The Beale Street Sheik – FRANK STOKES
Frank Stokes was a pioneer of the Memphis Blues tradition. Although his exact date of birth is unconfirmed, many researchers believe he was born in either January 1, 1888, or January 1, 1877, in Whitehaven, an area south of Memphis in Mississippi. He had lost his parents at an early age and then lived with a family in Tutwiler, Mississippi. He learned blacksmithing and picked up playing the guitar. Eventually, to earn extra money, Stokes started traveling to Memphis to busk on the weekends.
Stokes & A Decade of Touring
The bluesman hit the streets of Memphis right when blues was popular amongst those in the deep south. He played many different styles of music, including a vast number of folk songs and pre-war blues. He played at house parties, clubs, and on the street. The young and eager bluesman started touring with the Doc Watts Medicine show during the 1910 and toured the southern states during WWI. He was also known to have played a few shows with larger acts also, such as the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Playing the stages of the medicine shows provided many new opportunities to play music and meet other musicians. Blues researcher Paul Oliver states that several sources recalled Jimmie Rodgers performed in one medicine show with Stokes. Some researchers speculate that that time might have been when Rodgers picked up the catchy tune In the Jailhouse Now, as it had been a popular song for a time amongst black entertainers.
A Return to Memphis
After touring with the medicine shows on and off for about a decade, Stokes returned to Memphis to work as a blacksmith. He still played music to supplement his income, entertaining at barbecues, house parties and on the street. Witnesses recall him playing in front of the J. J. Arnold grocery store on Saturday nights, gathering very large crowds. He played all sorts of styles of music, from ragtime to waltzes.
Through the buzz of the 1920s, Stokes remained a successful figure in the Memphis Blues scene. His varying song list and ways of picking kept folks interested in the music he had to offer. Frank Stokes laid down the foundation of what would be known as the “Memphis sound” by both staying with his pre-blues roots and flavoring his playlist with popular ragtime numbers, waltzes, and foxtrots.
Memphis was a huge draw in the southern US for music. The town attracted many notable pickers. Gus Cannon, John Estes, Jim Jackson, Willie Brown, Jack Kelley, Will Batts, Milton Roby, “Memphis” Willie Borum, Memphis Minnie, and Will Shade (Son Brimmer) are all blues artists that Stokes had a chance to collaborate with while in Memphis. At the time he was older than most of his musical peers but seemed to have no lack of steam. Dan Sane, considered to be one of the most underappreciated blues guitar players of the 1920s, was Stokes’ primary musical partner at this point in time. Sane also played guitar for Jack Kelly’s South Memphis Jug Band.
Recording 38 sides total for Paramount and Victor Records, Frank Stokes started recording in 1927 with Dan Sane. They recorded as the Beale Street Sheiks. Although Stokes did record a good number of solo songs, Sane became a more frequent addition to his recordings. Also frequently invited was fiddle player Will Batts, who was the main player for the popular band Jack Kelly and The South Memphis Jug Band. At the end of September in 1929, over a period of 3 days, Stokes recorded for the last time.
Although Stokes continued to play after 1929, his popularity diminished. He played for a time with Bukka White but eventually left his wife and Memphis to move to Clarksdale. He passed away in September of 1955 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Hollywood Cemetery on September 18th, 1955. Medical records point to kidney failure, which caused him to have a stroke.
December 30, 2017