Frank Bey’s life has had more ups and downs than most folks could endure. Rapidly approaching his 73rd birthday, he’s riding the crest of success after the release of his first solo album in a decade and putting the finishing touches on a film documentary of his life. But there is a downside, too.
He remains patient and optimistic even though he’s currently enduring kidney dialysis three times a week in anticipation of securing a donor for his second kidney transplant in the past 15 years.
But listen to his deep baritone voice in conversation for a few seconds and you’d be astounded at how strong he sounds and how genuinely upbeat he feels. “I’m workin’ with it,” he says, his voice still hinting of his origin in Millen, a small town located between Augusta and Statesboro in the cotton fields of South Georgia.
The seventh of 12 children born to the Rev. Maggie Jordan — a popular gospel singer in South Georgia and one of the first women ordained as a minister in the region — Bey’s a true survivor in every sense of the word. He’s been based out of Philadelphia, Pa., for the better part of 60 years and has been entertaining audiences since he was age four in a career that’s included gospel, soul and blues. And despite his current situation, he has absolutely no plan to stop now.
Bey was still a toddler when his mother put him and his brother, Robert, together with two cousins to form The Rising Sons as a gospel quartet. “We were on with quite a few of the top groups – The Soul Stirrers, The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama and others,” he remembers, “the Abraham Brothers, The Harmonizing Four and Clara Ward, too.
“My mother was a big draw, and they’d book her to appear on those programs. We’d sing, too.”
Like the massive soul and blues extravaganzas of that era, the gospel lineup usually featured several acts each night. The Rising Sons would sing three or four songs in a set before giving up the stage. The remained together for the better part of a decade. Frank was 13 when the cousins moved away. They were replaced by a couple of Bey’s sisters, but the group disbanded shortly thereafter.
Like most youngsters of color in that era, Frank grew up in a home where everyone loved gospel, but everything else was forbidden. But Bey loved the deep soul music he heard on the radio.
“When I was old enough, I started sneaking out of the house and singin’ with The Untouchables,” he recalls. A group led by Robert Sharp, they had a big local following. “That’s how I first got into R&B.”
Bey got married at 17 and escaped from the Peach State and the Jim Crow laws of the ‘50s. He and his bride moved to the City Of Brotherly Love — primarily because there was no work back home.
“The girl I married, her brother owned a service station in Philadelphia,” Frank says, “and he said: ‘You come up, and I’ll give you a job. They even had an apartment for us.”
He wasn’t there before long he running into Gene Lawson, an acquaintance he’d made in Georgia because Lawson hailed from Waynesboro, a short drive from Frank’s hometown. At the time, Lawson was serving as Otis Redding’s publicity man, traveling with him to promote his concerts on the road.
“He recognized me right away,” Bey recalls. “We started talkin’, and he started tellin’ me that he was work for Otis. He said: ‘You still good with a car?’
“He remembered that when I was down there, I used to do doughnuts and stuff out in the field.
“I was like: ‘Yeah.’
“So he said: ‘Do you wanna do some travelin’? Otis Redding needs a driver.’” The other members of the Otis Redding Revue always traveled coast-to-coast in a bus, but the star of the show traveled ahead – either by plane or car.
“Well, I knew I could make a whole lot more money drivin’ for Otis than I could at the gas station – even though I made a lot more money there than I did in Millen,” Frank says. “I jumped at it.”
Even though the work was part-time, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I didn’t have to drive every day or every week,” Bey says. “Sometimes I’d have a week off, sometimes two or three days. He let me keep the car, too. I’d go and meet ‘em wherever they were and take off from there.
“I’d meet ‘em in Durham, N.C., and take him and Gene to Wilmington, then to Philadelphia to appear on Jerry Blavat’s TV show, then on to the Apollo in New York. Then they flew to Chicago. Later on, they’d call me and I’d meet ‘em in Ohio.”
During the down time, Bey returned to Philly and the gas station to lend his brother-in-law a hand.
“Otis was a sweet person,” Frank remembers. “I never heard him raise his voice.”
