Interview with Southern gentleman of the blues Frank Bey - radiant, powerful, and generous singer and performer

"Blues music was one of the first music forms that I really paid attention to. Gospel was the first, but then on the side it was blues. And then blues became unpopular for young people, and for a young man."

Frank Bey: Back In Business

Born and raised in Millen, Georgia, Frank Bey began his singing career performing gospel at the tender age of four. Along with his brother and two cousins, their group “The Rising Sons” toured around The South making live appearances as well as radio broadcasts. At age 17 he joined the Otis Redding Revue working as the opening act for several years. During his time with Otis Redding, Frank learned to captivate and mesmerize an audience with a song. In the early 1970s, he formed a tight-knit radical funk group – Moorish Vanguard. But in a record deal gone wrong with James Brown, it all fell apart. Abandoned by his closest friends, Frank quit singing for 17 years. Eventually, Frank would find that he could never walk away from his dream. He returned to music, and despite a sudden battle with kidney failure, connected with an internationally touring blues band.                      Frank Bey / Photo by Joseph Rosen

On stage, whether for hundreds at international music festivals or dozens at a local church, Frank Bey is radiant, powerful, and generous. Frank has received two Blues Music Award nominations for Soul Blues Artist of the Year, as well as two nominations for Soul Blues Album of the year. The Southern gentleman of the blues & four-time BMA nominee Frank Bey released his latest opus, “Back In Business - The Nashville Sessions” (2018) on Nola Blue records. Recorded and produced in Nashville by two-time Grammy winner Tom Hambridge.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Soul Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

I came along before there was a “soul blues” and so that’s a new term in a sense. Blues music was one of the first music forms that I really paid attention to. Gospel was the first, but then on the side it was blues. And then blues became unpopular for young people, and for a young man. So, later through the years with the rock and roll music and soul music, then it converted back to bringing in the different genre called soul blues. Soul blues is somewhat in between the old original rhythm and blues and blues. So, some of the songs that you wouldn’t hear back in the day in blues, today you hear them on blues stations. That was one of the music that I cut my teeth on; that original R&B. Today it’s considered soul blues. And then you play that music and you can get closer to blues with it. It has just been my home base music. It’s the music that’s a part of me. I discovered me when I discovered the music. I discovered the music in me.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

The songs that I’m doing now, more or less, are songs that were written for me. My sound is sort of familiar, but it’s my sound. It is catching on to a lot of ears, which is a pleasure, because back in the day I did everybody else’s songs. Some I did better than the artists themselves, and some I just added, sort of, “amen” to other artists’ music. But in these later years I’m doing my own music and it’s so appreciative to be doing my own music. It is somewhat of an aggressive gospel from back in the day – the gospel that I used to do – that’s still where my bread and butter is. My music that I do today still has that flavor of gospel. 

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Of all the known artists that I’ve worked with, I was very much influenced by Otis Redding. In fact, Otis was the first professional R&B and blues singer that I was able to see firsthand. I used to drive for him, and a lot of times in theaters and halls, I was backstage and so I could see him from the back or the side view, and I could see the band and I could peep around and see the audience. That energy that Otis had, I knew I had that in me because I had it in gospel, and he was one of the greatest influences on me. A lot of times on those shows there would be Joe Tex, Sam and Dave, Joe Salmon and Solomon Burke. I could see all those guys performing, and I picked up a lot from them and knew I could do this. The recording end, Ray Charles influenced me from very early all the way to his passing. I kept up with him and I always loved his music, so I did a lot of Ray’s songs. The best advice that I got from the pros who were around was Count Basie when we were playing together at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. They were in the back (the big orchestra) and we was in the front. One night everyone was crowded around the dressing room (because we all shared) but when the dressing room thinned out it was nobody left but me and Count Basie. And Count told me, “Young man, you’re going to have a great future ahead of you in this business. But, if you want longevity, I see that everybody parties a lot.  When they go out to party, you carry your butt home and go to bed and get plenty of rest so you can perform the next night and the next night and the next night. So for me, over the years, that was the best advice I got from an older musician. He could see that everyone was going out partying and a lot of them have fell by the wayside with either drugs or illnesses or something. And I consider that to be great advice. Go to bed! When you’re done with your show, go home and get some rest.

