Photo © Gene Tomko
Louisiana Swamp blues singer, composer and pianist Carol Fran looks back at her 60-year career.
Excerpt of "Emmitt Lee" written by Carol Fran and Jerry West and performed live by Carol Fran, used by permission of Music Sales Corporation [ASCAP].
Excerpt of "Crying in the Chapel" written by Artie Glenn and performed by Carol Fran, from the album, The Complete Calla, Port and Roulette Recordings, used courtesy of Warner Music Group and used by permission of Mijac Music (BMI) 100% (Administered by Sony/ATV Songs LLC).
Excerpt of traditional Creole song "Tou' Les Jours C'est Pas La Meme (Everyday Is Not The Same)" by Carol Fran from the album, Louisiana Swamp Stomp, used courtesy of Honeybee Entertainment.
<Audio clip of "Emmitt Lee" by Carol Fran>
Jo Reed: That's singer, composer, pianist and 2013 National Heritage Fellow Carol Fran in a live performance of her first hit song, "Emmitt Lee" at the 2013 Heritage Awards ceremony. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Carol Fran's distinctive voice and piano-playing style has kept her in the limelight for more than six decades. She's known as a swamp blues singer. Swamp blues is characterized by slow laid back vocals combined with elements of Cajun and Zydeco. But as we just heard in "Emmitt Lee", she can belt out an r and b song with the best of them.
Carol Fran was born in Lafayette Louisiana in 1933 and she knew she was put on this earth to perform. She was on the road as a teenager, eventually making her way to New Orleans where she became a notable presence on Bourbon Street singing and composing in both English and in Creole.
During the 1960s, she recorded and toured extensively until she decided to limit her career to singing on the Gulf Coast nightclub circuit.
In the 1980's, she reconnected with the great blues guitarist Clarence Holliman, and the two formed a partnership on and off stage, marrying and relocating to Holliman's native Texas. His guitar and her voice were perfect complements to each other and together they toured throughout the US and Europe and recorded three outstanding discs. Carol returned to Louisiana after Holliman's death, and in 2001 released a solo album, Fran-tastic. In 2007, Carol Fran suffered a stroke but just seven months later, she was back on stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Carol Fran has received many awards during her career, including the Slim Harpo Blues Award for Female Legend of the Year and then just last year in 2013, she was named a National Heritage Fellow.
I spoke to Carol Fran in her dressing room backstage before her performance at the National Heritage Concert. As you'll hear, it was an emotional time for her. I began our conversation by asking her to give me her definition of blues.
Carol Fran: It was mostly stories about things that have passed, and you put it into music. Mostly eight bars. Some were 12.Like, "Oh, my goodness, my feet hurt because I had on a cheap pair of shoes, and I got the blues."
Jo Reed: <laughs> You came from a large family. Was it a musical family? Was there singing and playing?
Carol Fran: My mother was a piano player, and she didn’t sing very much. She never did any professional work. But she would put little words together. For Sunday morning, cooking dinners, and she would sing and every now and then she’d stop and go pick a little tune on the piano. We always had a piano in the house. And my mamma was self-taught. So she’d play what she heard, right or wrong. Or she played the way she heard it. And it was all about life at home and chores, the good ones and the bad ones. Digging sweet potatoes or picking cotton or chopping wood or what have you, and it always worked better if you put a melody to it. Whether you felt good or felt bad about it, you put a melody to it and it comes out right. Then when I came along, with me it was about wanting to see the world. Took 80 years, but I saw it.
Jo Reed: Did your mom also teach you piano?
Carol Fran: No, she didn’t. I had piano lessons <laughs> when I went. I was another one who wanted to play what I heard, but I wanted it now. I didn’t want it three months later. I wanted it now. So when my mom was gone I would pick little melodies on the piano and put words to them, and that’s how I got started. But having the piano lessons-- let me tell you a story about that. My piano lessons was 25 cents a week. And I was to go two days a week, but I went to the movie once a week. And one day I went to music lesson until one day my mamma said, "I want to come and see how you’re progressing, and I want to hear what you--"and I said, "Oh, you don’t have to do it. I can do it for you at home." She said, "No, I want to go to the music classes." <Laughs> And I didn’t want her to do it, but she came anyway. And the teacher said, "Well, Mrs. George, I tell you what. Carol hasn’t been here in two months." And I want to hide under the house. Still communicated. "But she knows all of the book. She knows it all" and I had what they call big ears. I had an ear, I was a good listener. And anything that I could hear, I could play, and I thought that that’s the way it was supposed to be. But you have to be able to read the lines and the spaces. And I was pretty good with the lines, but not too good with the spaces. So that was my problem. I didn’t want to read. I never wanted to read the music. I just wanted to be able to play. And at that time, I could play anything I heard. Anything I would hear, I could put on the piano.
