Featured Interview – Franck L. Goldwasser

imageSome of the biggest stars in the blues world hide in plain sight, toiling for decades in pursuit of their art without much attention from audiences, but constantly drawing raves from peers because of skills that extend far beyond the norm. They fly high while more often buried deep in the grooves of other’s hit albums they’ve recorded rather than themselves.

Such is the case with Franck L. Goldwasser, a slight, serious guitar wizard and storyteller who’s been trading licks with the cream of the crop on the West Coast scene since emigrating from France and building an instant presence in the black clubs of Oakland, Calif., 40 years ago.

Fret master Steve Freund – who spent decades in Chicago alongside Sunnyland Slim, Big Walter Horton — says succinctly: Franck is “one of modern blues’ best kept secrets.” And Grammy-winning producer Dick Shurman – who’s worked with Otis Rush, Johnny Winter, Albert Collins and dozens of others – delivers similar praise: “Music from Franck naturally means blues delivered with conviction, virtuosity and authority.”

Born in 1960 into a Polish family that settled in Paris as Nazi-era horrors engulfed Europe, Goldwasser may not have been born to play the blues, but as a young Jew, experienced the backwash of similar repression and hardships that endured after World War II came to an end.

As Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, he fell into the music early – and almost by accident.

“I was pretty isolated kid. I was kinda a nerd,” chuckles Franck, who was a recent finalist in this year’s Blues Blast Music Awards for historical/vintage album of the year. “I didn’t have many friends, I sucked at sports, and I was afraid of girls.

“I was on my way back from school one day in 1975,” he remembers, his soft, deliberate voice accented by only the slightest hint of his homeland. “There was this store that specialized in imported records that always kinda mesmerized me every time I walked past it. It was very dark and mysterious, frightened me a little, but attracted me at the same time.

“In France, imported records were a big deal back then…all wrapped up in cellophane – and very expensive. And for no obvious reason, I just walked in there and – completely out of the blue – asked for a blues record! I’d never heard about blues,” he admits. “I didn’t know anyone who was into the blues. I knew nothing about it!

“The guy had two blues records in the store. I pick one not knowing what I was getting…not even the vaguest idea. It was just a picture of an old guy on the front with a guitar. I took it home, put it on, and don’t think I listened to the whole record. I put it away and kinda forgot about it.”

Goldwasser’s life changed dramatically a short while later, he says, when he had what he terms “a visitation” – a dream so vivid that it felt more like an apparition coming to make a call more than anything else.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and saw an old — to me at the time, he seemed old, but probably younger than I am now – tall, skinny black man sitting at the end of the bed and grinning, looking at me and not saying a word,” remembers. “It was very powerful. I woke up the next morning and it was still very present on my mind. I didn’t know what to make of it – but I felt compelled to dig up the record that I’d bought.”

The LP was Alligator’s 1974 release of Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers’ Natural Boogie, and Franck knew instantaneously that it had been the six-fingered slide guitar legend who’d visited him a few weeks before – something that – if you believe in such things – could have been possible because Taylor had succumbed to lung cancer the previous December. If Goldwasser was aware of that coincidence, however, he never mentioned it in this interview.

“I put it on, started listening to it, and I was hooked on the blues from that moment on,” he says. “I never stopped listening. I read the liner notes over and over again, trying to absorb every little bit of information I could, and I got a subscription to Living Blues magazine because it said on the back: ‘If you want to know more about the blues, we recommend a subscription…’

“I devoured every magazine I got from front to back even though it was little more than a fanzine published in Chicago back then by Jim and Amy O’Neal. That’s how I learned about the artists and the different clubs and places in America.”

Goldwasser’s parents believed he was destined to become a painter, illustrator or graphic artist, and he admits today that “I had a gift for it, but I really didn’t cultivate it.”

Hard-core blues fans may have seen some of his handiwork, however, in the pages of harp player Mark Hummel’s autobiographical memoir, Big Road Blues: 12 Bars on I-80. Franck did the illustrations that grace both the cover and insides – something he agreed to do after much convincing because, he admits, “I hadn’t touched a pencil in decades. He talked me into it, and I did what I could.

