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Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

August 19, 1938 – January 15, 2018

Sleepless son of the sleepless fatherStory Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

My father listened to the radio in the middle of the night. If I woke I could hear the soft tones of some seemingly distant program or if the Yankees were playing on the west coast, the announcer’s play-by-play.

I loved listening to the radio in the middle of the night.  As a teenager I’d slowly dial the tuner to find music or whatever caught my ear. I still am a night-listener, though nowadays it’s mainly podcasts.

At some point years ago when dialing around I heard someone telling a story. A remarkable voice.  In that sleepy-middle-of-the-night zone, I was hooked, but confused in a few minutes.

This storyteller, this Voice, had taken a turn somewhere and led me down the proverbial rabbit hole.

There was no Google. No internet to quickly look up a station’s schedule (if I’d even known what the station was). I never found out whose voice. Every few years in the middle of the night as the dial turned I’d hear him again and know I was in for another strange trip if I was lucky enough to have fallen at the beginning of this venture.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Joe Frank?

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

When I saw a headline that Joe Frank had died, I thought Joe Frank? Joe Frank died years ago. Then I realized I was thinking of old time  TV and radio personality Joe Franklin from New York City.

So. Joe Frank?

Yes. Joe Frank. After decades of wonder, enthrallment, and confusion, I’d found the voice.

Dozens of individuals and groups have since sadly noted Franks’s passing with glowing articles, interviews, and podcasts . If you Google “Joe Frank” the first page alone lists links to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, NPR, WNYC, Slate Magazine, the Washington Post, Chicago Reader, and LA Observed.

WNYC’s Brooke Gladstone’s comments typify these unanimous plaudits: Joe Frank died Monday. He was 79. And he was a radio giant. He conducted interviews, read stories, wrote dramas, and none of it was like anything done before because it was so raw and, frankly, nuts. To many of us, it was shocking and sad. He wasn’t a huge star but his light has been reflected in the great work of people you do know

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Who do we know?

People like Harry Shearer who said on Twitter: The great radio artist of our time has passed away. You will never hear anybody smarter, darker, funnier than Joe Frank. RIP, my friend. Check him out at https://t.co/yIYHeWiQHN No better honor of his memory than you hearing his work.

People like Ira Glass of This American Life who heard Frank and realized that this type of storytelling, this type of production, was what Glass wanted to try do, too.

Jad Abumrad, co-host and founder of the very successful radio program and podcast, Radiolab cites how important Joe Frank was to his career path. Abumrad spoke of when he first began Radiolab he was over his head, but after the show, Joe Frank came on…

“…and he was part of my shift. And every time, I’d just be like, what the F- is this stuff? I, I would just be sitting there listening to him and just like amazed and like mentally taking notes, being, like, oh, this guy has a feel and a — there’s a surreal-ity and a disorienting-ness to his stuff that I was just really fascinated by, and I was like, oh, I want to, want to do that.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Dressed like a chicken

To simply quote a piece Joe Frank cannot do justice to the power of listening to a piece, but just to give you an idea of Frank’s absurd genius, here is a small example:

There was a time when I danced on a street corner dressed as a chicken. My job was to draw attention to a furniture store down the block. One evening, when my shift was over, still wearing my chicken outfit, I walked into a bar across the street. I’d ordered a Bombay martini straight up, olives on the side.

A prostitute sat down next to me. She was young, willowy, had a faraway look in her eyes. Her name was Meredith. We talked about our careers, the importance of networking, setting goals, focus.

Then I excused myself, walked into the men’s room, entered a stall and sat down on the toilet and had a bowel movement that broke in two.

And half of it was still hanging out of me, so I had to wipe myself 50 times, repeatedly checking to see if there was more left on the toilet paper.

And written on the wall were the words, “Know that someone is suffering anonymously and unknown and that by the time you read this, I’ll be dead.”

Disgusting? Sure. Troubling? Yup. Intriguing? Absolutely. Keep listening? Hard not to. Where  was it going? How would it end?