Still a singer at heart and still yearning to perform, Bey watch on from the wings as Sam and Dave, Joe Simon, Joe Tex, Gladys Knight And The Pips and others worked their magic to open the show.
“I was sayin’: ‘I can do that. I can do that!’” he laughs.
“When it was time for Otis to come, the energy in the room would just rise. It was electric. He had that big band called the Showstoppers at that time with five or six horns. And man, when they started cookin’ ‘Respect’…man! I watched him perform all the time.”
Bey occasionally got to kick off the festivities himself when the regular opening act was tardy. “It was an experience gettin’ up on stage and frontin’ that big band when I got the chance,” he says. “It put a star in my crown.
“Those were the days. We had good rooms to play had a lot of fun. Just like I do today: when I was on stage, I gave it all I got. I didn’t bring nothin’ home.”
There was some discussion of making a record, too.
“Gene was supposed to be my manager,” Bey recalls, “and he and Otis occasionally talked about how they were going to record me.”
Frank knew that Redding’s big break had come when Otis had been working as the driver for guitarist Johnny Jenkins. He served as a member of Jenkins’ band, The Pinetoppers, before stepping into the studio himself. But for Bey, the promises proved empty.
“They never could seem to get around to it,” Bey says.
He’d been driving for Redding for for two years, when Otis brought Nicky Murray, one of his singers and an occasional driver into the studio. Then and now, Frank believed himself to be a better singer – a case that’s pretty strong when you consider that Murray has left virtually no imprint in the music world.
“I was gettin’ perturbed,” Frank says. In his eyes, all they wanted to do was keep him behind the wheel, singing occasionally. Without a record of his own, he got no respect. In fact, even when he did get the chance to sing, he wasn’t paid for it. He was paid to drive.
The final blow for Bey came when Otis recorded Arthur Conley, who was a superstar in his own right in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with hits that included “Sweet Soul Music.” He also wrote “Day-O,” a monster hit for Harry Belafonte.
“I knew they were gonna keep talkin’, but they ain’t gonna do nothin’,” Bey says.
He left Otis soon afterward and joined up with keyboard player Arthur Jenkins. A jazz and R&B band leader, in his golden years, Jenkins worked with John Lennon, Bob Marley, Chaka Kahn and others.
“His band was the Incredible Saxons,” Frank remembers. “They had a girl workin’ with ‘em, and got me as a male artist – a female singer and a male singer. We did separate shows, and then, at the end, duets. It was formal. We were wearin’ tuxedos and everything.
“We’d spend as many as four months at a time in Montreal. We spent so much time in Canada that I got an apartment just outside of Montreal. Even though I still had a place in Philly, it made sense because I wouldn’t have to be payin’ hotel bills and I’d have everything I needed.”
When he split from Jenkins, Bey returned to Pennsylvania and formed The Modern Mixers – a name derived from the fact that the group included two white members, something still rare in the early stages of integration. He still spent quite a bit of time north of the border because he used a Montreal-based booking agent.
“Back then it was easy to work five nights a week,” he says. “In Nova Scotia, you worked seven and did a Saturday matinee.”
In Montreal, he’d formed a friendship with the all-girl group Honey And The Bees and their backing band, The Interpretations, discovering that they too were from Philadelphia. On off nights, they’d often go to watch each other perform.
As time passed, both the Mixers and Honey And The Bees disbanded. Several members of The Interpretations relocated to Camden, N.J., a few miles away on the other bank of the Delaware River, and reformed as a radical funk group, The Moorish Vanguard.
“They were looking for a vocalist, and I joined ‘em,” Bey says.
It proved to be another bittersweet relationship that eventually was destroyed by one of the most important showmen of all-time.
“But all we were doin’ was rehearsin’,” he says.
The band called for a meeting and, after a vote, Frank was elected their manager and booking agent, something he’d done in the past. Through his diligence, they toured up and down the East Coast and Canada. But things fell apart after they decided to record in a studio in Augusta, Ga.
“We cut a song called ‘The Sunshine Of Your Love,’” Bey recalls. It exists today as a 45 on the Contry Eastern Music label.
The trouble began when James Brown entered the building – he often recorded there himself – to talk business with the owner.
