Cult Classic: Bob Frank-Bob Frank.

In 2007, Jim Dickinson described Bob Frank as: “the best songwriter you never heard.” By then, he had known Bob Frank for forty-five years.

Jim Dickinson first met Bob Frank way back in the summer of 1963. Back then, he was part of a group of singers and songwriters hanging out in an old butcher’s shop in Crosstown Farmer’s Market. Bob was different from the rest of the group though.  Aged just nineteen, the Memphis born singer had graduated in 1962  and was already writing his own songs. They were different from much of the music around in ’63. 

Bob Frank drew inspiration from American history with heroes, anti-heroes and tragedies peppering his songs. His worldweary, lived-in voice brought the lyrics to life. He was a cross between a wizened sage and troubled troubadour. Given his undoubted talent, the future looked bright for Bob Frank. Sadly, it wasn’t. Nine years passed before he released his eponymous debut album Bob Frank. That was in the future.

When Jim Dickinson and Bob Frank first met, it was in a Memphis coffee shop, and they were both part of Memphis folk scene. He was nineteen year old native of Memphis who was born in 1944, and had graduated high school in 1962. Now he was devoting his life to music, folk music in particular.

Having met Jim Dickinson, Bob Frank came to regard him as a friend. He looked up to the talented  multi-instrumentalist, who back in 1963, was like a one-man band. Jim Dickinson  was also a natural and talented guitarist, who drew inspiration from the old blues players. The pair played together in coffee shops and house parties. Bob Frank would also write songs and this was how he made his living for a couple of years.

Over the next few years, Bob Frank and Jim Dickinson’s fortunes varied. During the sixties Bob Frank worked at Chips Moman American Studios. Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson recorded what has been described as the last great single released  by Sun Records, Cadillac Man.

Then by the late sixties, Bob Frank was a member of the Memphis’ based band The Dixie Flyers. They went on to work with some of the biggest names in music, and in the early seventies, was Atlantic Records’ house band. While Jim’ Dickinson’s career was going from strength to strength, Bob’s career had stalled.

While his old friend’s career was progressing nicely, Bob Frank had headed to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. During his time in Nashville, Bob made ends meet by writing songs. Essentially, he was a hired gun, tasked with writing commercially successfully popular country music. However, disaster struck when in his second year, he was kicked out of University for playing his guitar in his dormitory. The University authorities had given him an ultimatum, either stop playing guitar or leave. So Bob Frank picked up his guitar and left, heading home to Memphis in 1964. Then second time lucky, he graduated.

Having returned home, Bob Frank got a job for a couple of years. His luck changed, and he got into Southwestern University. After two years, he graduated in early 1966 and later  that year met an old friend.

That old friend was Jim Dickinson. Bob Frank was still playing in clubs. That was where he met his old friend  The pair caught up and Jim Dickinson asked Bob Frank to play a couple of songs. Having heard them, Jim Dickinson  told Bob Frank he was going to record him. Sadly, he lucked out. He was drafted in the summer of 1966. It would be another five years before he entered a recording studio.

Having been drafted in the summer of ’66 Bob Frank spent the next couple of years in Vietnam. He left the army in 1968. His luck hadn’t changed though. He returned to university in Memphis through the G.I. Bill. After a year Bob dropped out and headed to Nashville. Through an old friend Jerry Thompson, a journalist, Bob Frank got a job at Tree Publishing. History was repeating itself. 

Yet again, Bob Frank was a hired gun. He was a songwriter for hire, and  by day wrote throwaway country tracks. Having fought in Vietnam, now Bob Frank was a contract songwriter in Nashville.  Jim Dickinson joked: “he didn’t know which was worse.” There’s more than a grain of truth in that. And irony. After six months, Bob Frank hitchhiked to California.

Having followed the sun to California, Bob Frank spent six months there. He hung out with other musicians. They wrote songs, sang and played live. In some ways, this was a reaction to Bob’s structured life. He’d been at University, fought in Vietnam and worked in Nashville. Now he was being himself and finding himself. He also found his future wife Deirdre.