Jad Abumrad spoke with Ira Glass on a Radiolab podcast tribute to Frank and both spoke enthusiastically, glowingly, and humorously about Frank’s influence on them. And if you have never heard Ira Glass drop a few F-bombs and you’d like to, follow that link!

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

A lifetime of illnesses

Joe Frank died of colon cancer complications, but health issues had filled his life from birth.

He was born Joseph Langermann on August 19, 1938, in Strasbourg, France, His parents and he escaped the Nazi pogrom in 1939 by fleeing to New York City.

Frank had club feet. His father died when he was five on a day of a procedure aimed at correcting that condition. His mother told him that his father had gone on a business trip.

One of his testicles never descended and when he was 20 he got cancer in his one testicle. Radiation saved him.

He had bladder cancer. He got colon cancer. He had scoliosis.

He had kidney failure and a first cousin donated their kidney to save Franks’s life, but later charged Frank for the kidney.

His colon cancer came back.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

The road to radio

Away from doctors and treatments, Joe Frank attended Hofstra University (NY)–he said he’d cheated on his entrance exam. After earning a degree in English.

He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but didn’t finish the program.

He taught for 10 years at Dalton, an exclusive private school in NYC hoping to be a writing, but teaching was too time-consuming.

For two years, still living in NYC, he formed a company to produce musical acts at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts.

On the drives between NYC and Massachusetts he listened to the radio, particularly liking baseball games, not so much for the way the announcers called the play-by-play, but the way the announcers told side stories. Radio became his passion.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

WBAI to NPR

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

In 1975, he began to work at the Pacifica station WBAI in NYC. According to Frank in an LA Weekly article,  “in 1976 I was given my own show [ “In the Dark.”] from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., every Tuesday. I figured nobody was listening at that hour so I felt free to do whatever I wanted, and that was the beginning of the idea of telling stories on the radio. The show was well-received…”

In 1978, he moved to National Public Radio in Washington, DC and its “All Things Considered,” but that did not work out. He continued to work sporadically for NPR as an independent producer.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

KCRW

In 1986, he and KCRW (Bakersfield, CA) found a partnership. His first series, Work in Progress, was followed by In the Dark, which morphed into Somewhere Out There, and finally The Other Side.

That relationship lasted until 2002 when a disagreement with Ruth Seymour, KCRW’s general manager, led to his firing.

By then the internet had arrived and Frank expanded his web page and his live performances.

He did return to KCRW before leaving again in due to recurring poor health.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Outside radio

Joe Frank was also a writer.  His site lists his published works:

Theatre Publications:

  • “The Decline Of Spengler” (New Directions 48, New York)
  • “A Tour Of The City” (Tanam Press, New York)

Three of Frank’s radio plays were produced for theatre:

  • “A Tour of the City” by Theatre Anima in Montreal, Canada, translated into French, which included performers from Cirque du Soleil.
  • “Rent-a-Family” by Stages Trilingual Theatre in Los Angeles.
  • “Jerry’s World Onstage” by Infernal Bridegroom Productions, Houston, Texas.

There are films he is associated with:

Short films based on Joe Frank’s programs:
“Hitchhiker,”
“Jilted Lover,”
“The Perfect Woman,”
“Memories,” 
directed by Paul Rachman

Coma and Eleanor
directed by Todd Downing

Magda and Dirt 
directed by Chel White

Finally, the industry recognized his talent with many awards.

  • George Foster Peabody Award “For creating radio of style, substance and imagination…”
  • Two Major Armstrong Awards For the “Most Innovative Radio Drama.”
  • Two Gold Awards from the International Radio Festival of New York for outstanding radio drama.
  • Two Corporation for Public Broadcasting Radio Program Awards for best Broadcast Performance.
  • A Broadcast Media Award from San Francisco University.
  • An Emmy Award for “Joe Frank: Storyteller” featured on public television station KCET.
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from Third Coast International Audio Festival. Listen to Joe’s acceptance speech (Stream | Download)
  • Mr. Frank is also a Guggenheim Fellow.

