FRANK STOKES BIOGRAPHY
Frank Stokes (January 1, 1888 – September 12, 1955) was a blues musician who is considered by many musicologists to be the father of the Memphis blues guitar style.
He was born in Shelby County, Tennessee, in South Memphis’ largest vicinity Whitehaven, located two miles north of the Mississippi line. He was raised by his stepfather in Tutwiler, Mississippi, after the death of his parents. Stokes learned to play guitar as a youth in Tutwiler, and, after 1895, in Hernando, Mississippi, which was home to such African American guitarists as Jim Jackson, Dan Sane, Elijah Avery (of Cannon’s Jug Stompers), and Robert Wilkins. By the turn of the century, at the age of 12, Stokes worked as a blacksmith, traveling the 25 miles to Memphis on the weekends to sing and play guitar with Dan Sane as The Beale Street Sheiks, with whom he developed a long-term musical partnership. Together, they busked on the streets and in Church’s Park (now W.C. Handy Park) on Memphis’ Beale Street.
Stokes developed an extremely powerful voice and a hard-driving, danceable guitar style playing on the streets of Memphis. He became well-known in the area for having an extraordinarily large and diverse repertoire, playing a variety of minstrel tunes, proto-blues, rags, breakdowns, parlor songs, post-bellum popular songs, old-timey country tunes and a variety of other archaic folk styles, as well as contemporary popular numbers. The breadth of his musical knowledge made him the embodiment of the rural black musical tradition up to the early twentieth century, and makes his recorded works a small window into the popular and folk styles of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even before he recorded, he was acknowledged by his peers to have had a considerable influence on local musicians. For this reason, some consider Stokes, and not W.C. Handy, to be the true father of the Memphis blues.
In the mid-1910s, Stokes joined forces with fellow Mississippian Garfield Akers as a blackface songster, comedian, and buck dancer in the Doc Watts Medicine Show, a tent show that toured the South. During this period of touring, Stokes developed a sense of show business professionalism that set him apart from many of the more rural, less polished blues musicians of that time and place. It is said that his performances on the southern minstrel and vaudeville circuit around this time greatly influenced the great archetypal country and western musician Jimmie Rodgers, who played the same circuit. Rodgers borrowed songs and song fragments from Stokes and was influenced stylistically as well.
Around 1920, Stokes settled in Oakville, Tennessee, where he went back to work as a blacksmith. Stokes teamed up again with Sane and went to work playing dances, picnics, fish fries, saloons, and parties in his free time. Stokes and Sane joined Jack Kelly’s Jug Busters to play white country clubs, parties and dances, and to play Beale Street together as the Beale Street Sheiks, first recording under that name for Paramount Records in August 1927. (All told, Stokes was to cut 38 sides for Paramount and Victor Records.) “The fluid guitar interplay between Stokes and Sane, combined with a propulsive beat, witty lyrics, and Stokes’s stentorian voice, make their recordings irresistible.” Their duet style influenced the young Memphis Minnie in her duets with husband Kansas Joe McCoy.
The Sheiks next recorded at a session for Victor Records where Furry Lewis also recorded. At this session, in February 1928, the emphasis was on blues, rather than the older songs that were also part of Stokes’ repertoire. Stokes recorded again for Victor that August, playing “I Got Mine”, one of a body of pre-blues songs about gambling, stealing and living high. He also recorded the more modern “Nehi Mamma Blues”, which puns on the Nehi soft drink and the “knee-high” skirts that were fashionable at the time. Sane rejoined Stokes for the second day of the August 1928 session, and they produced a two-part version of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”, a song well known in later versions by Bessie Smith and Jimmy Witherspoon, but whose origin lies somewhere in the pre-blues era. The Sheiks also continued to busk the streets, and play informally at parties.
In 1929, Stokes and Sane recorded again for Paramount, resuming their “Beale Street Sheiks” billing for a few cuts. In September Stokes was back on Victor to make what were to be his last recordings, this time without Sane, but with Will Batts on fiddle. Stokes and Batts were a team as evidenced by these records, which are both traditional and wildly original, but their style had fallen out of favor with the blues record buying public. Stokes was still a popular live performer, however, appearing in medicine shows, the Ringling Brothers Circus, and other tent shows and similar venues during the 1930s and 1940s. During the 1940s, Stokes moved to Clarksdale, and occasionally worked with Bukka White in local juke joints.
Frank Stokes died of a stroke in Memphis on September 12, 1955. He is buried there in Hollywood Cemetery.