couldn’t tell my wife. I just let her have good time. She wore herself out. At home I started writing and noticed that reckless doesn’t sound right, so I changed reckless to careless.”

  “I didn’t know Don Davis at the time and I didn’t know Tim Whitsett, who was the publisher at Stax Records. Jimmy introduced me to Tim. I played the song with my guitar to him and at the same time Don Davis knocked on the door, came in and said ‘I’d like to cut it on Johnnie Taylor I’m in the studio A right now.’ I thought ‘please God, don’t make this man like the song.’ After a while Tim said ‘I don’t like your song’, and I said ‘thank you’ and took it over to Don.” On Billboard’s charts Johnnie Taylor’s We’re Getting Careless with Our Love hit #5 soul and #34 pop in early 1974.

  “A couple of years later I was staying at Don Davis’ house. He says to me ‘I’ve got a song for Johnnie Taylor that could be really good.’ He had a bass line already recorded down and a drum beat and he had the melody for the hook. He said ‘I’m going to bed, but do you think you could write that while you’re still up?’ I said ‘that doesn’t sound hard to write at all.’ When Don got up the next morning, I was still up writing. ‘Did you write the song?’ ‘No, I tried several versions but I can’t picture Johnnie Taylor singing that song. I can’t get the feel of it.’ Later Johnnie told me even himself ‘man, I didn’t like that song at all, and I still don’t like it, but I like the money it has brought me’” (laughing). The song in question was Disco Lady, written by Harvey Scales, Albert Vance and Don Davis. In the recording history it was the first-ever platinum single in 1976.

  “I did write for Johnnie Running Out of Lies (1976), which I wrote aka Perry Jordan and another song, It Don’t Hurt Me Like It Used To (1977). It’s not the same song I did with James Bennett on Traction Records.” Still ten years later on Malaco, Johnnie recorded Frank’s beautiful ballad called Lately, and still later another ballad, If You’re Looking for a Fool. Add to the list still the stomping L.O.V.E.

FRANK WILSON WAS CUT OFF

  Actually there’s still more, as Frank wrote and produced for Johnnie Taylor a fascinating slow song called I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone, which was released on a 1979 Columbia album called She’s Killing Me. “They gave me 80 000 dollars to do four sides and Frank Wilson was supposed to do six. It took him too long, and - because my stuff sounded so good – he panicked, went back and recorded six new songs, but that slowed the release date down, so they brought in Don Davis and Brad Shapiro, Millie Jackson’s producer. They put my three songs in the can. One of them is called We All Love That Funky Music. My 12-year-old daughter, Barbara, came up with the title.” On the She’s Killing Me album there were only seven tracks – Brad has four, Don has two and Frank Johnson one -, which means that all those Frank Wilson tracks were dropped.

  “I did the four songs over at the Wishbone recording studio. Columbia paid for the studio costs, when we did the rhythm track. Then I flew to Dallas, Texas, where Johnnie was at. Aris Wheaton did the horns and strings arrangements and mixing and mastering at his studio. While I was there, Johnnie and his lawyer offered me 150 000 dollars for the publishing and the production rights of the four songs. I told them ‘no, it’s gonna be a hit’, and I turned the 150 000 dollars down. I should have taken it, because this particular album didn’t do that well (on Billboard #53 soul, no pop show). Soon after that Johnnie lost his deal with the Columbia Records. Instead of 14% they offered him 12%. Don Davis had a fit, because Don had gotten the deal with Columbia in the first place, but he should have settled for 12 %, which was good.” Before switching over to Beverly Glen and Malaco, Johnnie’s last Columbia album in 1980 was titled A New Day (#75 – soul LPs).

THE MALACO YEARS

  “Harrison Calloway was the arranger for the Muscle Shoals Horns and arranger of all of my songs, when I was in Muscle Shoals. He was from Chattanooga and he was about ten years older than I was. We became very good friends. When I came back to Muscle Shoals in Florence, Alabama, he told me about Malaco, and I’ve never heard about Malaco. He said ‘why don’t you come down, because we just did a hit with Z.Z. Hill.’ I said ‘oh, I and Jimmy Lewis wrote a song for Z.Z. Hill, when he was with Columbia Records, Love Is So Good When You’re Stealing It (1977). On Malaco I wrote four songs on Z.Z.’s The Rhythm & The Blues album” (1982). Frank co-wrote What Am I Gonna Tell Her, That Fire Is Hot, Outside Thang and You’re Gonna Be a Woman. Z.Z.’s Down Home album hit #17 soul and #209 pop on the Billboard charts in early 1982.

