Frankie Lee Sims

TrackSingle / Album
Lucy Mae BluesSpecialty SP-459-45
Married WomanLucy Mae Blues
Cryin' Won't Help YouLucy Mae Blues
Frankie's BluesLucy Mae Blues
I Done Talked And I Done TalkedLucy Mae Blues
Hey Little GirlAce 527
Walking With FrankieAce 527
She Likes To Boogie Real LowVIN 1006
Well Goodbye BabyVIN 1006
Send My Soul To The DevilWalking With Frankie

Frankie Lee Sims photo 1

photo by Chris Strachwitz © Arhoolie Foundation

 

 

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Frankie Lee Sims playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Frankie Lee Sims. Hardly a household name. Country blues singer/guitarist. Based in Texas but born in New Orleans. Imagine a line starting Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lil Son Jackson, Smokey Hogg… : Frankie would be somewhere off to the right in terms of obscurity.

“Frankie Lee Sims was probably born in New Orleans, April 30, 1917. However, in the only interview he ever gave, he told Arhoolie Records’ Chris Strachwitz that he was born February 29, 1906. Oddly enough, since 1906 was not a leap year there was no February 29th that year. Our story is already confusing. Not much is known about Frankie Lee Sims. He gave one interview in his life, there is only one known photograph of him.”

Those were the words with which the Houndblog writer started off his essay on Frankie. What we do learn from the interview is that he was the oldest of 13 children, that both his parents were from Texas (and moved back to the state when Frankie was 10 years old), and that he left home at the age of 12. Prior to that he picked up some musical skills from his parents – both of whom played guitar – and appeared in what he refers to as “country balls”.

According to the man himself he “taught school in Palestine two years” (his exact words and that’s Palestine, Texas) and “played (guitar) Friday and Saturday nights”. Which sounds a tad astounding but all we have to go on is the Strachwitz interview. After the USA joined the Second World War, Frankie joined the Marines. On his return to a civilian existence he decided that the teaching thing wasn’t bringing in much money, so, determined to make a living from his music, he upped sticks and moved to Dallas where he got into the same circuit as people like T-Bone Walker, Smokey Hogg and Lightnin’ Hopkins (who also happened to be Frankie’s cousin).

His first appearance on record came with a support role for Hogg on Hard Times c/w Goin’ Back Home on the Bullet label in 1947. As a frontman, Frankie cut his first record for Blue Bonnet Records (of Dallas) in the following year. The last two words of the title of the A-side, Cross Country Blues are a good descriptor of its approach; it was a slow item showcasing Frankie’s guitar work with minimal backing from bass and drums. Flip the record however and you’d find Home Again Blues, a slightly more brash affair with that guitar echoing and embellishing upon the vocal phrases and even popping in a touch of boogie at one point. All pointers towards the Sims direction of travel.

Record #2 for Blue Bonnet didn’t take us any further forward but, unusually for blues tracks, both sides, Don’t Forget Me Baby and Single Man Blues contained a steel guitar in the backing ensemble. In the Strachwitz interview, he asks Frankie who this was and the latter responds with “The one who put out Blue Suede Shoes. What his name?”. Whereupon Chris says “Carl Perkins” and Frankie answers with an affirmative. Subsequent music critics have pooh-poohed this idea, dismissing it as yet more fantasy from Frankie but I would suggest that it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. Perkins would only have been 15 or 16 at the time but had been performing for payment from the age of 14. Whether he ever played steel guitar isn’t known but he was something of a musical prodigy so it’s far from impossible; Wiki notes that he did “imitations of the pedal steel guitar”. I would add that the Blue Bonnet label was almost entirely a country music label so bringing someone in with a country background wouldn’t be at all unusual. I note that Stefan Wirz puts “unknown (Hop Wilson?) steel g” in his sessionography but as the “?” implies, there’s nothing to support this guess other than circumstantial stuff: Wilson was from Texas and definitely played steel guitar, and on blues records.

Move forward four years to 1953 and Frankie could still be found in Dallas but under contract to Specialty Records. The L.A. based label was by now a well-established indie having started releasing records in 1946 and with a solid artists roster across the fields of R&B and gospel. They’d already cut records with Frankie’s peer, Smokey Hogg, but how the Sims/Specialty coming together came about isn’t recorded anywhere. No matter, the three singles he cut for the label marked a definite step forward with Frankie displaying an individualistic style that made him stand out in the genres of both country blues and R&B. And I say both since elements of these forms of music were now becoming apparent in his output, with Texas Blues never being too far away.

