Frank Johnson: “When I was still with Malaco, Johnny Vincent told me ‘you know, with your writing and singing ability and with my knowledge of the music business, we could make a lot of money.’ I kept that in mind. When I left James Bennett, I told Johnny ‘I’m no longer with Malaco anymore and not with Traction anymore.’ I talked him into starting up another record company. He said ‘I don’t have enough money. I have to get some investors, perhaps one car company that I know. If we do it, we’ll be 50/50 partners. You do the creative work, I do the administrating.’ With Johnny Vincent we started the Ace record company up. He didn’t keep his agreement with me about the fifty-fifty partnership, but he was such a nice guy that you can’t help but like him.”
After three splendid and soulful albums on Traction between 1987 and ‘90 – Flashbacks, Pick Up the Pieces and Jealous – Frank-O switched over to Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records. “On Traction I cut the albums not to be a star, but get promotion on songs that somebody else could cover so that I could make BMI money” (laughing).
Johnny Vincent had first founded his Ace Records in 1955, and practically Robert “The Duke” Tillman’s CD, Thinking of You... (Ace 2048) kicked off the third incarnation of the label in 1992. “I got to do the Robert Tillman album, and Johnny had big plans for him.” Besides producing and arranging, Frank wrote five songs for that set and sang background for Robert.
Produced by Frank, Xavier Parker and John Vincent, Frank-O’s first own CD on Ace Records titled Back Streets was released in July 1992. Out of the twelve songs, Frank wrote and co-wrote as many as nine. The soulful title ballad is also known as Back Street Love affair and under that name one year later it was recorded by Willie Clayton and Johnnie Taylor. Other strong and poignant soul ballads include Love Don’t Love Nobody, Love Stealing Ain’t worth Stealing and the melancholy Love Stealing Time Again, dealing mostly with cheating and other complex situations between humans. Typically to Frank, they all have strong melodies and are not only true to soul, but also very traditional and rootsy in their structure.
The first song they released as a single, however, wasn’t written by Frank but by George Jackson. Here’s what George told me about the song Strugglin Lady and his ensuing album titled Heart to Heart Collect soon after their release. George Jackson: ”I've always wanted to record an album, that's been my plan from a long time.” The album was produced by Senator Jones, recorded in March '91 and first released by Black Grape in England a year ago (Black Grape 100 in 1993) and finally released on Senator's Mighty Grove Records in the USA towards the end of '93. George: ”Senator was looking for some material for some artists he was recording and he wanted me to write songs for them. At that time he was recording Pat Brown and Cadillac George Harris. He wanted to hear how I'd sing them, and I was glad to do the demos, and he liked them so much that we went on to do masters on those. All the tunes are new ones. They've never been out before by any other artist.” After the recording session some covers have appeared – Little Milton on Struggling Lady and Cafe Woman and Lynn White on Back In The Streets Again – and George himself also had a single out on Senator's Hep' Me Records.
Senator Jones produced also Frank-O’s version of Strugglin Lady. Frank: “Senator used to come by my house all the time. He told me that he could really produce me. ‘It’s not good to produce yourself’, he said. ‘You have to have somebody else to produce you. I’m a good producer.’ He did two songs on me - Strugglin Lady and Good Morning Blues” (released on the Ace 5001 single). The A-side is a laid-back toe-tapper, while the flip, written by the chicagoian Bob Jones, is a blues romp. Those two songs appeared also on an Ace compilation CD titled America’s Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame (Ace 2050). On another compilation called Ace of Diamonds (Ace 2055) they released the slow Love Don’t Love Nobody and the uptempo (Don’t Let Me Be) The Last to Know.
Carson Whitsett wrote two songs, the mid-tempo Midnight Holiday and a sorrowful soul ballad called When a Fool Takes Its Turn, which Tommy Tate had magnificently interpreted three years earlier. “I like the way Tommy Tate did it. I like that song and I’m going to re-record that song.” All in all, Frank-O’s Back Streets is a high-class soul album and cut mostly with a live rhythm section and horns.
OJ I’M GUILTY
Frank’s second Ace CD titled OJ I’m Guilty was released in February 1996, which means that it hit the streets 3 ½ years after the first one. “I like writing songs and I didn’t care too much about that singing thing.” The title song is a tongue-in-cheek mid-pacer about “I’m guilty of loving two women.” Co-written by Frank and Xavier Parker, Xavier appears also as an arranger on this CD, alongside Harrison Calloway, Jr., Norman Williams and Hense Powell. “Xavier is known as ‘the X-Man.’” A recording artist in his own right too, Xavier’s own Ace album in 1997 was called Mr. 69.