Jo Reed: How did you end up in New Orleans?
Carol Fran: Well, I heard to be a star in those days you had to work New Orleans. And I couldn’t wait to be old enough to go to New Orleans.
Jo Reed: How old were you?
Carol Fran: <laughs> Seventeen.
Jo Reed: <gasps>
Carol Fran: Too young, really. But I went at 17. There was a club called the Dew Drop.
Jo Reed: The Dew Drop Inn?
Carol Fran: The Dew Drop Inn. That’s where I got my start. I had a friend who lived in New Orleans. I went to visit her. And one night we decided we were going to go to the Dew Drop. You had to be 18 to get in a club. And so I made me an 18 appearance. I had the lipstick and the eyebrows and the hairdo. I had it all. But I didn’t have the proper I.D. But there was somebody who knew my family and knew that I could sing. And they said to Frank Painia, "She can sing. Let her sing. She’s old enough." So they let me in the club. And the Dew Drop was never the same.
Jo Reed: <laughs> Do you remember what you sang?
Carol Fran: "Stardust."
Jo Reed: <gasps> I love "Stardust." That’s one of my favorite songs.
Carol Fran: I had "Stardust," but I had it my way. It was kind of a jazz era. So I found a way to jazz up "Stardust," and oh, my goodness, I got lucky that first time. It went over very well. But then after I stopped to listen, I said, "That’s not ‘Stardust.’ That’s not the way it’s supposed to be." I spoofed it up. I was in love with Ella Fitzgerald’s way of singing. And that’s what I wanted, to be a singer like Ella Fitzgerald.
Jo Reed: Not a bad model.
Carol Fran: No.
Jo Reed: You started playing with Joe Lutcher and The Society Cats?
Carol Fran: Yes.
Jo Reed: Great name. How did you meet him?
Carol Fran: Well, his brother was named Bubba, and he was a disc jockey. So he gave a contest, and the winner would get $125 and a tour with Joe Lutcher’s band. Oh, boy. The $125 was all right, but I wasn’t old enough to take the trip, but nobody knew I wasn’t old enough. I won the contest. I have yet to collect my $125.
Jo Reed: <laughs> You still haven’t gotten it.
Carol Fran: But I made the tour. I ran away from home. I decided I was going to be on my own, I was going to have enough money, $125, to last. So I left home. First day went by was good. And then the next week it wasn’t good anymore, because by then I found my mother had the sheriff looking for me, because she said I wasn’t old enough to go. And I hid. I made friends along the way where I would hide at this one’s house until the sheriff would leave. And then one day in New Iberia, which is <laughs> only 21 miles away, that’s a long ways to run, 21 miles. So one afternoon, telephone rang and was my mamma on the telephone. She said, "And when are you coming home?" I said, "Right now. I was on my way now." She said, "Either you come here right now, or the sheriff is going to pick you up." I ran a little further to another neighbor’s house. And the sheriff did come in the neighborhood and picked me up.
Jo Reed: Took you home?
Carol Fran: Mm-hm. Took me where my mother was. But she realized that this is what I wanted to do and I couldn’t do anything else. So she made an agreement with me that if I would go to school and make good grades that I could go and do a tour with anybody that I wanted to. That was all right for a little while. But after about a year it didn’t work no more. I said, "Well, when am I going to be old enough?" you know.
Jo Reed: Probably in her book when you’re 50. <laughs>
Carol Fran:, My mom passed away 10 years ago. Still calling me her little girl. I said, "Mamma, I’m not a little girl." She said, "But you will always be my little girl." So I didn’t understand it then, but later on I realized what it was. Moms will always be mammas. <chokes up> She was my greatest fan. We’d go to town, and she’d say, "You heard that name, Carol Fran?" I’d say, "Oh, Mamma, don’t do that." And people would say, "Yes." Some of them was "No." She said, "Well, that’s my little girl. And that’s her right there." " Oh." I’d say, "Oh, Mamma, don’t do that." She’d say, "But you are who you are. And I am your mother." She said, "And you can’t stop me." <laughs>
Jo Reed: Your first recording, "Emmitt Lee."