Joe Frank was also the author of “The Queen of Puerto Rico and Other Stories,” a collection of short stories based on his radio work published in 1993 by William Morrow.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Frank was 79 when he died on January 15 in Beverly Hills, California.  

“I’ve heard people say they’re not afraid of death but I never believe them — I don’t even believe religious people aren’t afraid of death,” he adds. “When a pope dies, people grieve. If they believed what they claim to believe, they would be celebrating the fact that the pope has gone to heaven. And the pope doesn’t want to die, either.”
Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

I wish I knew your name sooner, Joe Frank, but you will always be in my ears.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank
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Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man

Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man

Remembering Bruce with great fondness and appreciation
11 May 1938 – 14 April 2017

Bruce Langhorne Mr Tambourine Man

    Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man

Mr Tambourine Man

I first became familiar with Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man” when the Byrds sang it in 1965. Nothing wrong with that or their classic recording of it.

Dylan wrote the song early in 1964. Like most of life, even for the famous, there were no amanuensis following Dylan’s every move and recording for posterity what happened, why, and when. Some say he finished writing “Mr Tambourine Man” at their house; others say “No, it was mine.”

Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man

Horseshoes and hand grenades

And who was this Mr Tambourine Man? However trivial, it is of interest because Bruce Langhorne was much more than a tambourine player. His All music credit list reads like a Who’s Who of Greenwich Village’s Golden Age of Music: The Clancy Brothers, Dylan, Richard and Mimi Farina, Odetta, Joan Baez, Buffy St Marie, Richie Havens, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Hugh Masekela, Tom Rush, Tommy Flanders, Eric Andersen, John Sebastian, David Ackles, Mike Bloomfield, Gordon Lightfoot, and a “few” others!

I first heard the name Bruce Langhorne in 1969 while listening to my college radio station. The song was Tom Rush’s “Urge for Going” and the DJ pointed out the rapid triplets of notes heard throughout the song. He said the guy who did that was Bruce Langhorne. Click the link below to hear those distinctive triplets.

Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man

Mr Tambourine Man


Despite Bruce Langhorne’s prodigious talent and lengthy credentials, he never became a household name. Perhaps with the recent revelations regarding the Wrecking Crew and Muscle Shoals’ Swampers, someone will highlight those players, who like Langhorne provided so much of the music we love.

His website reveals three recommendations that any CV would die to have:

 “If you had Bruce playing with you, that’s all you would need to do just about anything.” Bob Dylan [“Chronicles”]

If he were to walk in right now and you didn’t see Bruce, you would feel his presence. He just emanates love and kindness, in addition to being a virtuoso on like 50 string instruments.” Peter Fonda

Just occasionally you come across these geniuses. Bruce Langhorne was one; he responds instinctually to the visual image. Bruce has done some of the most beautiful scoring I have ever been involved with, or ever known.” Jonathan Demme

    Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man

Brother Bru-Bru Hot sauce

And all this string virtuosity for someone who, “When Bruce Langhorne was a 12-year old violin prodigy living in Harlem in the fifties, he accidentally blew several of his fingers off with a cherry bomb that he held onto for too long. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Bruce looked up at his distraught mom and said, ‘At least I don’t have to play violin anymore.’ “

For health reasons, Bruce had to figure out a way to curtail his love for hot sauce or figure out a way of finding a low-sodium hot sauce. He did the latter by creating Brother Bru-Bru Hot Sauce. 

I’ve tried it. It’s pretty good! This is a “dot-info” site and I don’t sell anything nor do I receive anything to support it, so my mentioning Bruce’s product is simply that. I’ve tried it. I like it.  [Bru Bru site]

Having said that, I like Bruce’s triplets even more!

Bruce Langhorne Mr Tambourine Man

    Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man

Soundtracks

One of Langhorne’s most important projects was doing the soundtrack for Peter Fonda’s movie, The Hired Hand in 1971.Though The Brooklyn Rail  described the movie as “…an often frustratingly abstract film,” it also said that Langhorne’s soundtrack was a masterpiece and “a moment of clarity.”