“When I was young, I was addicted to drawing. But I don’t get the same pleasure out of it that I used to. What destroyed my passion, I think, was going to art school. It was so competitive and career-oriented that it kinda killed it for me. I kept it in the back of my mind to get back into it, but never did.

image“And at the same time, I discovered the blues, started playing, and my focus just shifted.”

Self-taught on the guitar, Goldwasser immersed himself in the music of B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Elmore James. He quickly came to the realization that he had a talent – one that needed to be tested. And even then, he understood, it had to be a trial by fire by eventually moving to the U.S., where he could work with real-deal, American blues artists and perform for genuine blues audiences, too.

The first time Franck actually got to play in public came at age 18 thanks to harmonica master Sugar Blue, an American ex-pat living in France at the time, where he’d become a national hero and become a star on both sides of the Atlantic after a member of the Rolling Stones’ entourage discovered him busking for tips in the Paris Metro and he was subsequently invited into the studio to record “Miss You” for the Some Girls album.

“He had a residency at a club near where I lived,” Goldwasser says, “and I went down there and saw him several times. There was a time in the late ‘70s when he was the talk of the town – the black American blues artist in Paris. He was everywhere on the television and radio. One night, I brought my guitar and asked if I could sit in, and he let me play a couple of songs.”

As time passed, he hooked up with a few friends and formed a group that performed out a few times. American blues musicians didn’t make it to France very often during that era –usually only during a pair of regularly scheduled package tours.

Franck attempted to broaden his education by meeting the musicians every chance he could – something that caught the eye of the editor of Soul Bag magazine, the French-language publication that devotes itself to all forms of African-American music and is still in print today after being founded in 1968.

“I started writing for them,” he says. “And since I was the only one that was fluent in English, they would send me out to interview the artists. I’d also mention in passing that I was a guitar player. So it was always: ‘Oh! C’mon by and sit in!’

“In 1980, a lot of Bay Area musicians came through Paris as the San Francisco Blues Festival Tour. That’s when I first met (lap steel guitar giant) Sonny Rhodes, Ron Thompson, Mississippi Johnny Waters – a bunch of guys from the East Bay. And I hung out with Sonny a lot.”

Los Angeles-based George “Harmonica” Smith and guitarist Phillip Walker offered invites during that era, as Jimmy Dawkins and others from the Chicago blues scene. And, like art, he says, his interest in writing waned quickly as he got the chance to make music himself.

“I wanted to be an actor, not a commentator or anything else,” he remembers. “The first ‘professional’ – if you can call it that – gig I played was with Sonny. I backed him up for a couple of gigs in Paris and Reims.

“One afternoon, Sonny and I were hangin’ out at a café, and I asked him: ‘Sonny, I really want to come to America. Do you think if I come to America, they will let me play?’ Sonny said: ‘You come to Oakland, and you look me up. I’ll put you on your way,’” Franck recalls. “That was the catalyst for me.”

Goldwasser had already been to the U.S. on multiple occasions. His family visited when he was 14, and he spent three months with a host family in L.A. at 16, when his record collection expanded dramatically. Three years later, he spent a couple of months in Boston, where he got to see the insides of American blues clubs as well as J.B. Hutto and the House Rockers and others in action on their home turf for the first time.

He finally got to spend three months in Oakland in 1981, documenting the local scene for Soul Bag, reuniting with his Bay Area friends and getting to jam with Big Mama Thornton, Frankie Lee, Buddy Ace, J.J. Malone, Cool Papa and Troyce Key, the owner of the legendary Eli’s Mile High Club. It was Troyce who subsequently pinned the nickname “Paris Slim” on him, a moniker Franck used as a stage name for years.

Back home in the City of Lights, Goldwasser formed his first band, the Blues Rockers, and saved his francs until making the jump across the Atlantic for good in 1983.

“It turns out that I had a long-lost relative – an attorney — on my father’s side of the family in Oakland,” he says. “My grandfather’s oldest brother had moved to America in the early part of the 20th century. But my side of the family had not been in contact with them at all for 40 years. I was the first one. I stayed with him for six months – that’s what really made it possible for me to stay.”

