By Bob Andelman
(Originally published October 4,1986)
Michael Franks was in Columbus, Ohio when he heard that Ringo Starr had just recorded one of his tunes, “Monkey See – Monkey Do.”
“I was on the road when the record came out,” the singer-songwriter recalls. “Somebody said, ‘One of your songs is on this Ringo album.’ I went to record store, and sure enough it was there. That was kind of a thrill to have one of the Beatles do one of my songs.”
The song first appeared on Franks’ debut release on Warner Brothers, The Art of Tea. “Monkey” has also been recorded by Melissa Manchester and Patti LaBelle.
Franks – whose performance at Tampa Theatre Saturday is sold out – spoke about his work in a recent telephone interview from his home in Woodstock, N.Y.
IN A LITTLE more than a decade, Franks has released nine albums in the United States plus a live one made in Australia and available only in Europe and Japan.
MICHAEL FRANKS excerpt: “After you’ve been dealing in double entendre for so long, you could say something and mean it literally, and people insist you mean something else by it.”
And in the course of his career, Franks has gained a kind of “favorite son” status among the top studio musicians. Each of his albums reads like a Jazz Who’s Who. Dave Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Wilton Felder, Larry Carlton, Will Lee, Hiram Bullock, Toots Thielemans, Astrud Gilberto, Steve Gadd, Kenny Rankin and Ron Carter are among the players who have contributed tracks.
“Before I was on Warner Brothers, I made one record (and) got to use some great L.A. session players. That was staring at a really high level of players – Tom Scott played on hat album. When I got on Warner Brothers, my producer asked who I’d like to have in the rhythm section. I just rattled off these names. He called me an hour or so later and said we’re all set.
“I’VE ALWAYS been kind of greedy,” he confesses, “ when it comes to studio guys, gotten to know and become friends with several of them over the years, so it’s just a great temptation to use as many of them as possible and to try to spread the material out, to think which player would be ideal for which tune, which rhythm section might work best together.”
What separates Franks from other jazz singers is his ability as a songwriter. While his vocal capacities have broadened, diversified and improved in 10 years, it is Franks’ maddeningly picturesque, literary and seductive lyrics that define his work.
Early on, in 1974, there was the smoothly appointed “Mr. Blue”:
We touched like watercolor fawns
In landscaped painted by Cezanne
Or lovers floating
Painted by Chagall
But you and I were You-I then
We thought the rush would never end . . .
We thought the sky would never fall.
Ten years later, in “Queen of the Underground,” from <I>Skin Dive</I>, the music is dance-oriented, but the words are no less distinctively Franks’:
One little problem still puzzles me
Ain’t you a daughter of the bourgeoisie?
I thought I saw you mending the sails
Buying guerrilla wear at Bloomingdale’s
Bizarre sometimes but always effective, Franks purposely creates images when he writes, even when his brush stroke is so broad as to baffle the listener/reader.
Because he hits the road only 12 noncontinuous weeks a year, Franks can spend most of his time at home – Woodstock during the summer, Fort Meyers in the winter – writing.
“I ALWAYS admired songwriters. Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, (George) Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin – to me, that’s like the Mount Rushmore of songwriting.”
Franks has a deserved reputation as a romantic softie. From the first, his records have been lush and sensual in texture. He has also gotten a reputation for having his tongue pointed firmly in the direction of his cheek. At times, that expectation among the public backfires in the songwriter’s face.
“After you’ve been dealing in double entendre for so long, you could say something and mean it literally, and people insist you mean something else by it.
“Hopefully,” he says of his material, “it’s an enlightened kind of romanticism, or at least realistic, to try talking about feelings, to use imagery instead of the basic rhetoric of ‘you’re everything I want’ B-flat ballad sentiment. The use of imagery creates, by comparison, not only a kind of feeling but also a lot of exotic locations. The lyrics of most pop songs could possibly be better influenced by a computer. A lot of it is so generic and so homogenized, it doesn’t really say anything.”