The second track on the set is a duet with Lee Fields on a cover of Joe Tex’s ’65 hit, Hold What You’ve Got, renamed here Hold On. “I and Lee Fields were good friends. I said ‘why don’t we do a duet together’, and he asked what would be a good song. I said ‘I love that song that Joe Tex did.’ I like a lot of Joe Tex music. He was a very good performer too. So we went over to James Taylor’s studio and we recorded it.” Taylor Made Studios were located in Jackson, Mississippi. Lee Fields had as many as four CDs out on Johnny Vincent’s Ace and Avanti labels between 1992 and ‘98 – Enough Is Enough, Coming to Tear the Roof Down, Dreaming Big Time and It’s Hard to Go back after Loving You (Deep Soul December 2012 | Soul Express).
Together with his nephew, Demetrius Johnson, Frank wrote four songs on the set, and one of them is a country-tinged soul ballad called Talk Dirty to Me, which Frank produced a while later also for Sunny Ridell, using the same backing track. Another compelling slow song that the two co-wrote with Frank’s son, Frank N. Johnson, is called You Got to Know. “We wrote that in Jackson, Mississippi.” That same song appeared two years earlier on Ronnie Lovejoy’s hit CD on Ace, My Baby’s Cheating on Me, but for some reason there all the songs were credited to Ronnie only.
Another cover song is the ever-beautiful Nine Pound Steel, but in this case Joe Simon’s 1967 version of this Dan Penn’sand Wayne Thompson’s hauntingsong is unbeatable. Other A-1 soul ballads include Right Time to Cry, Let’s Make Love Tonight and Night Time Love & Daytime Pain. The two latter ones could easily derive from Johnnie Taylor’s repertoire, even to the degree that “Love & Pain” bears a strong resemblance to Johnnie’s Stop Doggin’ Me hit in 1972. “I did that deliberately. I made sure I couldn’t get sued. I put the same type of flavour but I changed chords and different things around, the structure of it. Those days at jukeboxes I used to play my three favourite songs: Johnnie Taylor’s Stop Doggin’ Me, Tommy Tate’s What Gives You the Right and Lou Rawls’ You’ll Never Find Another Love like Mine.”
Again, on this CD the background sound is quite full and again for a compilation titled The Gold Tapes from the Ace Vaults (Ace 2068) they picked from here two of Frank’s songs: Somebody Call My Wife and Nighttime Love, Daytime Pain. Already prior to that, for the festive season in 1995 Ace released a compilation titled Please Come Home for Christmas (Ace 2064) where Frank-O delivers Christmas Chased My Blues away.
FACES OF FRANK-O
After two albums on Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records, Frank switched over to the Phat Sound Records. “I’m the co-owner with Bob Devore. We formed the label in Jackson, Mississippi.” They are also the main writers on this debut set titled Faces of Frank-O, which was released in September 1998 and produced and arranged by Frank with a little help from Harrison Calloway, Jr., the guitarist Tyrone Armstrong and the drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin. Those who have attended the Porretta Soul Music Festival in Italy certainly remember D’Mar as the vivid drummer in Anthony Paule’s Soul Orchestra. Again some real instruments and background singers are featured on this set.
First Frank exposes his country face by kicking off with a beautiful song named It Hurts too Much to Talk about It, and soon after skipping one track he proceeds into Flying High, which – besides country – offers elements from pop and Caribbean music. Ghetto Cowboy is soooo country that it could even pass for a joke.
Derrick “D’Mar” Martin wrote a slow blues song titled Too Rich, and his other contribution here is a mid-tempo pop number called My Lady. Other “pop-face” tracks include a quick-tempo ditty named He Talks to Me about You and a melodic mid-tempo, Bruce Springsteen type of a song called Rock-N-Roll Ladies.
Frank puts on his soul face for two ballads, the re-recording of Love Stealing Time Again and the cream cut, the poignant Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love. The concluding track is gospel, a one-minute spoken sermon titled He’s Coming Back. Frankly, for me there were too many faces on this CD, too much diversity, but it featured three touching songs: It Hurts Too Much to Talk About It, Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love and Love Stealing Time Again.
LIVE.. IN ATLANTIC CITY
Although on the cover it says Live.. in Atlantic City, Frank says “that was recorded in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We had moved there, and that’s when I started my radio station and a distribution company to write articles for magazines.” This Live CD was released on Phat Sound in September 2000 and on stage Frank O is backed by live rhythm and horn sections.