Nowhere is this mingling of styles more apparent than on Lucy Mae Blues, his first Specialty offering. The intricate interplay between voice and guitar, particularly in the closing line of each verse – “Ain’t no (brief pause) telling (brief pause) what poor Lucy Mae do” brings to mind country blues but the strong electric tone of that guitar and the dance floor rhythm mark it out as R&B. Add in to that imaginative – well I’m assuming they’re more fantasy than reality – lyrics documenting a different girl for each day of Frankie’s week and you have a remarkable record.

Although Frankie never got seriously close to the national charts, several of his records did very well indeed in the Dallas area and effectively became his ‘calling cards’; Lucy Mae Blues was one of them. He recut it on more than one later occasion and, indeed, the version he waxed for Ace with the alternate title of What Will Lucy Do the best part of four years later was a strong alternate (or even supplementary) contender for the Ten. But while the slower and ever-so-slightly heavier approach of the Ace record definitely has its attractions, it’s the sprightly original which gets my vote.

There were to be two more Specialty singles, within which he dusted down a song with country blues or even just country origins in Long Long Gone (though the credit read “Sims”), dallied with a latin beat on Rhumba My Boogie which might have been a tribute to his city of birth but for the fact that Frankie was looking further south with the borrowed phrase “south of the border, down Mexico way”), and produced a relaxed blues ballad entitled I’ll Get Along Somehow which might or might not have had some relationship to one (or both) of two existing songs with that title, one from the country side of the tracks via Ernest Tubb and the other, more jazzy blues from people like Ruth Brown and Nancy Wilson.

Frankie was prolific in the studio and cut a considerable amount of extra material at his Specialty sessions, much of it up to the standard of the released singles, and the label collected all of it together and released it under the title of Lucy Mae Blues in 1970. The tracks, some or all of which also appear in other compilations, form a fascinating pot-pourri of both the normal and the abnormal Sims stylistic approaches. Let’s take the abnormal first (with a thought occurring, were these too unusual for Specialty to consider releasing?):

Married Woman – A highly unusual rhythm characterises this beauty which settles into a single chord drone until Frankie throws in a little boogie to remind you that you could be dancing – melodically it consists of two line verses only, no choruses – “Don’t take a married woman, honey babe to be your friend / She will spend all your money, take the same and back again” is the couplet that opens proceedings though the married woman of the title disappears from then on, as it dawns on you that she is actually the “honey babe” addressed in the line and the lyrics zero in on the fractious relationship with that lady – “I give you all of my money, little girl and all my time / You messed up another man – don’t pay for me no mind”.

Cryin’ Won’t Help You – A more conventional number in terms of structure (it’s the familiar 12 bars) and rhythm but what leaps out and grabs you is Frankie’s guitar work – you probably thought that James Brown invented the multi-part riff – you were wrong! – Frankie was at it well before James and his riffing here ranges from single, through two and three part and even four in line varying with the position in the song (and probably relating to how Frankie happened to feel) – once again the monologue is addressed directly to the lady and the penultimate verse introduces a particularly chilling note – “You know cryin’ won’t help you and cryin’ won’t help you none / (repeat) / When I find you little woman and shoot you with my 41”.

Frankie’s Blues – An innocuous title for another unusual number – over a kind of shuffle rhythm, this is another two liner not in some respects unlike Married Woman but in this instance sounding a little like the second half of a conventional blues – and those words don’t do justice to the curiously haunting quality of the minimalist melody lines – just to mix things up even more, Frankie repeats the first line in some of the verses –take a listen and you too will soon be wondering, just who is Verdell?

I Done Talked And I Done Talked – With a theme of “the time for talking is over” as in the opening line: “I done talked and I done talked / Seems like my talk don’t do no good”, a near solo setting and some Hookerish guitar runs to get things going, it seems as if this is going to be a tribute to the great man – but things change – as early as the second part of that opening couplet, syllables become elastic, stretching in all directions – this is melisma but Frankie Lee style and thoughts of John Lee go out the window – and once again, a vivid threat of violence: “Don’t try to jive me woman, you know you don’t mean me no good / Cause I’ll cut your head baby, just like it was a piece of wood” but tempered by a reference to the one up above: “When I go could God bless her” – the words just seem to pour out like a stream of consciousness.

