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From Soul Express 4/1998


Our newcomer of the issue, Frank Mendenhall, is also a man with many faces. His voice somewhat reminds you of Al Green, at times the phrasing is close to Roshell Anderson and on certain tracks he sounds remarkably like Tommy Tate. He is residing in Washington D.C., loves to make people boogie with his uptempo dancers, tries to squeeze his old love, reggae, into his repertoire, but his roots are firmly in the south and musically in blues.

Frank was born in Camden, Alabama, on March 14, 1948. "When I was twelve years old, my brother brought a guitar back home, and that's what started me playing. Those days I listened to people like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Lightning Slim, Lightning Hopkins - all of these blues guys. We didn't have a radio station in our home, because the town was so small. Late at night they used to have a radio station that came out of Tennessee and we could pick it up at night. Then we would order those big 78 records and listen with a monographic machine with a battery pack. We didn't have electricity either.

By the time I got to be fifteen years old, I ran away from home. In Front Royal, Virginia, I came to an apple picking migration. I picked apples for about three months, then came to Washington D.C. and saw all these musicians. I thought I could play back home, even though I had no training at home, because my mother wouldn't let me go to clubs. I actually went home one night after going to a club and she broke the guitar, when I got home. In Washington I told myself 'you can't play'. Then I started going to clubs, and the musicians saw that I was trying to watch them play the guitar. They started showing me one chord a night. By 1968 I was really into it, and then I left and went to New York, where I got lots of opportunities, because I was in clubs all the time. I didn't do anything but music."

Among the many artists Frank worked with there was one particular group that was formed already in the mid-60s (as the Tip-Toppers) and that toured England as "The Original Drifters" and that had some small hits in the early 70s on Silver Blue (They Say The Girl's Crazy). "I played with the Invitations. They worked a lot in Europe. Actually the Invitations have a new CD coming out. They live in Manhattan, New York. I also worked with a group called Blue Magic. They are still working. Then I worked with the Isley Brothers and Chubby Checker. Later, about four years ago, I worked with Wilson Pickett, and most recently I just came off a tour in Alabama, Georgia etc. with Tyrone Davis and Betty Wright."

In New York Frank strolled around the club scene for almost ten years. "Approximately in '77 I ended up getting a daughter, so I kinda dropped out of music for awhile, for about four years." In the 80s Frank did much writing and also worked a lot around Washington D.C. again. "I also did volunteer work teaching music to kids. I taught younger grades of music in Virginia. When I came up they didn't have a rhythm section in schools. All they had was just horn players. So a person like me, who wanted to play guitar, we couldn't even do that. I tell you something that happened to me earlier, like in 1963. I wanted to get into a band, but they wouldn't let me get in, so I broke into the school and stole all these wind instruments, all of these saxophones, trumpets and everything, because I needed to get into the band. Then I used to sit in front of my yard every day in Mobile, Alabama, and play these things - like Junior Walker & The All Stars - and that's what motivated me, people came by and dropped money on me. Police came by there one day and asked 'where did you get all this stuff' and I told him I went over to the school, broke in and got it. I actually told him the truth."

Frank's first recording experience came through working with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, but his first solo set came out only in '95, after he had begun toying with reggae music. On his debut Babalon Trail and Rumble In The Jungle are two reggae songs that are squeezed in to otherwise soul sounds. "That was the only way that I got to say what I wanted to say. I wanted to make sure to put them on the CD, since I didn't then have enough money to come back again. On the other hand I knew that reggae wasn't gonna sell down south, so I had to put the blues on it. There's more message in reggae music than in blues. In a love song it says 'I love you, I love you', in a blues song 'some woman did me wrong and I can't do without her', and you got a song. When you get to the reggae there's a true message. The lyrics have to be real tight"

Frank's first CD was called Time. The title track, a mid-tempo floater with a heavy beat, reminds a lot of what Al Green used to do. "I've heard that, but he wasn't one of my favourite singers. My favourite singer was Otis Redding and my next favourite singer after him was David Ruffin. Al Green is ok, but he doesn't have enough soul like them guys. By the way, Time was written maybe ten or twelve years before its release."

The set was produced by Frank and Harlan Jones. "He's a keyboard player. He owns a music studio named Sewell (in Washington D.C.), and he does a lot of voluntary work for the community, so all the little young kids, like I was, don't have to break into places. They can come in over to his place and play free."