  “I wrote 45 songs at Malaco, and I believe all of them got released.” Z.Z. recorded also the rocking Blind Side (’83) and a touching deep ballad named Please Don’t Let Our Good Thing End (’86). Other Malaco artists, who benefitted from Frank’s song-writing included Denise LaSalle (Love Talkin’, Treat Your Man like a Baby), Latimore (We Don’t Make Love Anymore), Little Milton (Come Back Kind of Loving, Nobody’s Sleeping in My Bed) and Bobby Bland (There Ain’t No Turning Back).

  Frank, however, didn’t have a record released on himself on Malaco. “I just really wanted to write. I was earlier asked to record for Motown, but I also wanted to be just a writer for them.” The head of Malaco Records those days, Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson, recalls: “Frank-O wrote for us for a while, and then he went for greener pastures, I guess. He did real good demos. He was just kind of hard to pin down. He did great job on all the demos he did, but I just could never tell, if he’s going to be there the next week or not. We just never got around try to cut a record on him. He wrote good songs for us.”

  Some of the other artists that recorded Frank’s songs in the 70s include Bobby Womack with You’re Messing up a Good Thing in 1974 – originally cut by John Edwards a year earlier -, Ray Charles with Love Me or Set Me Free in ’79 and the Manhattans with If You’re Ever Gonna Love Me in 1976.   


FLASHBACKS

  Frank: “When I left Malaco in ’86, I went to James Bennett in ’87, because he thought that I was a great record artist and songwriter and asked me to come over and do some work with him, and I said ‘yes.’ I did three LPs with James Bennett.”

  In Jackson, Mississippi, James Bennett operated a number of labels, such as Traction, MT, Retta’s, BT, J & B, LaJam and Big Thigh, and soul music fans especially appreciate his work with McKinley Mitchell and Geater Davis. Besides Frank-O, some of the other artists on the Traction label included Chuck Roberson, Charles Wilson, Quinn Golden and Little Johnny Taylor. “I went to Jackson to stay for 14 minutes and stayed for 14 years” (laughing).

  Frank-O’s debut album called Flashbacks was released on Traction in 1987. Produced by James Bennett, the LP was recorded and mixed at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. William Brown III was the engineer. “That’s where James Bennett wanted to record.” All ten songs are credited to Frank, and the publishing company, Cottonville Music, belongs to James.

  The first single off the album was an enjoyable, swaying soul ballad titled It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To, backed with another smooth high-quality ballad, One Step from the Blues. Actually, on this album there are a lot of beautiful and soulful ballads: Don’t Lie to Me, the country-tinged Me and My Heart and the poignant Ain’t No Easy Way to Say Goodbye. “I wrote that song for Bobby Bland, and he told me later ‘you beat me singing that one.’”

  You Ain’t My Daddy and It’s too Late are nice toe-tappers, while the mid-tempo title tune, Flashbacks, first appeared on Ted Taylor’s album titled Keepin’ My Head Above Water in 1978. “Ted was a very quiet person, very friendly, very knowledgeable about the business. He was a loner. He always travelled by himself. I said ‘you need to get somebody to drive with you.’ He had that accident. He ran up under the truck. I guess he fell asleep at the wheel. He also came to Jackson, Mississippi, and before he died we did a show together with Artie Blues Boy White and J.T. Watkins.” Flashbacks is a splendid debut album, and it’s a pity that due to limited resources it didn’t get the promotion and exposure it deserved.

PICK UP THE PIECES

  His follow-up a year later called Pick Up the Pieces was an even better album. Each track is a winner. There’s not a single dud among them. The title tune and the first single, Pick Up the Pieces, is not the same song that Johnnie Taylor recorded for his Eargasm album in 1976, although this moving ballad has a strong Johnnie Taylor feel to it. The two mid-tempo songs are She Just Came to Dance and You Can’t Run Away from Love, which has a hefty Tyrone Davis impact on it.

