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FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (15 Different Accounts Of The Infamous Murder Ballad)

Righteous (PSALM2321)

Lena Horne, Erroll Garner, Louis Armstrong, Big Bill Broonzy, Champion Jack Dupree, Jewell Long, Fate Marable's Society Syncopators, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan And His Orchestra, Jimmie Rodgers, Ethel Waters, King Oliver, Duke Ellington And His Orchestra & Tommy Jarrell, Oscar Jenkins and Fred Cockerham.

There are hundreds of versions of this (almost) true story of a murder that took place in St Louis in 1899 when Frankie Baker's gun went rooty toot toot and despatched Allen Britt after he'd been caught snufflin' around in Alice Pryar's underpants. The first version of the song came out a few weeks after the event and over the years, names, descriptions and facts have been embellished and twisted but who cares? It's a great song and here's a CD full of varied versions, jazz, blues and country accounts of the dreadful deed.

An unvarnished country blues version by Big Bill contrasts nicely with rural blues guitarist Jewell Long's more complex report just before Fate Marable's Society Syncopators wade in with an uptown early jazz instrumental and Benny Goodman takes off with a sizzling piece of swing on his version. Bunny Berigan's Orchestra slam in with a big band bash that has a strong arrangement while Erroll Garner heads for the stratosphere with his aptly titled piano solo Frankie And Johnny Fantasy.

Out in the country Jarrell, Jenkins and Cockerham stick to the true facts naming Allen Britt and Alice Pryar as the gymnasts but mostly they're interested in making a great tune swing like crazy on fiddle, guitar and banjo. Champion Jack Dupree takes the whole sordid mess out to New Orleans where the tune is awarded a beautiful Crescent City groove ladled over Jack's Professor Longhair style rhumboogie beat.

Lena Horne's theatrical interpretation is heady stuff but Ethel Waters unusual account is a perfectly paced jazzy piece alternating her crooning style with cleverly phrased bluesy passages - especially on the part where she enters the hotel, terrifies the patrons and nails that man who was doin' her wrong. The Isham Jones Orchestra crank it out in a cascading meltdown of cornets, tubas and clarinets while the Duke Ellington Orchestra open their version with a monumental blast before Duke himself lets rip with a thundering piano boogie allowing the band to settle down into a nine minute gallery of inspired variations on the theme.

Compiler Dave Henderson delivers succinct sleeve notes on the history of the murder but I'd have liked more notes on the tracks. Dates and musicians involved would have been helpful but that's just me being picky. Really, I'm thrilled to bits with this brilliant idea, here's hoping Righteous check out more murder ballads and give us more of this stuff.

 

Review Date: January 2010

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