Carol Fran: Ha.
Jo Reed: And that was a big hit for you.
Carol Fran: Yes it was.
Jo Reed: Can you tell me what that experience was like?
Carol Fran: It hasn’t worn off yet. He was a young man that worked for McGregor Men’s Fashion, from New Orleans. And he would come in our area once a month. Finally I met him. And oh, the stories he told me made my hair stand on my head and my heart beat fast. Then he said, "I’m in love with you," and that got it. Then he would go to various places, and I had given him my telephone number. He would call and say, "How we doing today?" And this made me 10 feet tall. It made my heart beat fast. I hadn’t heard from him in two days. So I decided one night I had my first beer. I had never had a beer. And my head got a little oozy, and I wrote this song.
<audio clip of "Emmitt Lee>
Jo Reed: And you had a hit.
Carol Fran: Yes, I did.
Jo Reed: "Emmitt Lee."
Carol Fran: "Emmitt Lee." "Don’t you remember me?"
Jo Reed: And you made that in J.D Miller's studio. There’s such stories about that studio and the music that was produced there.
Carol Fran: It was just one big room and the drummer had no drums. He had a box that he played on with his drumstick. And he got the best sound I ever heard.
Jo Reed: That’s amazing. You had your first big gig was with Guitar Slim?
Carol Fran: Yes. It was the very first big one. I had had the ones with Joe Lutcher, but I never got paid. But this time was a winner. The Guitar Slim orchestra came to town. And Guitar Slim was known for not showing up. There were over 300 people in the gymnasium, and his manager was Hosea Hill, the promoter. So they waited and waited, and finally, one of the guys from Lafayette said, "Well, we got a little girl here who can sing. So she might be able to take his place." And it’s, "Ah, nobody can take Slim’s place." But lo and behold, they did come to get me. And paid me 90-- said, "We’re going to give you $90 to do this show." "When do I start?"
And the strangest thing is that the people at home had not heard me sing. They knew I could sing, but they didn’t know how well I could sing. So when they took the stage, I got to the piano and I played a few lines. And everybody, I got everybody’s attention. And I started singing. Then you couldn’t hear me sing for the applause and the yelling, "Yea, Carol." That was a day.
Jo Reed: That must’ve been a day. And you went on to lead that band. You worked with the Ronettes?
Carol Fran: Yes, the Ronettes. Mary Wells. The Ronettes. Gladys Knight. I did Otis Redding's last tour. I was on it and so was Gladys. And what happened was I had just recorded "Crying In The Chapel.".
<Audio clip of "Crying in the Chapel">
Jo Reed: That was a big hit for you.
Carol Fran: Yes, it was. And Elvis just wiped me out.
Jo Reed: Because he covered it.
Carol Fran: Yes, he covered it. But what happened, I found out later from him, when I recorded my "Crying In The Chapel," he had already recorded "Crying In The Chapel," but it was on the shelf. And the company was at liberty to release it whenever they got ready. So here I come with the "Crying In The Chapel" and they saw their chance. Elvis gave me $10,000. I met him in California at American Music. He was sitting on the back porch. I met him and I said, "I’m mad at you." He said, "Well, what did I do?" I said, "You took bread out of my mouth." I said, "You didn’t need it." He said, "How did I do that?" And I told him, I said, "You know, I did ‘Crying In The Chapel.’" I said, "Then you released your ‘Crying In The Chapel.’" I said, "Then they took, they stopped, playing mine." I said, "That’s taking bread out of my mouth that you didn’t need." He said, "Oh, little one." I could see him, now he said, "Don’t be mad at me." He said, "I want to buy you some lunch." He got his checkbook and he wrote a check and he folded it and he gave it to me. He said, "This ought to buy you some lunch." I said, "Oh, thank you." And I never had a chance to talk to him again. Never saw him again after that. The past Christmas, I came from a very poor family; I had other little, six, sisters and brothers. And my mother was having a hard time. And I would call her at least once a week while I was on the road. I said, "Mamma, how you doing?" She said "I got stuff on layaway for the children, and I don’t have the money to get them out." I said, "Okay. I’ll call you back a couple days from now." I was trying to figure out how I could get an extra gig to make extra money to send home. So that next afternoon, I went and I said, "Now’s is it time to take this check out?" I said, "Maybe. Might have enough money to help Mamma." Opened the purse, pulled the check out and I start unfolding it. And looked like the further I folded the more zeros I saw. So I called my mamma, I say, "Mamma." I said, "I got a check from Elvis Presley." She said, "Well, what did you do?" I say, "I just met him and I told him about the song." And I said, "There’s a bunch of zeroes on here." I said, "There’s $10,000." My mamma said, "What did you do, girl? I said…
Carol Fran: --"I didn’t do nothing." I said, "But I told him he made me hungry by recording the record that I had recorded. And they was playing mine. They were playing his." So what I did, I sent my mamma all the money and I kept $50. But that Christmas, the kids had the best Christmas they had ever had.
