Singer/songwriter Bob Frank is perhaps the Bay Area’s most unknown musical genius. Forty years ago, Frank released his critically-acclaimed debut self-titled album on Vanguard Records. For reasons I’ll let Bob explain, the record only received a single pressing and became a bit of a cult classic, with its rare copies becoming a hot item for vinyl collectors.
Bob stopped making music for about 30 years to raise his family in the East Bay, where he lives today. Earlier this year, Light in the Attic Records reiussed Frank’s debut on vinyl, and Bob will perform Sunday night at the Vortex Room to celebrate. Now 70, Frank doesn’t seem to harbor any bitterness about his missed chance at stardom. In fact, he says his time raising his family and working for the City of Oakland may be the happiest time of his life. I chatted with Bob about his great story below.
The Bay Bridged: What was your life like when you wrote the songs for the album?
Bob Frank: When I wrote the songs that were on that album, I was writing songs for Tree. They were paying me a whopping $25.00 a week to write songs. Actually, in those days, the publishing companies didn’t pay anybody anything unless they had royalties coming in from a song that was on the radio. I never had a song on the radio, but they paid me something anyway, which was a deal that Jerry Thompson, a newspaper reporter for the Tennessean, got me. He somehow talked Buddy Killen into paying me twenty-five bucks a week, he told ’em I was an authentic artist, who was never going to do anything but write songs, and therefore, it would be worth their while to keep me alive. Buddy agreed, but I’m sure he regretted it to his dying day. So I rented a little room in a rooming house on 17th Avenue South, I had some money from the GI Bill, and I walked around town drinking wine and shooting liquid opium or anything else I came across, and I showed up at Tree every now and then, went in the studio there and put down the latest bunch of songs I’d come up with, they would bring in some really great musicians, Norman Blake — this was in 1969-70, before anybody had ever heard of Norman Blake — and Tim Drummond, Red Lane, Bobby Braddock, Lightning Chance, Karl Himmel — a real cast of characters. The demos were top notch, better than what you’d hear on the radio. Authentic music. I tried to write songs that Buddy could pitch to somebody, some of them are on this album, but they just were never top forty material. I mostly wrote from inspiration. I couldn’t write to order. Or I didn’t want to. Basically, I couldn’t come up with any popular sort of story line or lyrics or melody. All the stuff I wrote was too personal and too folky for country music. I guess you could say I was a duck out of water.
Tom Hartman thought one song I had written would be a good song for Waylon Jennings to sing. At this time, Waylon was just getting started on his solo career, nobody had heard of him outside of a few people. The song was something I’d written about hitchhiking through Montana, by the Blackfoot River. I did a lot of hitchhiking in those days. Went out to California, lived on the coast, wrote songs and drank rose petal wine, smoked a lot of weed and so on. Then I’d hitchhike back to Gnashville and try to get something recorded. So Tom Hartman told me, “If you change Blackfoot River Range to Route 66, I’ll pitch this song to Waylon Jennings.” I said, “No way. I’m not changing that. I’m not changing anything in my songs.” That’s how I was back then. I thought the songs came from God, or from some sacred place. I thought they were perfect like they were, you shouldn’t touch hide nor hair of ’em. So that’s how I lived back when I was writing the songs that are on that album. I didn’t actually sit down and write songs for the album. They were just some of the 84,000 songs I’d written while hitchhiking around the country, sleeping in a empty horse trailer in Oklahoma or out on a windy cliff in Utah, freezing my ass off.
TBB: Was this the first album you ever recorded?
BF: Yes, it was the first album I ever recorded. It was recorded by Gary Walker and Cletus Haegert, they produced it. They picked the songs, and the whole feel of the album is really due to their vision. All I did was sit in the studio and drink wine and sing the songs, over and over again until they had the exact cut they wanted.
TBB: How were you discovered?
How it came about, Clete was pitching songs to Gary Walker. Gary worked for Lowery Music in Atlanta, but he lived in Nashville. Clete and I were writers for Tree. We co-wrote a lot of songs together, Buddy Killen kept hoping we would come up with something he could pitch to some popular singer, but mostly we just wrote whatever we wanted to, and Buddy and Tom Hartman, the A&R man at Tree, never could find anybody who would sing them. We wrote “Before the Trash Truck Comes”, which is on the album. So Clete was pitching songs to Gary. He had a bunch of ’em on a reel to reel tape. So he started playing one of them, “Stickerweeds”, which was one he and I had written, it was a comedy song, about the farm where Clete grew up, out north of Enid, Oklahoma, in the sand hills. So on this cut, I was singing it. Clete didn’t think Gary was looking for songs like that, so he started to fast forward it to the next song, and Gary said, “Wait! Who was that?” and Clete said, “Bob Frank.” Clete told me this story, I wasn’t there, but he said Gary flipped. He wanted to know if I had any more songs, where I was, and so on. So Clete played him some tapes of me, demos that had been made in the studio at Tree, and others that he had recorded in his apartment, on a reel to reel machine, just me sitting there playing guitar and singing ’em…Gary got me a deal with Vanguard, and the next thing you know, I was famous. Well, not really. Like they say, “he was a legend in his own mind.” Truth was, pretty soon, I had to go on welfare.