“He listened to our song, and he was excited,” Frank says. “He offered to take it up to Polydor Records, and they jumped on it. But we didn’t hear from James for at least four months. The studio guy had told us we had a deal, and we was waitin’ to hear what the deal was.”
Totally unaware of what was happening, Polydor released the song on their own imprint, retitling it “Sitting In The Sunshine Of Your Love” and giving Brown production credit even though he’d never been involved.
The band was in the midst of a Florida tour when all hell broke loose.
“We’re drivin’ in our motorhome and the song came on the radio,” Frank says. “And still I can’t get ahold of Brown. I called his office and they told me he was out of town making a movie, The James Brown Story.
“The band actually thought that Brown and I had conspired against them.”
They spent that night in a motel in Jasper, Fla. When Bey awoke the next morning, he was alone. They’d basically stranding him at the side of the road.
“I didn’t even know they’d left,” he says today. “I had to cancel about three months’ worth of work.
“I found out later that they’d gone back to Philadelphia. I borrowed money for a bus ticket and went to get the motorhome. We needed to make payments on it and our equipment, and all of the notes were in my name.
“It was parked in front of the guitar player’s house when I got there, but I had keys. When they left me behind, all of my stuff was in it. I kept it about a month before taking it and the equipment to Atlanta, where I sold it at an auction – just for enough money to pay off the loans.”
The experience left such a bad taste that Bey left the music business for 17 years.
He briefly drove a Yellow Cab before taking a job with a drummer turned carpenter he’d played with in Montreal. “He said: ‘I heard what happened,’ Bey recalls. “’But if you come and help me, I’ll show you how to do stuff and you won’t be broke no more the rest of your life.’”
Bey learned the tricks of the trade from him, eventually moving on to build homes with someone else after the drummer’s drug problems proved too much to handle. Then, when things slowed down, bought his own truck and became a contractor himself. He also worked in Washington, D.C., for a while insulating airplane hangars, often working 100 feet off the ground.
In the mid-‘70s, when interest rates soared to 17 per cent and brought construction to a halt, he took over ownership of a fish market when the original proprietors wanted out. “I became pretty good at cleanin’ and cuttin’,” he says.
He’d been off the road for ten years when the opportunity for another business fell into his lap. He jumped at the chance when someone else offered to sell him a failing bar/restaurant that was situated near Philadelphia’s transportation hub. He closed it for a couple of months to remodel and upgrade the staff, but business boomed when he relaunched it with servers donning dressing tuxedos and white clothes on the tables.
Previously the home of a rough drug crowd who’d hung out all day playing the video games that sat at the front, they turned tail immediately when they took a look at the renovations and absence of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and other time-wasters.
Soon, the entire neighborhood followed suit. That’s when the landlord kept raising the rent – and when Bey started hiring bands on the weekends.
But he wasn’t happy.
Even though it was the musical era of The Sound Of Philadelphia, the majority of the bands that produced it were based elsewhere. The only groups he could find delivered smooth jazz.
“They weren’t playin’ the kind of music I wanted to hear,” Bey says. “When people worked all week and came in on the weekend, they didn’t come to hear smooth jazz. They wanted to hear some foot-stompin’ R&B.
“I couldn’t find a good band so I started one myself. I handpicked guys from different groups and had ‘em back me up. That’s how I came back to music.”
Soon, he was fielding offers to play at Warmdaddy’s and other blues joints scattered across town.
Bey returned to the stage fulltime after realizing he’d literally been working around the clock, buying fish at the docks early in the morning for the seafood store, opening the bar when it opened at 11 a.m. and then closing the restaurant late at night.
But what really mattered was the realization that he’d been drinking non-stop for seven years straight.
“I said: ‘I got to get outta here,’” he remembers. “I did. I closed the place down.”
For the next four years, he sang out at least three nights a week 52 weeks. He also worked Saturdays at a hotel on the Jersey Shore after winning over a receptive audience at the Cape May Blues Festival.
He recorded his first solo album, Steppin’ Out, on MAG Records, mixing deep soul and blues, in 1998, but started suffering severe kidney problems about the time it was released. Although received well by critics, he was too ill to promote it.