Jo Reed: You met the great guitarist Clarence Holliman again. Who you ended up marrying.
Carol Fran: Oh, yes.
Jo Reed: And then you and he moved to Texas-- well, he was from Texas. You moved to Texas.
Carol Fran: I moved to Texas. He was from Houston. Oh, we had a whirlwind romance, a good life. And we had a team out of this world. I couldn’t play much piano, but I didn’t need to with all the guitar that he played. He covered up all of my mistakes.
<Audio clip, not sure of the song>
Carol Fran: He made me a piano player. I was not a piano player.
Jo Reed: Until him.
Carol Fran: Until him. He got me to the point where I could improvise. No matter what he would play, I could improvise. And when I could improvise, he would do the rest. We sounded like a quartet together. And every song in the book. You couldn’t hardly name a song that I couldn’t do. He taught me melodies. He’d sit up at night and he’d say, "Come here. I want you to do it like this." Then he’d say, "Now," he’d tell me, "go find that on the piano." And I would sit piano and find the changes.
Jo Reed: You made some great music together. Three great albums.
Carol Fran: And Houston was my town. I became the matriarch of Houston. With all the singers and the musicians that they had. I had my day in court with them. And I don’t know. I’ve only performed there once after Clarence died, because it was too hard. It was too hard for me. Then the big thing was I could never find another Clarence Hollimon on the guitar. I could never find anybody to accompany me and teach me, and I had to be taught all the way through until the last job that we played together. He still had to tell me, "Now, you do this when I do that." Things like that he said. "Put the words in where you want them." And he said, "No matter where you put them at, I’ll be there. We did a version of "Cry Me a River." Nobody else has ever done it the way we did it just vocal and guitar. Then I did a CD I don’t even have a copy of it. It’s called "Women In Emotion." That was a program out of Germany that they were sponsoring. Clarence and I played a whole concert, just the two of us. And I said, "Oh, that song I want to do it." I told him the night before, so he got his guitar out. And I was singing. He would ad lib and cover all the cracks. There are other guitar players who could probably do that, but nobody is willing to just break off from what they’re doing to try to start a new one with an 80-year-old woman, you know. It's hard. I have a little friend who’s a guitar player. His name is Marty Christian. And he does. He said, "Fran," he said. "The secret to your stuff is to let you sing and just accompany you." And that is I have to express myself. I don’t like a lot of horns or a large band, because then I can’t express myself. And I like to be me. Then I had my godson Davell. Oh, bless his little heart. We don’t get a chance to work together often, but when we do, we tear them up.
Jo Reed: You have really been, very big on always singing in Creole.
Carol Fran: Mm-hm.
Jo Reed: And really working to keep the language alive.
Carol Fran: Yes. And anything that I can do in English, I can translate it. Right on the spot. They give me a song, I’ll just read the words and I’ll translate it right there. I wrote a Creole tune called "Everyday Is Not the Same. <Audio clip plays this one, I was a sampler. I sampled from other stuff that I heard people doing, and I put a song together. And that's an old true saying. All that shines is not gold. Good love is hard to hold." And I found out in the worst way, everyday is not the same." That’s the whole song right there. Then I fuss a little bit. I said, "Where were you last night? You weren’t there when I passed by."