On the sleeve it still says “hit singles – Whammy, Get Rid of Hoochie Mama and Little Bit of Loving”, which are all uptempo movers. “We didn’t put a lot of promotion behind that CD. Radio stations didn’t like Whammy because of the crowd effect, screaming and all the noise. It was too loud. We staged that. We should have made the background a little bit more quiet. We didn’t mix it right.”
Other uptempo numbers include the driving Can You Feel It, Uh! Uh! Uh! and the melodic Something to Comeback to, but such thrilling soul ballads as Let’s Make Love Tonight, Night Time Love and Tyrone Armstrong’s What Matter of Man are the show-stoppers. The highlight is a soulful duet with Gwen McCrae called Long Way Home. “I don’t know why we didn’t put that as a single out. I wish we had.”
“I found Gwen, when I was in Jackson, Mississippi. She called me and asked could she sign with my company. A lot of people called me during that time. I accepted her. She didn’t want to sign with Malaco and not with Johnny Vincent. She wanted to work with me. There were a lot of artists on my record label.” Indeed, besides Gwen – her Phat Sound album was titled Still Rock’in – also Joyce Lawson (Chapter III), Nadine (I’m on My Way), Benny C (Uncle Ben’s Country Soul) – he passed away in 2001 - Ernie Johnson (Squeeze It) and Barry Smith (Bock to da Soul) had releases on Frank’s label.
A CHEATING TOWN
Although there are fourteen songs on Frank’s 2002 CD titled This Must Be a Cheating Town, only four appear here for the first time. The rest ten goodies derive from his two Ace albums. “I did that, because I think there were good songs, but they just didn’t get heard enough. So I put them out again giving them a second chance.”
The title track is a mid-pacer with a heavily pounding beat. “Carl Marshall plays all those instruments. They are all real instruments, except for the
drums. Carl played the guitar, piano, the bass...” Love Maker is a softer mid-tempo number, while Anna Mae is a slow... and again with a heavy beat.
The closing song, Sad Day in America, is a “911” hymn, co-written by Raymond Moore. “It came out as a single. I put it out about four days after the event. It didn’t sell real good, and I don’t know why. It got a lot of airplay. I was the first one to get a copy of that out on the market.”
The press release says that this is Frank’s 12th album, although so far we’ve witnessed only eight. “The other albums that I did were for the Canadian producers, and they released them only in Canada. Unfortunately the company has gone out of business, and I don’t even have personal copies. They released The Best of Frank-O and three more.” Actually this Cheating Town CDis a sort of Greatest Hits compilation and comes highly recommended for the uninitiated.
A syndicated broadcast called “The Frank-O Smooth Soul Show” became a household program among soul music followers. “It started in 2000 and it went all the way till 2017.” The show played on over 70 radio stations to over seven million listeners. When asked, where he finds time for all these activities, Frank answered me in 2002: “It’s very difficult. As a matter of fact, on the live shows I raise my price so high, up to 20;000 dollars, so that way I don’t get many phone calls. I just kind of price myself out of the business. That gives me more time to work in the office.”
Among Frank’s many awards, he was inducted in Reflections in Black Museum Inc. in 2005. “I was present there in Cleveland, Ohio – I, Millie Jackson, Benny Latimore and T J Hooker-Taylor representing his father. That was the award show. People have told me that I’ve been just inducted, but I don’t find out about it until a week or two later” (laughing).
ONLY TIME WILL TELL
We had to wait for ten years to get some new recorded music from Frank. Now he appears on the CDS label, and you can read my review of the CD right after its release in 2012 below:
Frank-O is one of the unsung heroes of southern soul music... or soul music in general.; Not only has he written countless touching and memorable songs for over forty years by now, but his own albums on Traction, Ace and Phat Sound are highly esteemed among deep soul aficionados.
I must admit that I’d given up hope of hearing new music from Frank-O anymore, since his last CD was released already ten years ago, but – surprise, surprise! – all of a sudden he appears on CDS Records with a new album. Only Time Will Tell(CDC 5) is produced by Carl Marshall, arranged by Carl, Frank-O andHarrison Calloway band most of the songs are written by Frank-O andBob Devore.
Once more we have real live musicians playing on these sessions, but again on many tracks the sound is strangely thin.; I can’t help comparing these tracks to the rich sound on Frank-O’s earlier albums, and his songs usually require a fuller background, a more dramatic impact.; But that is the only drawback, and Frank’s melodies and song-structures are as fascinating as ever.
The opening ballad,Only Time Will Tell, is a really beautiful country-soul swayer, written by Frank and Carl.; Other strongly country-tinged songs are a melancholic ballad calledI’m Just Laying Hereand a poppy mid-pacer namedRuby Red Ring.; Another melodic and happy-go-lucky, poppy ditty isShe’s the Right Girl for Me, which even Sam Cooke might have written in his heyday.