The timing was unfortunate because, about the same time, he met a disc jockey from Northern California while gigging at Warmdaddy’s. The man was insistent that he come West for a tour. Waylaid by dialysis, an eventual transplant and a lengthy recovery, Frank was sidelined for years. But throughout the ordeal, the deejay continued to call.
Finally regaining his strength, Bey returned to action in 2006. He released a solo album, Blues In The Pocket, fronting Swing City Blues Band, his regular ensemble, on the Jeffhouse imprint a year later.
Frank was finally healthy enough to travel, and the enlisted Bay Area guitarist Anthony Paule – whose credits include work with Boz Scaggs, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel and Maria Muldaur — to back him for a West Coast run.
Their tour quickly took the blues world by storm. Bey’s career peaked as a result. His relationship with Paule produced three stellar CDs on Blue Dot. Recorded live at Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco, 2012’s You Don’t Know Nothing featured Bey backed by Paule’s seven-piece orchestra. The follow-up, 2013’s Soul For Your Blues, was equally impressive. Both albums were nominated for Blues Music Award soul-blue album of the year.
They toured internationally in 2014 and released Not Going Away a year later before parting company. The separation occurred, Frank says, partially because the focus changed with each subsequent release. The first album was billed as Frank Bey With The Anthony Paule Band, the second as Frank Bey & Anthony Paule Band, the third simply the Bey-Paule Band.
In Bey’s eyes, going from featured artist to simply becoming a band member was wrong, especially because he was never consulted. He only learned about the changes after the discs were in distribution.
More recently, Frank’s being working out of Philadelphia with his regular group, and he’s been working on a documentary film – entitled Ask Me How I Feel — that details his life story. Written, directed and filmed by cinematographer Marie Hinson.
Funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s currently in the final stages of production after filming in Philadelphia, at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville and on a mountaintop in Switzerland.
Bey’s triumphant return as a solo artist – his 2018 CD Back In Business on the Nola Blue label — began on that mountaintop. It was there that he met Grammy-winning songwriter/producer Tom Hambridge for the first time.
“I was in Baden,” Bey says, “and I didn’t even know who Tom was. All I heard was that he had produced the last five CDs on Buddy Guy and that he wanted to make a record with me. I was like: ‘Okay…we’re gettin’ with the big boys then!’
“He had me come down to Nashville. I spent two days just talkin’ to him about my life, and he wrote songs based on it. He was sayin’: ‘You’ve been out for a while. Let’s get back to the studio and start recordin’.’
“That’s where the title comes from.”
A true old-school soul-blues pleaser throughout, the opening title cut basically details Frank’s early life and puts their initial meeting to song. The rollicking tune that follows – “Gun Toting Preacher” — is based on Bey’s description of his older brother. “He was a minister and had just died,” Frank recalls. “But he always carried a gun all his life.
“And then I told him the story about the motorhome. That’s where ‘Take It Back To Georgia’ came from.”
Other biographical material follows, interspersed with a single cover written by Mighty Sam McClain and four other originals penned by two of Frank’s bandmates, guitarist Jeff Monjack and the late Kevin Frieson.
“I was fascinated how Tom could write songs like that,” Bey says. “I’ve been livin’ it – and I couldn’t write it! We had a great relationship doin’ it. Tom Hambridge is a beautiful, beautiful person.”
Frank’s been away from the stage since debuting the album at a CD release party in West Chester, Pa., last September. He’s taking the winter off, but plans to return to the stage in March. He and his band are currently working up songs for their next album.
Meanwhile, he’s spending three days a week at a kidney dialysis center as he awaits a second transplant. He’s currently on the donor list at two hospitals, and remains eternally grateful for his loyal fan following and what folks have done to help keep food on his table and a roof over his head.
“I feel like I’m the most luckiest person in the world,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the amount of money they raised and sent to me, and I didn’t know a thing about it.
“That really touches you. That goes deep!”
Check out Frank’s music at www.frankbeymusic.com and take a peek at his documentary atwww.frankbeyfilm.com. And if you or someone you’d know is interested in donating a kidney, visit the “special appeal” page on his music website.