Often overlooked as a blues mecca, Oakland had become a hotbed for the music after World War II thanks to the influx of so many African-Americans who’d settled there following their discharge. Dozens of small clubs flourished along Seventh Street near the port, where Sugar Pie DeSanto, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin and dozens more big names entertained nightly until urban renewal uprooted the surrounding black neighborhood for gentrification – something that’s described in detail by director Cheryl Fabio in her stellar documentary, Evolutionary Blues…West Oakland’s Musical Legacy.

imageAlmost immediately after his arrival, Key hired Franck as the second guitarist in his Eli’s house band. And as Troyce said at the time: “He’s the closest thing I’ve ever heard to The Thing” – a reference to Lafayette “Thing” Thomas, McCracklin’s longtime guitar player, who’d died four years earlier at age 48.

It proved to be a great training ground. Goldwasser regularly worked alongside Fulson, McCracklin and Percy Mayfield, and he even lived above the bar for a few months after his stay with his relative came to an end. He also picked up gigs on his off nights with Omar Shariff – the pianist formerly known as Dave Alexander, Ron Thompson, Elvin Bishop and Johnny Heartsman. And when Key decided to take off from performing for a year, he handed the reins to Franck.

Goldwasser’s career as a recording artist began in 1985, when he cut “Guitar Shuffle” – a driving reinvention of a Fulson tune – for San Francisco’s Backtrack label. He subsequently spent three years as McCracklin’s musical director. His first album, Blues for Esther — on Belgium’s Blue Sting imprint – earned a 1989 W.C. Handy Award nomination for blues album of the year and featured all-star backing: Jim Pugh, Karl Sevareid and Tim Kaihatsu – three future members of the Robert Cray Band – as well as Rick Estrin, a young Dave Matthews and more.

A fast-rising star, he played the San Francisco Blues Festival that year and backed guitarist Pee Wee Crayton – one of the founding fathers of West Coast blues – in the final performance of his 50-year career. He and Hummel also teamed to run the jams at the top blues club in Berkeley for a while, and he was gigging regularly with Charlie Musselwhite, keyboard player Mitch Woods, sax ace Terry Hanck, guitarist Johnny Nitro and harmonica ace Gary Smith.

A first-call sideman for Sunnyland Slim, Big Jack Johnson, James Harman, A.C. Reed and Jerry “Boogie” McCain whenever they came to town, he took the spot of the late Mike Bloomfield at the insistence of Electric Flag co-founder Nick Gravenites when the band reunited for reunion shows.

It took another seven years for Goldwasser to release a second album, Bleeding Heart, which was produced by Joe Louis Walker and released on Globe Records in 1996. Then Franck moved on to Mountain Top, where he produced several releases for Fillmore Slim and partnered with Smith on the CD Be Careful What You Wish For in addition to other chores.

A brief run with Bay Area favorites, The Dynatones, followed before Franck relocated to Southern California in 1998, where he became joined the house band at Fedora Records, appearing on CDs by Chicagoans Dawkins, Homesick James and Byther Smith and a host of others, including Fillmore, Hosea Leavy – the man who penned “Parchman Prison Farm” – and a host of others. He also played locally with Kim Wilson, Roy Gaines and harp player/impresario Randy Chortkoff.

The concert promoter/band manager who founded Delta Groove Records, Chortkoff had tried to recruit Goldwasser for the band of soul-blues singer King Earnest, one of his acts. As a traditional blues artist, however, Franck had declined the invitation. But they formed an enduring relationship after Chortkoff sought him out to back Windy City harp legend Billy Boy Arnold and L.A. vocalist Finis Tasby at the 2000 Ojai Bowlful of Blues festival.

“After the gig, we ran into each other in the Netherlands,” Franck remembers. “I was there backing someone at a festival, and he had just started a production company. We got to talking backstage, and he said: ‘Look, I really like what you’re doing. I’d be interested in going into the studio with you.’

“So we started working on what would become the album Bluju.”

First released in Europe on Crosscut Records in Germany in 2003 with a lineup that included Kirk Fletcher, Alex Schultz, J.J. Malone and Phillip Walker, it took the blues into territory it hadn’t ventured before because of the presence of Lebanese percussionist Souhail Kaspar. It also became Chortkoff’s debut album on what would become his highly successful Delta Groove imprint in the U.S. four years later.