  Otherwise this is like a big parade of soulful ballads – wistful, swaying and laid-back: I Lost It All, Hell Becomes Heaven, Reaching Out for You, Starting All Over, Daylight and the romantic and country-tinged Touch Me.

  Among background singers there are William Brown III, Bertram Brown, Ann Hines and Ricky White. We remember Ann not only as a solo vocalist – her CD, Man Hunt, was released in 1993 – but also a close working partner with J. Blackfoot and a member of the latter-day Soul Children. As to Ricky White, he released a single on Traction in 1989 named Can I Love You, and after that he has recorded for Brimstone and CDS. However, getting back to Franko, if there’s any justice in the record world, his two albums – Flashbacks and Pick Up the Pieces – should be re-released with a big fanfare.


JEALOUS

  The third Traction album named Jealous was released in 1990, but now they didn’t go to the Ardent Studios but instead to Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studio, located in Memphis as well. “I met all these people through James Bennett. I hadn’t met ‘Pops’ Mitchell, William Brown, the engineer, Lester Snell, the piano player or any of the other musicians until James took me up there.”

  On the sleeve of this album it says “the greatest sounding music that the ear can possibly hear.” There’s one new and interesting name among the background singers, Quinn Golden. “He came to my house a couple of times. He was a real nice guy. Before he died, he had a real nice record out. Quinn didn’t get along with James Bennett at all, so they had to part ways.” Quinn had just released two great singles on Traction, a ballad titled If You Love Me and a dancer called I Can’t Live Without You, and in 1990 Traction released an album on him named I’m Serious About Your Love. After that he had numerous CDs on Ecko Records, but died unexpectedly from a heart attack in July 2003 at the age of only 48.

  On his third Traction album Frank’s sound is grittier, more uptempo. There are catchy dancers like Some People Don’t Know When to Go Home and Turn the Lights On, which bears a strong resemblance to Johnnie Taylor’s Disco Lady. I Can’t Stop Loving You is a mid-tempo number along with Whole Lotta Livin and She Just Came to Dance, which is a re-recording of the opening track on the preceding album.

  This time there are only three slow songs – the melodic Tip of My Tongue, the subtle Bring Your Lovin’ Back Home and the single release, Jealous, which Ricky White wrote. This brings Frank’s Traction era to an end, but we still have seven more albums to go and a lot more interesting things to reckon with during the next three plus decades.

DISCOGRAPHY

SINGLES:

Frank Johnson

Dee Vee Records 9704) Weaker Than Water / 9705) You Gave Love To A Dying Man (~1969)

Hit And Run, HR 1512) Love Slave / Hurt All Over (UK only in 2011, orig. 1972)

Le Frank ‘O

M M-M Gold, MG-500) Keep On Gettin’ Down (1978)

Frank-O

Traction 006) It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To / One Step From The Blues (1987)

Traction 009) Pick Up The Pieces / instr. (1988)

Traction 011) Jealous / Daylight (1989)

Traction 016) I Don’t Mind Making A Fool Out Of Me (1991)

ALBUMS:

FLASHBACKS (Traction, T-0002) 1987 (as Frank-O)

Everybody Somebody’s Fool / One Step From The Blues / You Ain’t My Daddy / We Got A Good Thang Going On / Ain’t No Easy Way To Say Goodbye // Don’t Lie To Me / Me And My Heart / It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To / Flashbacks / It’s Too Late

PICK UP THE PIECES (Traction, T LP-0004) 1988 (as Franko)

She Just Came To Dance / Pick Up The Pieces / You Can’t Run Away From Love / I Lost It All / Starting All Over // Daylight / Hell Becomes Heaven / Reaching Out For You / Touch Me / Cheaters Never Win

JEALOUS (Traction, T LP 0006) 1990 (as Frank-O)

Turn The Lights On / Don’t Let It Go To Your Head / Tip Of My Tongue / I Can’t Stop Loving You // She Just Came To Dance / Bring Your Lovin’ Back Home / Some People Don’t Know When To Go Home / Whole Lotta Livin / Jealous

(Interviews conducted on December 16 in 2021 and March 6 in 2022; acknowledgements to Frank-O, Wolf Stephenson and Peter Nickols).

© Heikki Suosalo


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