“A few years ago we were playing the House of Blues in New Orleans (a perennial stop for us). I left after the sound check to hunt down some vegan food. When I returned just before showtime there was a large crowd lined up in front of the club. I had to cut through this line to get to the stage door. A young House of Blues employee was directing people and when a couple passed by and asked, ‘who's playing tonight?’ he replied, ‘I don't know. Some old jazz guy.’ And this is how I've referred to myself to Claudia ever since...”
– Michael Franks, from his website, www.michaelfranks.com
I first discovered Michael Franks in my teen years, back when our local radio station (WJZZ) used to play some of his then-current music. Songs like “One Bad Habit,” “Monkey See, Monkey Do,” and “The Lady Wants To Know” were regulars on the station. I first dipped my toes into the water around 1988 or so, when the Skin Dive was his current album. Back then, I had the impression that he was more of a “ladies man” type, as that’s what the lyrics in his popular songs, and the album covers, suggested to me.
Yet once I got past the “ladies man” shtick (basically, marketing courtesy of Warner/Reprise), there was a lot to discover. Skin Dive’s popular tunes on our local station (“Your Secret’s Safe with Me,” “Let Me Count The Ways,” and “When I Give My Love To You”) were finely crafted pop tunes with a bit of a jazz approach to them. Yet as I reached backward in the catalog, starting with his first two major label albums (The Art of Tea, and Sleeping Gypsy), the picture became complete. His roots in folk and jazz music came forth, and he would fold in other elements throughout his career. On his second album, Sleeping Gypsy, he would add Brazilian influences to the mix, including the centerpiece of the album (“Antonio”) that was his tribute to his friend Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Granted, there are always sly references to seduction in his songs, and often there would be a standout double entendre track on an album (“Baseball,” “Now That Your Joystick’s Broke,” etc.), but his songs in this vein were always approached as love songs. And lest we think that Michael is that ladies’ man, he has been married to his wife Claudia for many years. The song “Rainy Night in Tokyo” chronicles their wedding trip to Tokyo on the “Seventh of September.”
While he did enter an “electric” period with a few of his albums, he soon went back to the jazz-based formula that best fit his style. Despite the style he presented his albums in, his background as an English major made for some very clever lyrics with a lot of wordplay on top of genuine sentiment and passion for whatever topic he chose to sing about in any particular song.
2023 marks 50 years since Michael Franks recorded his first album. This series will take a look at some of those recordings over the years, including some highlights and a few lesser-known album tracks along the way.
We’ll start by going way back to when Michael Franks was Some Young Jazz Guy or more fittingly, a young composer and guitar/banjo player who had yet to get his big break. One of his earliest appearance on wax was on the 1973 album Sonny & Brownie, by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, composing three of the songs and also appearing on guitar and banjo. Here is “You Bring Out the Boogie in Me.”
Also in 1973, he recorded his self-titled debut album on the Brut label. While the Brut cologne company (who owned the label) may have made a splash, the record did not. It did have some early Michael Franks gems, like the album opener “Can’t Seem to Shake This Rock and Roll,” introducing listeners to his penchant for clever lyrics. The album would be reissued many years later under the title Previously Unreleased.
Once he was discovered by the A-list of recording studio talent, Tommy LiPuma produced his first major label album, The Art of Tea. No obscure backing here – Franks had the backing of musicians such as Joe Sample, David Sanborn, and many other well-known musicians to assist. On this album, his lyrical style would be established. One song that amuses me is “Eggplant,” which is one of those clever works of his that teeters on the edge of being naughty, leaving the interpretation up to the listener. Who knew there were 19 different ways to make eggplant?
Yet in addition to this song, “Monkey See, Monkey Do” and the hit single “Popsicle Toes” (which has been covered by many artists), there was a stellar track tacked onto the end of the album, “Mr. Blue,” a haunting love song.
With The Art of Tea being a success, he followed that up with the Sleeping Gypsy album on Warner Brothers. This album was in a similar quiet mood, but he withheld the double entendres and vague naughtiness this time around. The clever lyrics continue – “I hear from my ex/On the back of my checks” – but the centerpiece of the album is “Antonio’s Song (The Rainbow),” which honors his friendship with Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Aside from love songs and odes to the music he loves, Franks was also able to tackle topics other lyricists had never considered. “B’wana – He No Home” apparently tells the tale of a recluse and instructions to his servant. “I don’t care if you drive my 220, honey. Don’t let ’em steal my chrome. I don’t care if you spend all my money, honey. As long as you leave me alone.”
With his next album, Burchfield Nines, Franks had settled into a comfortable groove with his low-key jazz with unexpected lyrical twists. “When The Cookie Jar is Empty,” a person assumes, does not to refer to a shortage of Oreos.
That album’s title track came about in an interesting way. While attending a holiday party, Franks was drawn to a watercolor painting above the mantle featuring a large red number “9.” While viewing it, he free-associated words that eventually turned into the song that appears on the record. His fascination with art and artists manifested itself later in his career, as we’ll discover in an upcoming installment in this series.