In terms of deeper soul, Frank doesn’t let us down this time either.;Sexy Feeling, Leaving YouandH-u-r-tare all timeless quality ballads, and actually the last one slightly reminds me ofJohnnie Taylor’s ’72 recording of Stop Doggin’ Me. The last three songs form an inspirational closing to this CD – the slowHeavenly Father, the upliftingPraise the Lord (Victory)and a stepper calledBy His Stripes, whichJoe Simoncould have recorded. I really am delighted to be able to listen to new material from Frank-O.
A CD WITH DYLANN AT CDS
CDS was a very active southern soul label those days and it was run by Dylann DeAnna. Dylann: “I contacted Frank to license a couple songs for a couple different various artist compilations I wanted to release on my (now defunct) label, CDS Records. The tracks Let’s Do Some Love Talkin’ and Sexy Feeling also ended up on the full album Only Time Will Tell. He had completed a full album at least partly produced by Carl Marshall. Frank and Carl asked me to release it on my label. Carl and I are very close friends and business partners.”
Dylann was very pleased with Frank’s CD, and deservedly so. “Firstly, it was an honor to have released it. Frank is a fabulous songwriter and singer. I was a fan before I met him. I particularly loved the Gospel tracks By His Stripes and Heavenly Father. If fact sometime later he and I were in contact with Joe Simon to feature those tracks on a new Joe Simon album to be released by my label. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out. The CD sold as well as most of the titles I released. As you know by this point sales of recorded music had plummeted thanks to filesharing and piracy. The album deserved more love and exposure and I did my best. My experiences with Frank have always been pleasant. I have nothing but good things to say.” You can find Dylann’s CD
store today at https://www.soulbluesmusic.com/.
TOE-TAPPING AND SWINGING
There’s one more new and somewhat unexpected face of Frank, Frank-O Morellie. “The name came out of my head” (laughing). In 2014 Frank-O Morellie released an album titled Toe-taping Music, Swinging Standards (sic), which is just what it says. “This is big band music. I did Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin songs and four originals that I wrote. And I did it so well that you can’t tell, if they were just put out or had been available for a long time.”
The CD introduces Frank’s versions of such standards and easy listening songs as New York New York, I Only Have Eyes for You, What a Wonderful World and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, and he is backed by the Greg Swan Orchestra. On YouTube you can find a video of Morellie singing You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You and Just for the Fun of It, but there he’s singing to the tracks. “That was a fundraising show called Global Humanitarian Summit for Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King family, Desmond Tutu and other distinguished persons. My godson, Prince Ronnie Love, who’s over in the Philippines now, told me about this, so I contacted the people and came down there and they did a very nice video of it. Ronnie used to be with the Temptations. He was one of the replacement singers, when Ali Woodson was the lead vocalist.”
IF THAT AIN’T LOVE
Almost out of the blue last year on the Wishbone label they released Frank’s tender soul ballad called If That Ain’t Love. Singing in a high register, turns out that this Frank’s song derives from fifty years back. “Terry Woodford called me from Muscle Shoals and said that a record company from the U.K. wanted to release this record. Do you remember ‘if that ain’t love, what is it.’ I said ‘no, I don’t remember that.’ ‘Well, anyway you wrote it.’ He emailed it to me, ‘oh yeah, I remember that now.’ So Terry added more music to it and cut a deal. I don’t know if it did anything, I never got any money from it except the 75 dollars Terry sent me.”
Normally we would categorize Frank’s music under “southern soul”, but it’s not that self-evident. “Southern soul is not a new word. Young people today think that it’s new. I remember in the 70s, when Candi Staton did that song Young Hearts Run Free, she was named the Queen of Southern Soul back then. I remember when they tried to call Aretha Franklin southern soul and that southern part didn’t click, so they just went with soul. For some reason that word ‘southern’ turns people off in other parts of America. You should go with ‘soul and blues.’ That way it would be more presentable for all people. Senator Jones and Lenny Lewis reiterated that ‘southern soul’ idea. I talked to some directors of Billboard in New York and Los Angeles and no way did they want ‘southern soul’ as a genre of music. ‘Soul and blues’ would be a good genre. ‘Southern soul’ will never be embraced by the music industry. I guess ‘southern soul’ would be some kind of generic of contemporary R&B or something, like a third cousin.”
STILL GOING STRONG
“I would like my production company to write and produce other artists, like what Terry Woodford used to do. He had a production company. He would go to different labels and cut different artists. I’d like to go back to where I started with Terry Woodford, writing and producing for different companies.”
