A Singer Scarred for Life
August 15, 2010 6:30 PM   Subscribe

Sixth-grader Jackson C. Frank was horribly burned when the boiler at his Cheektowaga, New York, elementary school exploded March 31, 1954, killing fifteen of his classmates. While recovering from his injuries, Frank was introduced to the guitar, and the insurance settlement he received a decade later helped fund a trip to England, where he recorded his first and only album.
"When I was 21 years old I was awarded $100,000 in insurance money. At the time, it was a small fortune. John Kay and I took off to Toronto and we tried to spend as much money as fast as possible. I bought a Jaguar straight out of a showroom. We went all over the Northeast dropping into clubs and meeting musicians. We were heavily into the blues back then. We listened a lot to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, and the Library of Congress collection of blues artists."
On a car-shopping trip to London in 1965, Frank met Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and soon after was recording Jackson C. Frank with Simon as producer. The scars from his childhood trauma remained.
"I recorded my album in under three hours in a CBS studio on New Bond Street in London. I remember hiding behind a screen while I was singing and playing, because I was just a little nervous and I didn't want anyone to see me."
Al Stewart was also in the studio.
"It was probably the strangest recording session I've ever been to," Stewart says. "Even when Paul would say 'OK we're ready,' often this would be followed by two or three minutes of total silence while he [Jackson] psyched himself into singing. And then this beautiful guitar and voice would emerge.
The album featured ten tracks, the first of which was released as Frank's only single: "Blues Run The Game" - "Don't Look Back" - "Kimbie" - "Yellow Walls" - "Here Come the Blues" - "Milk and Honey" - "My Name Is Carnival" - "I Want To Be Alone (Dialogue)" - "Just Like Anything" - "You Never Wanted Me."

A frustratingly short clip of Frank singing "Just Like Anything" in 1965 was featured between interviews with acquaintances on the BBC's Folk Britannia.

More songs—recorded before and long after the London session—have emerged over the years, and many appear on recent reissues of his album, including "Marlene," "The Visit," "Prima Donna of Swans," "Relations," "Bull Men," Last Month of the Year," "Child Fixin' to Die," "The Spectre," "Mystery," "Night of the Blues," "Halloween is Black as Night," "Singing Sailors," "Goodbye to My Loving You," "October." Covers of "Jimmy Clay" and "Frankie & Johnnie" surfaced just last year.

His career stymied by bouts of depression and a changing musical landscape, Frank's plans for a second album came to nothing. He married, divorced, and his infant son died of cystic fibrosis. He was institutionalized in the early 1970s. In 1984, having moved back to live with his parents, he made a desperate effort to revive his career.
[W]hile his mother was in hospital for open heart surgery, Jackson announced that he was going to New York City - a journey of about 370 miles - to look for Paul Simon. By the time his mother was home, he was gone with no forwarding address. Bank transactions made her think for a while that he must be living in downtown Buffalo. But then the withdrawals stopped, and she concluded her son must be dead.
Frank made it to New York, but never found his old friend. Poverty and a history of mental illness led to run-ins with city authorities.
"I had a heartbreak," Jackson says, referring principally to the child he'd lost from cystic fibrosis. "I couldn't go back to it. I didn't have a guitar. I was being denied my rights. I was being told I was paranoid schizophrenic and treated for it, which I wasn't - it was all trauma related."
In the early 1990s, a music fan named Jim Abbott rescued Frank, and brought him to Woodstock, New York.
"When I went down I hadn't seen a picture of him except for his album cover," Abbott says. "Then he was thin and young. When I went to see him, there was this heavy guy hobbling down the street, and I thought that can't possibly be him... I just stopped and said, 'Jackson?' and it was him. My impression was, 'Oh my God,' It was almost like the Elephant Man or something. He was so unkempt, dishevelled.

"He had nothing. It was really sad. We went and had lunch and went back to his room. It almost made me cry, because here was a 50-year-old man and all he had to his name was a beat-up old suitcase and a broken pair of glasses. I guess his caseworker had given him a $10 guitar, but it wouldn't stay in tune. It was one of those hot summer days. He tried to play Blues Run The Game for me, but his voice was pretty much shot."
Abbott found Frank a place to live in Woodstock, but not before Frank suffered one more traumatic incident in the city. In an apparently random incident, he was shot by a kid with a pellet gun, leaving him blind in the left eye.

Safe in Woodstock, with Abbott's help, Frank recovered some of the royalties he was owed. He recorded some demos, and began performing in local clubs. Still waiting for his second chance at fame, he died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest at a nursing home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, March 3, 1999, survived by a daughter and his parents.
posted by Knappster (34 comments total) 142 users marked this as a favorite
People will look at the ashes of Westerburg and say, "Now there's a school that self-destructed, not because society didn't care, but because the school was society."

Pretty deep, eh?

was that in bad taste?
posted by nathancaswell at 6:37 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yep, that was in bad taste. Try again or go to another website.

Thanks for posting this. Good music I've never heard before. "...the most famous folk singer of the 1960s no one knew of."
posted by not_on_display at 6:47 PM on August 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

Wonderful post.
posted by Wordwoman at 6:54 PM on August 15, 2010

I credit Pandora for suggesting that I might like "Here Come the Blues." I did.
posted by Knappster at 6:56 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

was that in bad taste?

