February 14th in Memphis Music History
Here’s a tribute to Valentine’s Day from the past. The story of Frankie and Albert (or Johnny) tells of love, betrayal and murder. That could be an entire music catalogue, but for the artists that recorded the story, it was all in just one song. The story has multiple possible origins but likely is based on a St Louis story of a “working girl” and her “fancy man” - her number 1- or “manager” (trying to keep it family friendly!). Another young “lady” catches the piano playing player’s eye. Frankie catches them and shoots Albert in the abdomen - may have been the kick that made the bullets stray upwards. The man suffers and dies a few days later. Frankie was cleared on a self-defense plea. A version of the song was heard just weeks after the murder.
John Hurt was born in Teoc in northern Mississippi, raised in Avalon, and wanted to live his life there. He was offered a touring role with medicine shows, but unlike other musicians of the time he refused and stuck to the life of a farmhand who played local gigs. A self-taught guitar player, he developed his own unique style, fast finger picking, which his dancing audiences loved. He usually played solo, but later performed with fiddle player and neighbor Willie Narmour. His sometimes partner won a contest and a recording contract with Okeh Records, which was based in New York but sending out recording teams around the country. He recommended Hurt to Okeh talent scout and producer Tom Rockwell.
Rockwell brought Hurt and others to the nearest city to set up a studio and record them. And so the story of Frankie and Mississippi John Hurt crossed paths in Memphis. On Valentine’s Day 1928, Hurt recorded “Frankie” and seven other songs for Okeh, with only one other (Nobody’s Dirty Business) released from those sessions. The soloist and finger-picking farmhand raked in $20 per song.
The story of Frankie was recorded over 250 times - Hurt’s was one of the earliest - with many variations. In some versions the man became Johnny. Several movies were made based on the story including “Frankie and Johnny” (1966) with Elvis as an actor and gambler who survives the shooting. Frankie Baker died in a Portland Oregon mental institution in 1952.
Mississippi John Hurt later traveled to New York City to cut 12 more songs, then went back to Avalon Mississippi and played local dances until he was rediscovered like so many other greats in the blues/folk revival of the 60’s. In 1963 he moved to DC, recorded new versions of old songs and new material, played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and appeared on The Tonight Show. He died in 1966 in Grenada, about 26 miles from Teoc.