In 2012, Dylan Golden Aycock’s Scissor Tail Records re-issued the soundtrack and now has gathered several musicians to interpret the soundtrack’s songs. 

In addition to The Hired Hand, Langhorne also did soundtracks for Idaho Transfer (1973), and Outlaw Blues (1977); Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry (1976); and Jonathan Demme’s Fighting Mad (1976), Melvin and Howard (1980), and Swing Shift (1984).

    Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man

Bruce’s death

The reason for the Aycock tribute was not just to raise Langhorne’s name onto the plinth it belongs on, but to raise money to assist Langhorne with medical bills related to his failing health.

Unfortunately, Langhorne died on April 14, 2017 at his home in Venice, Calif. He was 78. The New York Times noted his death in a well-deserved article.

With the continued loss of those musicians who were the foundation of Boomer “underground” music, it is a sad reality that we lost a hero. Fortunately, their music remains.

    Bruce Langhorne Tambourine Man
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Motown Mary Wells

Motown Mary Wells

May 13, 1943 — July 26, 1992

Motown Mary Wells

Beatles Go Viral

Using today’s language, in 1964 the Beatles had gone viral. They had blown up. Trending. Their singles and albums dominated the charts, but that didn’t mean that other great music couldn’t find its way to the top of the charts. That’s exactly what happened on May 16, 1964. “My Guy” by Mary Wells hit the Billboard #1 spot.

Motown Mary Wells

Spinal Meningitis

To say that it had not been an easy climb to the top for Mary Wells would describe almost any artist’s rise to fame, but it was literally true for Wells. As a child she contracted spinal meningitis. Afterwards she was partially paralyzed and lost some hearing and sight.

Her mother was a house cleaner and as a teenager Mary worked with her mother. Mary also sang in her church choir and as others before and since, that early training provided a path toward the music business.

Motown Mary Wells

Tamla Barry Gordy

Her plan was to write music and she approached Tamla Records’ Barry Gordy with a song. She hoped that Jackie Wilson, one of Gordy’s stars, would record it. Gordy asked Wells to sing the song to him and he decided that Wells was the one for the song and signed her to his new label: Motown.

Motown Mary Wells

 

Motown Mary Wells

Bye Bye Baby

It peaked at No 8 on the R&B chart in 1961. She began to work with the young Smokey Robinson and she had three consecutive hits with his  “The One Who Really Loves You” (1962), “You Beat Me to the Punch” (1962) and “Two Lovers” (1962).

Motown Mary Wells

My Guy

In 1964, Wells’ career reached its peak when her song, “My Guy” also written by Robinson, made it to No. 1. It became her signature song.

Unfortunately, Well’s relationship with Motown went poorly around this time. She felt that she wasn’t being fairly compensated for her music and that other Motown artists were benefiting from her profits.

Motown Mary Wells

20th Century Fox

Whatever the case, Wells left Motown and signed with  20th Century Fox. Her career never attained Motown successes. She left 20th century after only a year. Later she signed with Atco and Jubilee.  Though not as well know, All Music described her later work as “solid pop-soul on which her vocal talents remained undiminished.” 

Motown Mary Wells

Cancer of the larynx

Mary Wells contracted cancer of the larynx in 1990. And “Despite her health condition, Wells was always upbeat and courageous. She began taking long trips, including one to New York in which she was the focus of a “Joan Rivers Show.” Her tribute on the show included a warm and generous phone call from Little Richard and a loving video dedication from Stevie Wonder, who, in her honor, sang “My Guy” rewritten as “My Girl.”  [Official site]

According to her New York Times obituary“After the operation, Ms. Wells had chemotherapy. In June 1991, doctors found the cancer was spreading, and she began an experimental drug regimen. She resumed chemotherapy late in 1991.”

In debt and without insurance, she lost her home. Several prominent musicians helped raise money for her or provided funds outright.

Wells died on July 26, 1992 and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

Motown Mary Wells
photo by A.J. Marik

“My Guy” had remained #1 for two weeks. Who had the next #1? The Beatles, of course: “Love Me Do.”

Motown Mary Wells
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