The trips to California became a regular occurrence. Bob spent six months in California and six months in Nashville. During one of these trips, he met Deirdre. They lived together, had children and got married. Over forty years later, they’re still together. This pattern of spending time in California and Nashville was interrupted in 1971.

Although Bob Frank was still a songwriter for hire, none of the songs he’d written were being picked up by record companies. This must have made his job something of a thankless task so he quit. Then he caught a break. Vanguard Records, who’d been a big company in the late-fifties and sixties, wanted to sign him.

Bob Frank’s songs were pitched to Atlanta based Lowery Publishing by Cletus Haegart. Gary Walker who worked for Lowery Publishing liked what he heard. So a deal was struck with Vanguard Records for an album. Twelve songs were chosen for what became Bob Frank. All of the songs were written by Bob Frank and he co-produced his eponymous debut album with Cletus Haegart. Recording took place in two studios.

The first recording sessions took place at Woodland Studios, Nashville in late 1971. Bob Frank played guitar, Charlie McCoy harmonica and Buddie Spicher fiddle. The next sessions took place at Vanguard Studios in New York. Russell George’s bass and Eric Weissberg’s guitar were over-dubbed. Both were veteran of Vanguard sessions, so knew what was necessary. Once the over-dubbed parts were laid down, Bob Frank was ready for release.

There was a problem though. Bob Frank wasn’t happy about a photograph on the album and a guitar double on one of the songs. The photograph on the album wasn’t even him  and instead featured someone who’d just walked out one of the houses on the cover. Rather than the photo, Bob Frank wanted Vanguard Records to use a picture a friend of his had drawn. The other problem was he didn’t like Eric’s double on Judas Iscariot. Vanguard said they wouldn’t release Bob Frank unless was he approved the album. He didn’t. Despite this, Vanguard went back on their word. Bob Frank was released.

At Bob Frank’s release party, he wasn’t happy. Rather than play songs from his album, he played a bunch of new songs. They reflected his new lifestyle. He was living an alternative lifestyle. His home was in the woods, where he lived with his wife, family and newly born baby. That Bob wasn’t playing his new songs, didn’t please the Vanguard people. When Maynard Solomon asked Bob to play songs from his new album, Bob suggested that they: ”  buy the f***ing album.” That was the last Bob heard from Vanguard. 

On its release Bob Frank wasn’t a commercial success. It sunk without trace. Despite this,  a small group of people realised that Bob Frank was a very special album. The problem was, it was released at the wrong time. Bob Frank was the wrong album at the wrong time. Despite this, it’s gained cult status. Original copies of Bob Frank now change hands for huge sums of money. No wonder.

Opening Bob Frank is Wino, where Bob’s worldweary, languid vocal is accompanied by his trusty guitar. Bob tells the story about a down and out, who lives of cheap wine he buys with quarters he’s bummed of working men. As Bob delivers his lyrics, they come to life. You imagine the scenes. The poverty, squalor and hopelessness of the situation seems very real. Wino lives in he bottle he’s crawled into, but can’t crawl back out of.

She Pawned Her Diamond For Some Gold is the story of a woman who pawned her wedding ring for some dope. Bob’s vocal is a mixture of admiration, bravado and guilt. Accompanying him is an arrangement straight out of Nashville. Just fiddles,  acoustic guitar and bass accompany Bob. There’s a twist in the tale though, as Bob sings: “just as my stash was running low.” 

Waitsburg sees Bob draw inspiration from the music Ian Tyson and a true story. The song sounds as if it was recorded in the fifties. Especially, when you listen to the America Bob describes. It’s fifties America, not seventies America. Bob seems out of step with the times. As the lyrics unfold, they’re like a tragicomedy, as he tells the story of a “relationship” that ends up going badly wrong.

Cold Canadian Pines is one of the most poignant songs on Bob Frank. His heartfelt vocal quivers, as the song takes on a country sound. He sings about a young man dodging the draft. You can picture him as his father: “puts a bible in my hand, and told me not to kill.” Despite that, his father can’t understand why his son doesn’t want to go to war. With just a wistful fiddle, guitars and harmonica, this a truly beautiful, poignant song. 