Time was released on Wurst Act Records out of Washington D.C. "It is my own label. I have two other partners that are associated with Wurst Act, Richard Foster - he's my best friend - and Marvin Pollard. I have two other artists that are coming on the label now. One is Toni (Mendenhall). She's twenty years old and she's my niece, out of Youngstown, Ohio. Then I have another lady that's been singing around. Her name is Gloria Brown. I myself want to do some reggae on the label also. So in the present time we are in the studio working on those three different albums."

The name 'Wurst Act' isn't one of the most common ones. "Howard Theater in Washington D.C. - back in the old days that was the place, where all the big stars came. Once we were there in the back rehearsing some of the last lines of our song. I said to the musicians - the guitar player, the drummer etc. - 'if we don't get this together, we're gonna be the worst act on the show'. At the same time the dj had just asked me the question 'what is the name of the group' and I didn't hear it, so he thought I had answered 'the worst act'."

The title tune, Time, is followed by Shont Dont Dont, a catchy lilter with a beat a little like Clarence Carter's Slip Away. "Clarence is also from Alabama, not that I wanted to copy him. I wanted a song with a dance groove, a party groove, and the part when you come to 'shont dont dont' I just couldn't come up with words to put in those spots. Now women took it for me to be saying something sexually, so rather than disappoint them, I let them say whatever they wanted to, but I actually ran out of words."

Love Slips Away is a beat ballad and a duet with Krystan Kryst Alexander. "She's a very beautiful girl, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She's worked with numerous people before, George Duke and all of those guys."

Love You So Much is a soft and sunny floater, preceded by a straight blues track called Sad Song Blues. "Love You So Much was the song that we thought would go, but they played Sad Song Blues out there."

After one beat ballad, So In Love, and a catchy dancer, Get Up It's Time To Party, the set closes with a fascinating and fateful troubadour song, The Messenger. "That is my life history."

After Time we had to wait three years for Frank's new CD, Sweet Love, which only recently came out on Wurst Act. "It's because I had to spend so much time with the distribution of the first one. I really didn't know a lot of people at that time. I had more 'get up and go' that time." The over-one-hour set is produced, arranged and written by Frank, and he is backed by some real instruments, Wurst Act Band. "I have two guitars. Lead guitar player, Pye Williams, played with Wilson Pickett, the Isley Brothers, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge, all of those boys. Steve Walker, the drummer, used to play with Gil Scott-Heron. My bass player, Jerry Wilder, played with Chuck Brown. He's got his own club and he produces people also. The horn players, they've come out with the Delfonics and a lot of them worked with the James Brown boys, Fred Wesley and all those guys. The same guys that worked in the studio go on the road with me. And my background singers are the Jewels."

Sweet Love offers mainly infectious, pumping dancers or floating mid-pacers, but there are also a couple of slowies, such as a tender and beautiful love serenade called Learn To Give Love. "I'm the guy that likes uptempo, funky music. I like to get the people grooving. In all our shows people are really dancing. I want them to move. I just do a ballad in enough to catch my breath.

These CD's are selling in southern regions. The most powerful stronghold is Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, New Orleans, Mississippi, Tennessee, all of that area. But some of those new songs we're trying to carry over - like Never Let You Get Away (a love ballad) and Rub-A-Dub Style (a sharp, jazzy dancer) - we're trying to get them universal. And I still put a reggae song, Cut-Tail And Run (co-written by Richard Foster), in the end. I had to tighten up the lyrics. All the dj's have called me and said that the lyrics are now much, much nicer."

One mid-pacer, Trouble In Your Life, is a convincing statement and attractive in a gloomy way. "It's very close to my heart and very true. You can probably look at the song and see more soul in that in me than in all the other stuff."

Frank dedicates Sweet Love to Katrell Andrea Mendenhall. "That is my daughter. She's a fabulous fashion model. She was the model of the year last year at Ebony's fashion fair. She has been to all of the states in America, in Japan, in Africa, and I haven't even been to these places. So they know about her before I get there."

Now matter how popular he gets up north, Frank isn't about to forget his roots. "Next March I'll be gone to down south, to Camden, Alabama, where I was born. It's like about five thousand people in that district. They've got like three lights in that town, but they're all waiting for me."

-Heikki Suosalo

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