While the unusual tends to draw the attention, Frankie’s efforts in a more conventional vein aren’t to be ignored. His I’m So Glad is a fine country blues but with some thumpingly unsophisticated drums and no clear resemblance to the Skip James song with that title, which got itself resurrected by Cream. It’s possible, however, that the musical antecedent might have been the Lonnie Johnson song with that name though the lyrics differ. Frankie’s How Long is another which you’d expect to bear some relationship to the old warhorse How Long Blues which yours truly first encountered back in the skiffle days, but it doesn’t; it’s 12 bar not 8 bar and the lyrics differ:

How long, must I wait
How long, must I wait
But I love you, until judgement day

(with the commas indicating pauses rather than anything grammatical)

What’s more, the Sims’ How Long features a full jump band with piano and brass section which together whip up a joyful riffing sound that could easily have escaped from the Crescent City. To my surprise (and disgust), the track isn’t on YouTube but it can be found on Spotify (it’s on Masterly Texas Blues and probably other compilations too).

The casual reader looking at a Frankie Lee Sims discography might suppose that when producer Johnny Vincent left Specialty to set up his own label, Ace Records, in Jackson, Mississippi in 1955, he took Frankie with him but no, that wasn’t the case, or if it was it didn’t exactly happen overnight. Frankie’s first record for Ace which coupled Misery Blues with the aforementioned What Will Lucy Do was released in January 1957 (according to 45cat) so what happened in the two years plus when he seemed to be without a label and/or why Specialty didn’t release any of the material that was in the can is/are just another little part of the mystery surrounding our man.

Regardless of all that, Misery Blues was a fine medium tempo electric blues with a strong beat and the ever-so-slight flatness of Frankie’s guitar strings helping to increase the acidity level. I’ve already touched on the flip and, yes, this was an excellent record in its own right, even more so if you’d never come across the original of “Lucy Mae”.

Ace single #2 from Frankie coupled Hey Little Girl with Walking With Frankie. They were numbered 3386 and 3387 respectively, suggesting that this was the order in which they were cut but in terms of A- and B-side, the music industry push, as indicated by the adverts copied into the 45cat entry by a helpful contributor, puts “Walking” as very clearly the plug side. What’s more, one of the two replicated ads shows Huey Smith’s Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu alongside “Walking” thus aiming Frankie’s single directly at the rock and roll audience which had lapped up the Smith platter.

Given the full jump blues backing band that accompanies our hero on this pair of tracks, it’s likely that the unissued How Long might have formed the prototype for the backing style adopted by producer Vincent. It’s also likely that Hey Little Girl was something of a warm-up for the more inventive flip but let’s not take anything away from this track: it deserves to be up there with jump blues from some of the greats of the genre like Big Joe Turner, with Frankie’s aggressive guitar adding a distinctively Texan touch above the riffing saxes and all the left-hand piano work. And, given that this was Frankie, there was still the occasional slightly sour touch to the otherwise upbeat lyrics – “Don’t get mad at me, I ain’t gonna get mad at you”.

If you want more comparisons, think Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown or Pee Wee Crayton.

Such easy parallels disappear after a few bars of Walking With Frankie. It’s often bracketed with, and/or described as, a derivative of Hooker’s masterpiece Boogie Chillen and while I’m as guilty as others of using such phrases, I suspect the truth could be rather more complex. It’s highly unlikely that Frankie would have been unaware of John Lee’s record which sold well right across the south but, given the unusual nature of many of his (Frankie’s) records to date in terms of rhythm, structure and melody which I put down to his interpretation of older songs that he’d heard, I suspect something of the kind is happening here too. The Wiki feature on Boogie Chillen quotes musicologist Robert Palmer as saying in regard to that record: “The closest thing to it on records is ‘Cottonfield Blues’, recorded by Garfield Akers and Joe Callicott, two guitarists from the hill country of northern Mississippi, in 1929. Essentially, it was a backcountry, pre-blues sort of music – a droning, open-ended stomp without a fixed verse form that lent itself to building up to a cumulative, trancelike effect.” This is the record Palmer refers to. I’ve already used the word ‘drone’ in relation to Married Woman, one of the unissued (at that time) Specialty tracks, and it’s just as applicable to Walking With Frankie only with our man paying less attention to a 12 bar structure than Akers & Callicott; with them it’s there but understated as indeed it was on many Hooker records only disguised under a perceived single chord approach.