“I remember vividly sitting at Randy’s dinner table when we were working on the album, and he had this grandiose idea about putting a supergroup together,” Goldwasser says. “That’s how The Mannish Boys came about.”

And it truly was a super group. The early roster included Tasby, harp player/vocalist Johnny Dyer, Franck and Fletcher on guitars with keyboard player Leon Blue and a rhythm section composed of Richard Innes and Ronnie James Webber. The lineup changed frequently through the years and also included later vocalists Sugaray Rayford and Bobby Jones, guitarist Kid Ramos, bassist Willie J. Campbell and drummer Jimi Bott.

The Mannish Boys racked up 18 Blues Music Award nominations – including eight for band of the year – during their their 11-year run as well as several individual honors, too. But other than Chortkoff, Goldwasser was the only permanent fixture on all of the band’s seven albums.

image“Everybody else came and went,” he says proudly. “On the first album (That Represent Man), June Core was on drums, but he never played a gig with us. Randy started booking gigs, and June was playing with…I think…Little Charlie and the Nightcats at the time. And Kirk was playing with Musselwhite, so he never made it to the first gigs.

“It was a rotating cast of people the whole time. And working in the studio with those people was interesting in more ways than one. It was difficult at times because Randy had a certain vision that a lot of the old-generation black artists did not share. For instance, Finis was a man who was always trying to make records that were relevant to the times and would get airplay, but Randy was trying to make records that sounded like they were made in the ‘50s. Finis did not get that at all.”

Then and now, Franck’s always been a master at juggling multiple projects. Back then, he formed Down Home Super Trio with Freund and harp player R.J. Mischo, releasing one CD, In the House, during their brief run. Then he joined forces with Alastair Greene, another powerhouse on the six-string, for the album Franck Goldwasser with the Alastair Greene Band.

For a heartbeat in 2005, Franck and his family decided to move back to Paris, but things didn’t work out for his wife and daughter in France as smoothly as they planned. After six months, they pulled up stakes again and relocated to Portland, Ore., for what would be a six-year run. He also recorded two more discs — Lightnin’ Strikes on the Me and My Blues imprint with his short-lived quartet Sultans of Slide as well as a solo CD, Can’t Raise Me, on the Dutch label, Continental Blue Heaven. And he was in Curtis Salgado’s band for about a year, too, before relocating to Southern California, where he’s been based since the early 2010s, taking multiple breaks from music because of burn-out and disenchantment about what he’d been doing.

Fortunately, he’s been pretty busy in recent years. In 2018, her joined forces with Kid Andersen for the double CD, Sweet Little Black Spider. A mix of new tunes and spoken-word tracks, the idea for that one came about when, Franck admits, he was on the verge of walking away from it all.

“But one of my oldest friends, (Stanford University radio host, harp player/bandleader) Byrd Hale, talked me back into the studio,” Goldwasser remembers. “He said: ‘I’m gonna back you up on it, and you’re gonna do it with Kid. And I want you to do some spoken words, too.’”

It was something that Franck had done earlier on his Bluju release decades earlier. Entitled “Three Sisters,” that one recounted his early days when playing in Oakland. “Three Sisters was the name of an after-hours club I used to go to,” he notes. “It was a slow blues, and I talked on top of it.

“Byrd said: ‘I want you to do a whole disc of stuff like that!’”

The end result was one CD loaded with deep-in-the pocket, blues originals – one of which that paid tribute to Parliament Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel — and a second subtitled Stories from the Trenches of the Blues that layered reminiscences about Rhodes, Musselwhite and others and unique views about the world atop instrumental accompaniment.

His latest work, the two-CD Going Back to Paris on Mountain Top, revisits three sessions Franck recorded for the label in the late ‘90s in lineups that included Pugh, Rusty Zinn, Smith, Johnny Ace, Walter Shufflesworth and others. Despite being in the can for 20 years, the music remains as vital as the day it was recorded and has garnered positive reviews around the globe.

Despite critics’ praise and being as great a guitarist as he is, however, Goldwasser admits that he doesn’t usually greatly appreciate his own records. “I have such high standards that they’re unattainable,” he admits. “When I listen to myself play and sing and I compare it to what I would like it to be, it doesn’t even come close.