TBB: What happened AFTER the album was released?
BF: After that album was released, they had a release party for it at Max’s Kansas City in New York. It was the new hot spot in town. So that’s when I refused to play any of the songs on the album, and this story has been told and retold so many times, the short of it was, I was a headstrong, ornery young guy, and I thought I had a valid reason to do that, so I did it. It ended my “career” before it ever got off the shipping room floor. Maynard Solomon was so upset with me, he erased me from the Vanguard catalog. Some of the albums had already been shipped before this, so some people in certain places in the country heard the album on the “underground,” and so on. North Carolina was a hot spot. KFAT, a radio station in Gilroy, California, played “She Pawned Her Diamond for Some Gold” so much, they wore the record out. People heard it in Arkansas and Texas and places down south. But that was it. No more. Nada. Zip. Bob Frank disappeared before he’d even surfaced. Me and Deirdre went back to Gnashville, we’d been living in Vermont. We had a baby girl who was born in a cabin in Thetford, Vermont. We moved to Gnashville and Clete became my manager and booked me on a tour across the southwest, through Memphis, the Arkansas Folk Festival, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. We ran out of gigs in the Bay Area, I had some friends living here, I wanted to go to Colorado or Wyoming or somewhere, but we had a one-year-old baby and one on the way, forty dollars, and a van. Deirdre said we weren’t going anywhere. So I went downtown in Oakland to the Welfare Office. I figured things had gotten so bad, they were gonna have to pay me to stay here. And here I’ve been, ever since…I wound up working for the City of Oakland, doing irrigation work. I did that for 28 years, with a house full of kids running around and a wife and old broke down vehicles — it was probably the happiest time of my life, but you couldn’t tell it to look at me. I was always angry and depressed. See, the thing is, it’s the things that are the hardest to do, those are the things that give life the deepest meaning. If I hadn’t had all those kids and Deirdre, I’d probably never have made it out of the ’70s. But I had to sober up to take care of the kids, so that’s probably what kept me alive.
TBB: How does it feel to revisit the album after all this time? Have you spent time listening to it after it’s been reissued?
BF: Nope, I never listen to that album. I never listen to anything any more. I can’t hear worth a shit. I can hear in my mind. That’s all it takes. But I think it’s great that Vanguard decided to reissue this album, and that Light in the Attic is doing it. This is a gift. I am very grateful to them for doing this. I will play some of the songs from the album in concerts now, along with some newer songs in the same vein. Some of the songs, I don’t really want to play any more, but some of them I can still sink my teeth into.
TBB: How many songs would you say you’ve written over the last 40 years? What are some of your favorites?
BF: I’ve written about a hundred thousand songs, give or take a few. No, really, there is no way to count ’em. From time to time, I’d have a list of about 200 songs that I thought were my best. Then, a few years later, the list totally changed. Two-hundred other songs were on it, and not one of them had been on the old list. I’ve forgotten most of the songs I’ve written. I’ve forgotten 46,000 songs, but don’t let that scare you. I still remember 63,000 other ones.
My favorite song is “Lavender Blue”, the old folk song, not the top forty hit that was recorded in the ’50s. The old original English folk song. I don’t sing the “dilly, dilly” part, I play that on the guitar. I just sing the lyric part. Three verses. Short, sweet, simple, and strong as hell.
My favorite song that I’ve written changes from day to day. Right now, it’s a tossup between “Llano Estacado” and “Heart Wide Open”. Neither of them have been recorded.
TBB: How do you spend most of your time these days? Are you still writing and recording music?
BF: Most of the time these days, I’m trying to watch my mind. I still write songs, I do it with other people and I do it alone. It’s a bad habit I got into early in life and have never been able to break. I record them at home on whatever sort of recording device I can find. I have a whole album of 15 songs that has never been released. John Murry produced it back in 2009-10. It’s a wild concoction from two inappropriate minds. John said I should release it anyway, but it costs money to do that, and I don’t sell many CDs, so I’m letting it sit in a charcoal barrel and age for a spell, like Jack Daniel’s.