Some Pioneers of the Blues are honoured and remembered, and some slip into obscurity, and it’s a shame that Frank Stokes has become one of the latter. He grew up playing the Blues before WWI, when it was just an obscure local folk music from the north of the Mississippi Delta, and his tremendous voice and skillful guitar work helped to popularise the Blues as he toured all over the South in Minstrel shows, provided entertainment at parties and fish-fries where he was invited to play, and ‘busking’ in the streets for spare change. Before the technologies of recording or broadcasting were widespread, wandering players like Frank were the only way the Blues could be heard outside its home environment, and when he did get a chance to make records, the quality of his work shone through.
Frank was born in Whitehaven TS in 1888, but his father and then his mother died when he was quite young, so he was raised by his step-father. He was brought up in Tutwiler MS, the town where WC Handy
first heard a haunting song in 1903, that has gone down as one of the origins of the Blues
. Frank learned to play guitar as a kid, and with his friend Dan Sane he would travel up to Memphis
to play for tips on the streets. He joined travelling shows as a songster, dancer and comedian, teaming up with Garfield Akers in The Doc Watts Medicine Show and developing skills as a performer that set him apart from most other early Blues players. Working as a blacksmith back in Tennessee in the mid-20s, Frank played in Jack Kelly’s Jug Busters, as the Jug Band craze took hold. Frank and Dan Sane soon reunited in Memphis, where they became known as ‘The Beale Street Sheiks’, sometimes adding Will Betts on fiddle, and often being invited to play for white audiences. Frank’s time on the road gave him a huge repertoire of ballads, folk songs and old Blues numbers, which he declaimed in a deep, powerful voice.
Frank and Dan play ‘Downhome Blues’;
The Sheiks made their recording debut in 1927, when the Paramount label sent a field-recording unit south to capture new sounds for the emerging ‘race music‘ market, and they cut over 30 tracks in the next two years. Frank specialised in popular and humorous songs like ‘You Shall’ and ‘Mr. Crump Don’t Like It’, but the Blues was at the heart of his music. Working with Dan, they developed an elegant chording and fingerpicking interplay that gave their music a depth and rhythmic complexity that was years ahead of its time, and Frank’s fine, clear singing voice showed a great sense of timing and phrasing, and sometimes the hint of a tremulous quiver.
Frank Stokes Discography
This is a compilation of Frank’s solo work and his output with The Beale Street Sheiks. He really is a class act and well worth a listen.
THE BEST OF FRANK STOKES
Frank also recorded as a solo artist for the Victor label in 1928 and ’29, but Dan was usually in attendance too. Record sales ‘fell off a cliff’ as the Depression took hold, and Frank went back on the road in the 30s, joining Ringling Brothers Circus for a while, and playing on the streets with Dan when he was back in Memphis. Little is known of Frank’s career in the 40s, but there are reports of him sometimes playing with Bukka White
, and showing up in juke-joints around the Delta. He passed away in Memphis in 1955.