Monday, May 4, 2009

Frank Frost: Jelly Roll King

Frank Frost was one apple what never fell too far from the tree. Arkansas born and bred, and, by now, anno domini 2009, Arkansas dead. In blueseology he ranks as one of Helena, AR’s patron saints, both cursed and blessed to dwell in the shadow of King Biscuit main-man Sonny Boy Williamson.

In fact, in the 50s, Frost, a talented multi-instrumentalist (guit, keys, and harp), played for several years in SBW’s band, an experience that Frost credited as a big influence on his own playing style. Before Sonny Boy, however, Frost played with Little Willie Foster, up the river a ways, in St. Louis. This was young Frank's only extended foray away from good Arkansas fishing holes. Here he met lifelong friend and band-mate, drummer Sam Carr, whose father was Robert Nighthawk. Frost and Carr formed the Jelly Roll Kings and played together as such for the rest of Frost’s life.

As a harp player, Frost was an able imitator, known to possess an encyclopedic repertoire of riffs. He could hang way up in the upper register, piercing eardrums like Jimmy Reed, sustain mid-range blasts like Little Walter, and peel off inventive phrases that recalled the style of his former employer. Frost’s talent, along with Carr’s⎯possibly the greatest drummer to ever come out of the delta⎯eventually came to the attention of Sam Phillips. In April, 1962, along with guitarist Jack Johnson, they cut a batch of songs for Phillips International. Among these are the Howling Wolf cop “Everything’s Alright,” plus “Jelly Roll King,” “Baby You’re So Kind,” “Gonna Make You Mine,” “Pocket Full of Shells,” and “Crawlback” (featuring guitarist Roland Janes), plus others. These tunes demonstrate both the stylistic range of Frost’s harp playing, and his subtly powerful vocals. And say what you will about Sam Phillips⎯you can add Frost to the list of black musicians who, in the end, had nothing good to say about him⎯the man knew how to get that slap-back reverb.

Eventually Frank Frost jumped labels, moving over to Jewel Records, owned and operated by Shreveport Svengali, Stan “the Man” Lewis. Stan the Man also owned Stan’s Record Shop, where Dale Hawkins once worked (see archived GS post on Hawkins), and had connections with most of the great R&B labels of the day. Through Leonard Chess’ urging, he formed Jewel. In 1965 he booked a session in Nashville where Frost, Carr, & Big Jack Johnson, cut “My Back Scratcher,” fashioned after Slim Harpo’s hit “Baby, Scratch My Back,” b/w "Harp & Soul,” plus other sides, all produced by Elvis’ former guitar player, Scotty Moore.

The Jelly Roll Kings remained regulars of the King Biscuit Blues Festival until Frost’s death in 1999. Later in his life, the cigs had robbed him of the lung power to blow harp, so Frost mostly stuck with the keys. On one of his last recordings he and Carr backed T-Model Ford on a cut from his 1997 Fat Possum debut Pee-Wee Get My Gun, “Been a Long Time,” which does sorta capture the sound of old men dying. Matthew Johnson’s liner notes for that album are pretty funny, recalling how, at one point in the session, T-Model’s “constant refrain (‘T-Model is going to remember you sorry fuckers how it’s done’) became more and more emphatic. Seconds before ‘Been a Long Time’ was recorded, Frank Frost felt compelled to state, ‘I want everyone to know that I’m now playing against my will.’”

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