Currently Frank has many projects in progress. “I just wrote and released a single on Stephanie Pickett called Friends Don’t Make Good Lovers”(my interview with Stephanie right after her debut album in 2009: https://www.soulexpress.net/deep309.htm#stephaniepickett). “Recently I worked on a song called Strawberry House of Love by Distro Kid. I gave him half the writers, because he did the track. On “Lady Songbird”, Jinda Harris, I released Stepping Kind of Music, and for Layla Fox I wrote and produced Soul Mate. There’s also a song called Mirror Dancer that I produced for J. Fu out of Japan. Then there’s Isaac Lindsay out of Jackson, Mississippi. He used to be the Mighty Clouds of Joys’ manager. He owns a radio station, and he’s known for singing a lot. I produced his first original and it’s called Workout at Home.”
Unfortunately in the context of these articles we’re not able to publish any old Frank-O photos for a simple reason: “I got robbed about six years ago. I went on vacation and when I got back the whole house was cleaned. There wasn’t anything in the house but the floor. All my collections, my guitars, even the pictures on the wall – all my house was completely cleared out. All I had left was the clothes on my back and the bag with me. I talked to my neighbours, and one lady said that she had seen a U-Haul truck pull up there and she thought I was moving. It happened here in Columbia, Ohio.”
All Frank’s awards and commendations were also stolen, including his three Jackson Music Awards, Motown Lifetime Achievement Award (a plate) and inductions into the Alabama Hall of Fame and W.C. Handy’s Songwriters Museum Library (Hall of Fame). For almost 60 years Frank-O has entertained us both with his writing, and with his singing. Do yourself a favour, grab some of his records and enjoy his somewhat husky voice and soulful singing. My personal recommendations would include: Flashbacks, Pick up the Pieces, This Must Be a Cheating Town and Only Time Will Tell.
BACK STREETS (Ace 2049) 1992
Back Streets / Love Stealing Ain’t Worth Stealing / When A Fool Takes Its Turn / Love Don’t Love Nobody / World Apart / Love Stealing Time Again / Good Morning Blues / Strugglin Lady / The Last To Know / Everytime You Leave / Midnight Holiday / Same Thing It Took
OJ I’M GUILTY (Ace 2067) 1996
O.J. I’m Guilty / Hold On (& Lee Fields) / Talk Dirty To Me / Right Time To Cry / I Can’t Stand It / Call On Me / Somebody Called My Wife / Let’s Make Love Tonight / You Got To Know / Nine Pound Steel / I’ve Got Good Love / Night Time Love & Daytime Pain
FACES OF FRANK-O (Phat Sound 1001) 1998
It Hurts Too Much To Talk About It / He Talks To Me About You / Flying High / Too Rich / Rock-N-Roll Ladies / Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love / Ghetto Cowboy / My Lady / Love Stealing Time Again / He’s Coming Back
LIVE.. IN ATLANTIC CITY (Phat Sound 1077) 2000
Can You Feel It / Whammy / Let’s Make Love Tonight / Get Rid Of Hoochie Mama / Uh! Uh! Uh! / Something To Come Back To / Long Way Home (& Gwen McCrae) / Night Time Love / Little Bit Of Loving / What Matter Of Man / Encore (Whammy)
THIS MUST BE A CHEATING TOWN (Phat Sound 7272) 2002
This Must Be A Cheating Town / Love Maker / Anna Mae / Let’s Make Love Tonight / Midnight Holiday / Love Stealin’ Ain’t Worth / Same Thing It Took / Back Street Love Affair / Every Time You Leave / Love Don’t Love Nobody / Night Time Love / Talk Dirty To Me / This Must Be A Cheating Town (instr.) / Hold On (& Lee Fields) / Sad Day In America
ONLY TIME WILL TELL (CDS, CDC 5) 2012
Only Time Will Tell / Crazy About You / H-U-R-T / She’s The Right Girl For Me / Leaving You / Ruby Red Ring / I’m Just Laying Here / Let’s Do Some Love Talking / Sexy Feeling / By His Stripes / Praise The Lord (Victory) / Heavenly Father
TOE TAPING MUSIC, SWINGING STANDARDS (Phat Sound) 2014
L-O-V-E / New York-New York / I Only Have Eyes For You / Your Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You / What A Wonderful World / Rain Drops Keeping On My Head / However The Wind Blows / When My Ship Comes In / Just For The Fun Of It / Highway Jive (with many “sics”)
(Additional interviews conducted on March 15 and April 21 in 2022; acknowledgements to Dylann DeAnna).