This article was written and kindly submitted by Bear Rasmuson.
Last week we looked at the historical underpinnings of “Stagger Lee” and this week we’ll follow up with the story behind “Frankie and Johnny”, or as it was originally titled “Frankie and Albert”. Then we’ll give the background on a song you’ve probably never heard and tie them all together.
NEGRO SHOT BY WOMAN
Allen Britt, colored, was shot and badly wounded shortly after 2 o’clock yesterday morning by Frankie Baker, also colored. The shooting occurred in Britt’s room at 212 Targee Street, and was the culmination of a quarrel. The woman claimed that Britt had been paying attentions to another woman. The bullet entered Britt’s abdomen, penetrating the intestines. The woman escaped after the shooting.”
– St Louis Globe-Democrat, October 16, 1899.
From the beginning, this was a story that gripped audiences. The first songs were being sung even before “Al” Britt died, three days after the shooting. The early versions are largely lost in the mists of time, but we know that the now familiar melody was around as early as 1925 when Ma Rainey used it–and the general outlines of the Frankie and Johnny story–for her “Stack-O-Lee Blues.” In 1928, Mississippi John Hurt recorded “Frankie” which firmed up the story line of the woman wronged who killed her philandering lover. Leadbelly followed in 1934 with “Frankie and Albert” (a corruption of Al Britt), but the tune and lyrics are essentially the same as today. There have been movies–from Mae West to Al Pacino–which have told and retold the story. But all of them got it wrong.
In 1899, Frankie Baker was a young prostitute working the riverside area of St. Louis. Richard Clay, a former neighbor, described her as: “She was a beautiful, light brown girl, who liked to make money and spend it. She dressed very richly, sat for company in magenta lady’s cloth, diamonds as big as hen’s eggs in her ears. There was a long razor scar down the side of her face she got in her teens from a girl who was jealous of her. She only weighed about 115lbs, but she had the eye of one you couldn’t monkey with. She was a queen sport.”
Al Britt was about 17 at the time. He was living with Frankie and apparently acting as her pimp and protector. A talented piano player in his own right, he was known as a snappy dresser–with Frankie paying for his wardrobe. Unfortunately, he was cheating on her, with an 18 year old prostitute named Alice Pryar. According to Clay, who sat with Al in the hospital until he died, it had been an eventful night.
Frankie had found Al and Alice together at the Phoenix Hotel and called Al out into the street where a furious argument ensued. Al declined to go home with her, so she went home alone. When Al did finally straggle in, in the wee hours of the morning, the argument picked up again. Al threatened to leave Frankie if she did not settle down and accept the situation. Frankie’s reaction was to go deal with Alice herself and Al threatened to kill her if she tried.
Frankie’s version at trial was somewhat different. “About three o’clock Sunday morning, Allen came in,” she said. “I was in the front room, in bed asleep, and he walked in and grabbed the lamp and started to throw it at me. […] I asked him, ‘Say, are you trying to get me hurt?’, and he stood there and cursed and I says, ‘I am boss here, I pay rent and I have to protect myself.’ He ran his hand in his pocket, opened his knife and started around this side to cut me. I was staying here, pillow lays this way, just run my hand under the pillow and shot him. Didn’t shoot but once, standing by the bed.” Frankie also claimed Allen had beaten her badly a few nights before the killing. Note also that in 1899 it would have been a kerosene lamp–essentially a molotov cocktail.
Frankie was tried for murder, but was acquitted on the basis of self-defense on November 13, 1899. “I ain’t superstitious no more,” she later said. “I went to trial on Friday the 13th, and the bad luck omens didn’t go against me. Why, the judge even gave me back my gun.”
The acquittal, however, did not give Frankie back her life. “Frankie Killed Allen”, the first version of the song was thrown together by Bill Dooley, a prolific St. Louis balladeer. No matter where she went, Frankie was confronted by her notoriety. By 1909 the song had reached Texas where it was recorded by John and Allen Lomax, the legendary song collectors. By then, “Al Britt” had morphed into “Albert”. By 1912, vaudeville had changed his name to Johnny, which has become the dominant version ever since.
Frankie moved away, first to Omaha and then to Portland OR, trying to escape the song, but it was of no use. Apparently she continued her usual trade in Omaha and Portland until about 1925, when she settled down to run a shoe-shine parlor. At age 50, that career change may not have been entirely one of choice. But in 1933, what little peace she’d found was taken away. Republic Pictures released “She Done Him Wrong”, starring Mae West (and a very young Cary Grant.) The movie was very popular and brought the song back into the public eye. When the film reached Portland, Frankie found strangers gathering outside her home to point at her and stare. “I’m so tired of it all, I don’t even answer any more,” she told a reporter. “What I want is peace – an opportunity to live like a normal human being. I know that I’m black but, even so, I have my rights. If people had left me alone, I’d have forgotten this thing a long time ago.”
Frankie sued Republic, claiming that the story was defamatory and full of factual errors. The jury was not sympathetic and she lost the case. In 1936, Republic released another movie based on the song, starring Helen Morgan. Again Frankie sued and again she lost.
In 1950 or 51, Frankie was admitted to the state mental hospital in Oregon. Her memory of the killing was still vivid, but she was confused about almost everything else. She died there in 1952 at about age 76. Although she hated it, she achieved a form of immortality in her own lifetime.
DUNCAN AND BRADY
And now we tie up our visit to the neighborhood with the history of a much less well known song.
In 1880, Patrolman James Brady was shot and killed at Charles Starke’s bar in downtown St. Louis. Police had been called to quell a fight and when they arrived they were met with gunfire. The bartender, Harry Duncan, was arrested and convicted for the crime. Though Duncan proclaimed his innocence to the very end, the likelihood of acquittal when the officer was white and Duncan was black was pretty low to begin with. Duncan’s lawyer was Walter Moran Farmer fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme court–becoming the first African-American to argue before that court in the process–but all the appeals were rejected and Duncan was hanged on July 27, 1894. Duncan always contended that it had been bar owner Charles Starke who actually shot Brady and the legend remains that Starke did indeed confess to that on his deathbed. Unfortunately, that was far to late to help Duncan. Leadbelly recorded his version in the 1920’s. As the song has come down, it shows Brady as a violent bully, but that may have been more indicative of black attitudes toward police in general than about Brady in particular. Equally, it could be true in the particular case. At this distance there is no way to know.
SO–what connects the three songs? As your real estate agent would say, “Location, Location, Location” Charles Starke’s bar, where Brady was killed, was directly across the street from Bill Curtis’s Elite Club, where Stag Lee Shelton killed Billy Lyons. And the apartment where Frankie shot Allen? That was just a few blocks away. These songs give us a window into a St. Louis that doesn’t get advertised. A city of hot tempered residents and agile and opportunistic songwriters. With the possible exception of the Deep Ellem district in Dallas, few neighborhoods have left their mark so indelibly on musical history.