Jo Reed: I can’t talk to somebody from Southern Louisiana without asking them about Katrina, during Katrina. Were you down there?
Carol Fran: I was there. But do you know where I was? I have a friend, a tenor player. We had a duo. He was on saxophone. He could play all the windwood instruments. Eddie Veatch in Hammond. Just a few minutes away from home, but Katrina wouldn’t let me get home So we’re sitting in his kitchen with some candles watching Katrina bend the big trees down. And finally, the gas came on and I cook. I made a gumbo for he and I. Then I said, "I’d like to get home." I kept trying to call the bus station. He said, "You can’t get a bus out here. It’s raining too much." I didn’t realize how much it was raining. : I didn’t even realize how big Katrina was. He said, "Let’s ride around town." He had a lot of gas in his truck, and we rode around and, oh, I saw so many horrible things. Trees on houses and waters just flushing away. So I tried to reach my sister. I couldn’t reach her to tell them I was all right. They were all worried about me. But then on the third day of Katrina, Bill said, "We going to try. We’re going to hit the highway; I’m going to try to get you to Lafayette." And he did get me home. And they had had lights out. The food was going bad. Oh, they had had pretty problems. I said, "Billy and I sat down by candlelight and watched Katrina do her thing." That’s all I could think to tell them. <laughs> I said, "But I’m fine." We had never had another, I didn’t ever, as a child coming up, remember anything like that. Except that it would rain and we’d have floods. This was so different.
Jo Reed: You mentioned playing with Eddie Vietch. Just the two of you. You like playing in duos. You did with Clarence; you did with Eddie, you playing with somebody else.
Carol Fran: I don’t play, I just improvise. He and I, just the two pieces. I’m famous for I like to minimize the instruments because they get in my way. I play a lot of wrong wrong. And with a bunch of instruments, that’s hard to do, but if you got just one or two its wrong wrong. We played wrong together, so that makes it, that’s what you call a wrong right. It comes out right, but when you got too many, you got trumpet and saxophone and all that other stuff, then you’re in trouble. Because somebody’s not going to play wrong when you play wrong. They’re going to play it right, then you got confusion.
Jo Reed: What is it about playing with Davell that you like so much?
Carol Fran: He covers; he plays on, the whole piano. He finds something for you on the entire piano. It’s fulfilling. It’s easy for me to work with him, because I tell him what I want to do. Most of the time I don’t know what key, but he will find a key and put the changes in there. But he knows how to just like soft pedal the changes, where he’s on bottom and I’m on top. Most of the people who play with me want to be on top. They want to be, and put me on bottom. I got to be on top. And it’s a case of "follow me." Not really "follow me," but just stay there for me. Be something for me to lean on. And Davell does that so beautiful for me. I’m always teary-eyed when I work with him <chokes up> because he’s so young. And with my old ideas, and it really sounds good.
Jo Reed: Well, it’s the music you do. It’s not dated. What you’ve done and given us, is music that will really last. It stands the test of time.
Carol Fran: But let me tell you what happens. I can take any song and make it a swamp pop. I even do "This Little Light of Mine," with a swamp pop feeling.
<Audio clip of "This Little Light of Mine">
I’m really, I'm a jazz lover. I can take that and put a swamp flavor to it and it comes out the way I want it. I call myself a continental singer because I touch all the bases, I try to. But I do everything my way. I don’t do nothing like nobody else. I do a little something extra to it to make it different, and that’s what helps.
Jo Reed: You make it yours.
Carol Fran: Yeah. I make it right. I don’t know what you call me, but I have to express myself if I’m working. I can’t stay to the book, you know. I can read this, and I can't do that.
Jo Reed: I think that’s called an artist.
Carol Fran: That’s a good way of putting it, and I’ll remember that.
Jo Reed: I do.
Carol Fran: I’ll remember that.
<Audio clip plays>
Jo Reed: That was 2013 National Heritage Fellow, singer, pianist and composer Carol Fran
You’ve been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
The "Art Works" podcast is posted every Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to "Art Works" at iTunes U. Just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, clay artist and National Heritage Fellow, Verónica Castillo
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the "Art Works" blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
<Audio clip of "Everyday is not the Same" fades out>