Not so much bad taste as a non sequitur.

Yeah this was a good post. Simon & Frank would have made a great duo. Doesn't that even have a nice ring to it?
posted by clarknova at 6:59 PM on August 15, 2010

Fantastic post. Thank you.
posted by questionsandanchors at 6:59 PM on August 15, 2010

Added to my incredibly large musical wish list. Thanks for this post, awesome.
posted by waitingtoderail at 7:01 PM on August 15, 2010

"Child Fixin' to Die" reminds me of Nick Cave. Several of them do, actually, in a good way.

Great post, thanks.
posted by Gator at 7:07 PM on August 15, 2010

Great post. (Al Stewart pops up in some interesting places, he's had quite a life.)
posted by grounded at 7:10 PM on August 15, 2010

Wow, what a great voice. What a crappy life story. The world is a shitty unfair place sometimes.
posted by octothorpe at 7:15 PM on August 15, 2010

Huh. I had only ever been familiar with the Counting Crows (fantastic) version of Blues Run the Game, though I knew it was a cover of someone. Very informative post.
posted by Roman Graves at 7:15 PM on August 15, 2010

After being remiss for a spell and happening upon cortex and Astro Zombie's bit with Steven Slater, I forgot what MetaFilter can be. With this post, I now remember what MetaFilter is.

[this is good]
posted by pedantic at 7:19 PM on August 15, 2010

For some reason, my room was very dusty when I listened to "Child Fixin' to Die."
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:21 PM on August 15, 2010

Just incredible.

Thanks for putting this together Knappster.
posted by felix betachat at 7:25 PM on August 15, 2010

Used wonderfully by Daft Punk
posted by setanor at 7:28 PM on August 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is a really compelling story, presented incredibly well. Thank you.
posted by thejoshu at 7:36 PM on August 15, 2010

as setanor said, Frank's song at the end of Electroma made me look him up. I never would've found his music without Daft Punk, which always made me respect them more.
posted by OrangeDrink at 7:45 PM on August 15, 2010

Fantastic post!
posted by maxwelton at 7:48 PM on August 15, 2010

This post plunged what is left of my Sunday evening into nostalgia and despair, tinged with longing and melancholy. I just emailed a folk singer begging her to cover this.

So... thanks. I guess?
posted by zota at 7:52 PM on August 15, 2010

Son of a bitch, that exploded link is a first-order tearjerker.
posted by mwhybark at 7:57 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

The LIFE photo archives has a larger version of the class photo featured at that link. Jackson is the smiling boy standing next to his teacher. Half of the kids pictured were killed in the fire, and most of the others suffered burns.
posted by Knappster at 8:00 PM on August 15, 2010

I want to hear more about the 100 grand spending spree with the lead singer of Steppenwolf.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:08 PM on August 15, 2010

Blues Run the Game really is a fantastic track. I got turned on to it (and the rest of Frank's album) after hearing Colin Meloy cover the song at a solo show.
posted by theoddball at 8:11 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Newer issues of Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence have Blues Run the Game as a bonus track. After hearing that, I bought JCF's album a couple years ago. And then bought the extended version. And then bought two more copies for birthday gifts. He's really fantastic. And he has some sad, sad songs to go along with what was at times a sad, sad life. I know he's been dead a while, but still:

posted by papayaninja at 9:20 PM on August 15, 2010

[this music is not good at all; this is a good post.]
posted by cucumber at 10:55 PM on August 15, 2010

A great post, thanx so much, gonna buy this record, hopefully some of the money will make it to his daughter, I'd really like that.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:06 PM on August 15, 2010

His album is on Spotify so I'm about to give it a whirl. Great post!+
posted by salmacis at 1:17 AM on August 16, 2010

I've loved that album for years -- Blues Run The Game has made it onto a lot of mixtapes -- but never investigated the man behind it any further.

Christ, what a brutal story.
posted by Rumpled at 2:14 AM on August 16, 2010

There's some discusson on the Cleveland Hill Memoris page about Marlene and possibly Dialogue being about the fire. There were two Marlenes who died in the fire, Marlene Dupont and Marlene Miller.
posted by bettafish at 4:58 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, this is a fantastic (and depressing) post.
posted by bettafish at 4:59 AM on August 16, 2010

Wow. This story has the same feel of Ted Hawkin's rise and fall and rise again, to musical prominence. I had never heard of this guy before. Thanks for sharing his story.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:56 AM on August 16, 2010

Beautiful music. Great post. Thanks so much.
posted by seagull.apollo at 12:40 PM on August 16, 2010

I don't remember when or how I first heard "Marlene", but I instantly fell in love, and it has been years since I've heard it (obscured, as so many songs are, by the current Next New Thing of the day).

I had no idea Frank lived such a sad, odd life; thanks, Knappster, for this amazing post.
posted by isnotchicago at 1:04 PM on August 16, 2010

Wow. Fascinating. Thank you.
posted by JimBennett at 6:22 PM on August 16, 2010

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