"The songs that I’m doing now, more or less, are songs that were written for me. My sound is sort of familiar, but it’s my sound. It is catching on to a lot of ears, which is a pleasure, because back in the day I did everybody else’s songs." (Photo from the upcoming documentary of Frank Bey's life)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

With Moorish Vanguard we did a recording in Pennsauken, NJ and that’s where I recorded “Love Ballad” and we also did a rendition of “Superstition.” That was the first time I worked with a good group of CD producers and so that’s a memory that stuck with me. Anthony Beck and, I can’t think of the keyboard player’s name, but it was a great session and we really, really enjoyed it. We didn’t get to go anywhere because there was some difficulty about the name. The record company wanted us to change our name but we wouldn’t do it. And the next memory was from a jam. My band and I played in Providence, RI and there was a group came through there, they were just traveling and performing. They had a new CD out, but it wasn’t a CD it was a soundtrack to a movie that was produced by Melvin Van Peebles. This group came through and they wanted to sit in.  The club owner had talked to me about it because he knew they was coming. So when they got there they set up and we just had a jam that night that was out of this world. Actually, I didn’t know then because they didn’t have a name at that point, but the group was Earth, Wind and Fire! They had just done a soundtrack to the movie “Sweet Sweetback” so they were just kinda out touring and getting their name out. That was a really memorable moment. They was fantastic, man. They was mind blowing. We was doing cover songs and they was doing songs from that “Sweet Sweetback” and some other stuff and they were a great, great group.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

One of the things is some of the great ballads. You don’t hear those ballads with great baritone voices and a big band in the back. The music of that era has so much meaning to it. Even the writers who was writing music back then wrote about actual things that people experienced. A lot of the music today is just, kinda, noise. You don’t understand the words and it’s a lot in the music today that’s a cover-up, in other words. And even the quality of the musicians, when you hear a lot of stuff, the quality in the musicianship is rare. My old man said, like finding gold nuggets in a sand bar. There’s some good people out there, but there’s some people who really don’t deserve to be there.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to change anything, because there’s such a variety of people these days with broader likes and dislikes. Some of the music that I think I might want to change might create an empty void or gap for other people. It looks to me like most of the music is liked by somebody, so I don’t think I’d want to change anything. I’d just do my thing!

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the late great Otis Redding?                                                  Frank Bey / Photo by Joseph Rosen

Well we had some personal moments traveling together, because I was the driver, and there was another guy named Gene Lawson who was Otis’s promotions person and another guy named Speedo who was handling the books and the papers and the hotel registrations and stuff like that, so there was a lot of personal moments that was funny. One thing I used to kid about was Otis and his style. The way he would come on the stage like a freight train and the energy level in the room would just rise. The band would be just pumpin. Some of his pronunciations would be so funny. He was a Georgia boy and he had that accent, so a lot of the words he’d be saying in the song, you know, you just have to laugh. But to the people, it meant so much. He said, it’s that actual soul thing. It’s that thing that makes them know what you’re talking about. You can say it so pretty but it has no meaning. It defines your ability to speak it or to say it or to sing it. Like Otis could come in and do it so country until you KNOW he knows what he’s talking about. Like, “Dat-dat-dat.” He would never say “that.” Or “G-g-g-g-got to” and “G-g-g-g-g gimme” and those kind of terms added something that would just grab you. He would be doing that song “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” And then he would say, “You say dat. Say it again!”  But he was rising, man.  His death was too early. He was rising like a star, man, and shooting to the top. He even recorded one of James Brown’s songs and made a big hit. Nobody was recording James Brown songs and doing anything with it, but it was a gift. I picked up a lot from Otis. Sometimes I’ll say words or things on stage to end a song and you can hear that same thing. 

I got the news about his plane accident at about 11:00 in the morning while I was in Philadelphia, in my car driving from 52nd St. to 46th & Market.  It was on the radio, and said that Otis’s plane had went down in Wisconsin into that lake. First of all, I couldn’t believe it. Then they said they would give more info as they received it. I kept the radio on all day. In fact, I went over to Gene Lawson’s house and he had already got the news. We spent the rest of the day waiting to hear something. Gene was calling Phil Weld down there in Memphis and they were calling different people, but we got no word until I think it was at night, or actually it was early the next day on tv that they showed pulling him up out of the water in a harness and swung him over. That was brutal. That was one of the worst moments of my life. I always thought that they shouldn’t have done that. They should have blacked that out. Even as far as the family, that was kind of cruel. When they brought him out of the lake they should have covered him. But instead they swung him over and his hand and his head dropped to the side. And he was a big man. It was brutal. 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

That time machine, that’s a bit scary. I could go back in some of them old days and enjoy the moment, but I would want to go forward just to see what’s happening in the future. I’d like to get a glimpse of that. I look one day to play in the heavenly band, and that’s about as far forward as I want to go. I want to play with those guys, you know Otis and Sam Cooke. Jackie Wilson. Yeah, I’d like to put my two cents in with a group of people like that. When I think of going forward to me is going within. I go forward right now by going within and listen and hear. Sometimes I can go within and I can hear music. Sometimes I can’t bring it back with me. I be wanting to, but when I come back and be wanting to make that noise it doesn’t sound nothing like I heard when I was out there, so that’s kind of scary!

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