Enough surmising/pondering or whatever, a listen to the record is very much called for:

One of the first things to hit you are the horns which echo – or drive, because the horns appear first – the brief vocal phrases from Frankie. It’s the sort of effect that he’d already obtained on record by duetting with his own guitar but I’d guess that, in the creation of this track, the brief guitar riffs have been transposed to sax. Indeed, they sound more like terse guitar string flurries than what one would usually expect from horns. Couple that with the unusual rhythm which, yes, is similar to Boogie Chillen but is also not a million miles from some earlier Sims tracks, plus the lack of a 12 bar approach, and we have a highly distinctive creation which, given its title and its opening “Well now, I walked and walked / walked my fool self down”, superficially resembles a dance record. One would guess too, that Johnny Vincent would have been only too happy to play up any dance connotations. But there was a real song in there as in looking for baby, finding baby, great joy judging by exclamations to himself up above for the rocking and jumping going on, and then … well this is Frankie, the man who’s not renowned for happy endings:

A-goodbye, goodbye
Babe, I’m ’bout to go
But I’d a-hope and pray
We don’t meet no more

And would you believe, he only finds time to pack in a multi-part riff in the solo sections. What … a … record!

The follow-up, My Talk Didn’t Do Any Good / I Warned You Baby gave us more very acceptable Frankie Lee Sims music with the A-side returning to the theme of I Done Talked And I Done Talked (with another intriguing and possibly latin inspired rhythm) and the flip echoing a more common blues theme to a boogie backing.

There was to be one more Frankie record cut for Johnny Vincent but it was released on the VIN label rather than Ace. Why? Well, this is the Frankie Lee Sims story is one answer, or, I have absolutely no idea! However, both of its sides – She Likes To Boogie Real Low and Well Goodbye Baby – are of interest. You could argue that side 1 and side 2 respectively echoed the subject matter of parts 2 & 3 of Walking With Frankie, that is, rumpy pumpy and its celebration given what boogieing real low is really about plus the so long, it’s been good to know you, or not perhaps, given the manner in which Frankie would recycle themes. This is Well Goodbye Baby.

The assiduous reader/listener will note the line: “But someday baby / You ain’t gonna worry my life any more” which, possibly with an “I” replacing the “you”, comes directly from the blues standard, Worried Life Blues, a song that has been recorded under a variety of titles, by Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Only this version has the aggressive, thrusting Sims treatment (and treat is definitely the right word) so it has to be seen as a heavily disguised Worried Life.

And that was the end of the Sims recording career, at least in terms of singles, although Specialty put out Married Woman coupled with another Lucy Mae Blues in 1971. The sixties weren’t kind to Frankie. While cousin Lightnin’ got picked up by the folk blues revival – and if I repeat a comment from an ancient Melody Maker, he was perceived as a more daring proposition in comparison to Sonny & Brownie – Frankie effectively disappeared from the scene and even the later interest in blues sparked by the Brit bands didn’t unearth him. However, he wasn’t entirely forgotten: Chris Strachwitz, the man who founded Arhoolie Records, got in touch with him in 1969 with the intention of recording an album; the interview to which I’ve alluded was intended in part to be setting the groundwork for the album. Unfortunately, that recording didn’t happen, since Sims died on 10th May 1970. To quote the Wiki author:

“The cause of death was pneumonia brought on by poor health. At the time of his death he was reported to have had a drinking problem and was under investigation regarding a ‘shooting incident’.”

However that wasn’t quite the end in terms of Frankie’s musical legacy. In 1985, an album attributed to him appeared from an outfit called Krazy Kat, a subsidiary of Interstate Music Inc. which is registered in Bexhill-on-Sea in the UK. The album consisted of tracks recorded for New York-based record label owner and producer Bobby Robinson in 1960. Why the tracks never saw release at the time isn’t known though it’s possible that the quality level wasn’t seen as good enough. From the tracks to be found on YouTube – and that is the majority – I’d comment that there’s less invention than that found on the Specialty and Ace releases, and Frankie sounds, if anything, even more primitive than on those singles possibly due to drink.