Judas Iscariot was probably the most controversial song on Bob Frank. Think about it, here’s a song about a soldier making a $30 bet with a guy called Judas that Jesus Christ is invincible. The song ends with Jesus hanging dead from a cross and Judas laying dead in a tree. In some Southern states, this would be enough to get the album banned. Having said that, Bob’s lyrics are cerebral and evocative. Whether by design or accident, he sounds like Bob Dylan on what’s another of the album’s highlights.

Before The Trash Truck Comes is a throwaway track. Bob remembers that when he write this song, he was just “clowning around.” That’s apparent. His lyrics are tinged with a dark humour, as sings about man dying on the ground looking for a quarter or two. That’s all he needs for his last meal.

Way Down In Mississippi sees Bob change direction. He plays this track like a blues. It’s maybe his homage to the blues greats he met in Memphis coffee shops. His lyrics are almost surreal, and tinged with humour. Especially, when he describes  teaching a woman to swim. He sings: “I took her down to the river, she sank all the way to bottom, I never saw that girl again.” After that, he proceeds to seduce her sister. Bob’s vocal is accompanied by a wailing blues harmonica, which is the perfect foil for Bob’s vocal.

Jones And Me is a song about two old friends meeting and talking about their hopes and dreams, then how life really turned out. Bob and his old friend and talk about things that you both wanted to do but never did. It’s a tale of broken dream, regrets and two friends who grew apart. Listen carefully to the melody, and it’s Loch Lomond.

Return to Skid Row Joe is a song Bob wrote after a heavy night. It’s based upon what happened. When he woke up the next day, he sat down and wrote the lyrics about a poet, songwriter and down-and-out. Bob’s lyrics are vivid and evocative. The character comes to life. His life unfolds and we hear what’s caused him to fall so far. This is a woman and a bottle. Then comes the sting in the tale. Skid Row sells some pills which must be taken with alcohol. The person he’s pouring his heart out to, reluctantly agrees and when they went home passed out. It’s only then  the listener realises Skid Row isn’t really a victim of circumstances. The result is a poignant track with a twist.

The Deer Hunter is a song about looking for love. It’s not a straightforward love song as Bob Frank doesn’t do songs like that. This is much more grownup. Full of symbolism, Bob’s voice is full of longing, as he yearns for love which has eluded him so far.

Memphis Jail closes Bob Frank. It’s the type of song everyone from early blues singers to Johnny Cash have written and sung. It’s all about getting drunk, stealing a car and ending up in a Memphis Jail. Weeping guitars and harmonica accompany Bob’s vocal, which is rueful and full of regret at his newfound plight. 

Looking back at Bob Frank with the benefit of hindsight, there’s several reasons why the album wasn’t a commercial success. The main reason was it’s the wrong album at the wrong time. By 1972, singers like Bob Frank had been usurped by men in matching suits singing about Backstabbers. Bob however, was a real artist though. Here was an artist who had everything. He was a singer, songwriter and musician who wrote the twelve songs on Bob Frank. Not only that, but Bob produced his debut album Bob Franks. The only problem was, that Bob Franks was an album that was released too late. Folk, country and blues music wasn’t as popular in ’72. That’s what Bob Frank contains. Then there was the fact that neither Bob nor Vanguard promoted the album.

This all stems to the launch party. At Bob Frank’s release party, Bob wasn’t happy. Rather than play songs from his album, he played a bunch of new songs. They reflected his new lifestyle. That Bob wasn’t playing his new songs, didn’t please the executives from Vanguard. When Maynard Solomon asked Bob Frank to play songs from his new album, he suggested that they:  ” buy the f***ing album.” That was the last Bob Frank heard from Vanguard and after that, the album sank without trace.

Since then, it’s become a cult classic and original copies of Bob Frank, now change hands for huge sums of money. It’s very much a collector’s piece where one of music’s best kept secrets made his musical debut. As Jim Dickinson described Bob Frank he’s: “the best songwriter you never heard” and that’s definitely the case. 

Cult Classic: Bob Frank-Bob Frank.

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