“But I have to admit that my last couple of releases…I think that there’s some pretty substantial stuff on there. My style has changed that much, but my approach has changed in one major way: I want to focus on original material now. I’m not interested in recording songs that other people have written.”

As this interview was taking place, Goldwasser was in the final stages of uprooting himself to Paris once more to attend to family matters. Fortunately for blues lovers, however, he was also close to putting the finishing the touches on another musical love letter.

“I was hoping to have a new album in the can before leaving the country,” he says. Sadly, that didn’t happen, but it should be appearing in the not-so-distant future.

He’s particularly excited about one song in particular and related the back story behind it. It was recorded in Ventura, Calif., at the home studio of dear friend and producer Ralph Carter, the multi-instrumentalist who was Sugaray Rayford’s longtime bass player, the songwriter who co-wrote several of Eddie Money’s hits as well as dozens more for others and a man with a deep history in the TV and film industry.

image“I was laying down tracks two or three years ago,” Franck remembers, “and there was one in particular that I had hopes for at the time. But I didn’t have a finished set of lyrics for it. We recorded a basic track that turned out really good — not a conventional blues groove exactly, but it’s definitely blues. I almost forgot about it until I discovered it on my computer a year or so ago. So I went back to the studio, and Ralph and I started bouncing off ideas.”

In the midst of everything else, they were trading complaints about the current state of the world, prompting Carter to say: “Who needs this shit!” The phrase quickly evolved into the song’s eventual title, “Who Needs This Mess?!!”

“It talks about the environment, the rat race…it’s very potent,” Goldwasser says. Ralph basically wrote it, and I tried to sing it.”

A major self-critic, however, he quickly realized that it was such a strong number that it needed a voice to match. “I started thinking: ‘I could get somebody else to sing it… who could that be?

“Of course, Sugaray Rayford!’ Sugaray did it from his home in Phoenix, sent us the track, and he just slaughtered it way beyond my expectations! Then I thought: ‘If I only had a really cool, really special, funky rhythm guitar part…really strong with a hook.’

“Same thing: ‘Who? Of course! Kirk Fletcher! — except he lives in Switzerland.’”

Fortunately, distance means nothing in the music world today. “I sent him the file. Two days later, he sends it back, and he just nails it. But it’s still missing something…a really great harmonica part – not the same old shit, but something special.

“It just so happened that, about the same time, I had been in conversation with Charlie Musselwhite – not about music, but something completely unrelated. I sent it to him. I thought it would be a longshot because of his high profile, but asked if he wanted to do it. And he did!”

Goldwasser finished the tune a few days prior to heading overseas and released it as a single on Sept. 3 across multiple platforms. It’ll appear on his upcoming album – possibly titled Bigger Than a Millionaire – sometime in the near future. Like Black Spider, it will contain at least one spoken-word element.

After 40 years in America, not unlike Robert Johnson, Franck currently finds himself at a philosophical crossroad. He’s born witness to the dramatic way the music industry has changed through the years – and now, even more so because of COVID-19. And he’s been contemplating how different his life might be if he decides to put down roots in France once more.

“For the longest time, it’s been on the back of my mind that I really could do better for myself musically in Europe than in the U.S. because I’m not really doing that much here anymore,” he admits. “I don’t envision staying here and moving on to greater and bigger things.

“Part of the reason I’ve never gotten farther along (in the U.S.) is that I’ve never wanted to play the game. I’m pretty lazy, and I’m not driven by success. I’m really lazy,” he insists. “My passion is music. And what you need to do to get some kind of recognition in this field…I don’t really relate to any of it. Whether it’s working social media, cultivating connections…that’s just not the way I operate.

“If I were to relocate to Europe, I guess there’s a decent chance that I could have a decent career there. But the grass always seems greener on the other side. I’m not sure if that’s the case or if it’s just an idealization.

“I guess I’ll find out,” Goldwasser admits. “And nobody knows what the world’s going to be like on the other side of COVID, too.”

Au revoir, bon chance and à la prochaine, Franck. So long, good luck and until we meet again…

Check out Goldwasser’s music and – hopefully – when he’ll be back in the U.S. and performing before the best blues audiences in the world by visiting his website: www.francklgoldwasser.com

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