He’s not helped by a flat string issue again which mars a couple of tracks. But all is not lost: Don’t Be Mad At Me, a piano led boogie and Going To The River are welcome additions to the Frankie oeuvre. The second, which sports another of Frankie’s odd rhythms, is just recognisable as a version of the Fats Domino song with that name. But if there’s a single reason to thank those folk at Krazy Kat for digging out these cuts it’s the presence of Send My Soul To The Devil, a line that’s also present in I Done Talked And I Done Talked. And yes, it is that song but reworked to such an extent that it’s effectively a new number altogether. He was really on form for this track and any negative feelings I might have for others on the album, just fade away into non-existence.

It seems a very suitable closer.

And did Frankie invent sixties distorted guitar but no one noticed?

 

FOOTNOTES

1. I have a few comments on the Ace release of What Will Lucy Do. Firstly (for all pedants out there) to remark that the title doesn’t appear in the song, it still ends with “Ain’t no telling what poor Lucy Mae (or “may” – DS) do”. Secondly, I do wonder if producer and label-owner Johnny Vincent, who’d left Specialty to set up Ace Records, felt that getting a hit out of the song was a challenge. And finally, the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted “Sims, Vincent” appearing in the composer credits. While there were definite changes to the lyrics, how much Johnny was responsible for those changes we’ll never know, and it’s a tad coincidental that such expanded credits appear on all the Ace tracks.

2. Continuing the extended composer credits saga, the two sides of the VIN single, She Likes To Boogie Real Low and Well Goodbye Baby, have credits, “Sims, Caronna” and “Caronna, Sims”, respectively, which is certainly a liberty in terms of the second – that’s if you’ve noted my remarks in the main text – and possibly the first. A little digging reveals the fact that there was a Joe Caronna who, as manager of Frankie Ford, introduced that gentleman to Johnny Vincent which led to Frankie’s one hit with Sea Cruise on Ace Records, a story told in my Huey Smith Topper and not lacking in elements of music biz murk.

3. Again, continuing to focus on the VIN single, what I didn’t say in the main text is that it had been preceded by the release in 1950 of a record called Blue Lights Boogie from Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five. This is what that record sounded like and its first line went: “They did the Boogie real slow with the blue lights way down low”. Methinks that if Frankie’s A-side had presented a serious threat of chart action then lawyers representing Louis Jordan and his record company might have been suing Messrs Sims and Caronna with a goodly probability of success. None of which detracts from the fact that the Sims record is a real scorcher and one that I’m happy to file under ‘raw and greasy’.

4. If the above and portions of the main text give the impression that there was a lot of plagiarisation going on in Frankie’s music, I would comment that this was not at all unusual in the world of blues and was indulged in by several of its biggest names. What was important with Frankie Lee Sims was that he always put his own stamp on his ‘creations’ regardless of their origins.

5. In terms of origins of Frankie’s songs, it might also be of interest that the Secondhandsongs site lists Ishman Bracey’s 1928 record, Saturday Blues, as a source for Lucy Mae Blues. There’s certainly some similarity in the pattern of phrases and notes used but Bracey doesn’t make any direct reference to Lucy Mae. What he does do in the song is use the line, “I asked for water, she gave me gasoline” which was later used as the title for a Howlin’ Wolf song.

6. Covers of Frankie Lee Sims tracks aren’t exactly abundant but there are a few worthy of mention. I’d suggest a listen to Buddy Guy on Lucy Mae Blues, Eilen Jewell on Walking With Frankie and Johnny Winter with She Likes To Boogie Real Low.

7. And finally for all guitarists out there, when, in his interview with Frankie, Chris Strachwitz asks the question, “How’d you have that guitar?”, Frankie answers:

“Six E big E strings on it. That’s the truth now. Sometimes we have played. Take a stand of baling wire and put it up there for the bass man. Then it’s so hard to get the strings.”

 

 

Frankie Lee Sims (1917-1970)

 

Frankie Lee Sims discography

The Chris Strachwitz interview with Frankie Lee Sims

Frankie Lee Sims at 45cat

Frankie Lee Sims biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #972

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jul 27, 2021

    Enjoyable afternoon listening to these selections when I should have been doing other things. ‘Lucy Mae’ is such a fine song. Wondered too if Bob meant a reference to him – oblique of course (what else?) – in ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’?

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