The outrageous Frances Faye

Gordon Jack studies the career of 'the syncopating cyclone', famous for her capricious individuality, brazen presentation and relentless energy

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Leonard Feather once called Frances Faye “A consummate night-club performer” and comedian Joe E. Lewis nominated her as the “Queen of the super-clubs”. A jazz-influenced rather than an out and out jazz singer, she regularly performed at the Famous Door, Basin Street East and the Hickory House with an act that both entertained and scandalised audiences during her 50-year career in show business.

‘You’ve no figure, you’re not pretty but everybody loves you’

She became something of an icon making it clear on stage with sly and witty innuendos that she was gay, often incorporating her current girlfriend’s name into her lyrics. She was in the grand tradition of singers like Mae West and Ethel Merman with an attractive, earthy charm and a throw-away, take it or leave it delivery reminiscent of Louis Prima. A legendary performer, she was definitely one of a kind.

Frances Cohen (she changed her name later) was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn on 4 November 1912. She was part of a large extended family that included her cousin Danny Kaminsky who became better known as Danny Kaye. She learnt to play the piano by ear and boasted that she taught him Minnie The Moocher which he later recorded. Her professional career began in 1927 when she earned $200.00 a week in a Chicago night-club as an accompanist. A little later a Detroit club-owner wanted her to sing as well as play – “You’ve no figure, you’re not pretty but everybody loves you”. That is when she became Frances Faye.

She paid her dues on the New York speakeasy scene as well as larger venues like the Cotton Club and Le Martinique. For most of 1931 she was resident at the Club Calais attracting a loyal following where she apparently “pounded the piano so hard it had to be tuned every week”. Love For Sale was already part of her act (the BBC at the time had banned because of its suggestive lyric). She later said “Prohibition was so exciting. All the gangsters including Al Capone’s mob were my friends and those that lived are still my friends. Guys like Louis Buchalter and Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond came in all the time then they disappeared one by one”. The following year she appeared with Bing Crosby at the Paramount Theatre and for most of the 30s she was a fixture on 52nd Street. The clubs there were packed nightly with celebrities and newspaper columnists enjoying performances that were broadcast from coast to coast. She did three shows a night at 9pm, midnight and 3.15am and became so popular that Walter Winchell called her “the syncopating cyclone”. In 1936 she made one of her very few films – Double Or Nothing – with Martha Raye and her friend Bing Crosby.

In 1941 ”the atomic bombshell of rhythm” toured South America. The following year she appeared in a musical short or “soundie”, singing I Ain’t Got Nobdy and Well All Right – the latter a hit song she had co-written for the Andrews Sisters. In the early 40s she had two very brief marriages and years later she said “I think a husband has to be the boss. He can’t be the boss when he’s making less in a year than his wife is making in a week”. In 1943 she played in the Broadway production of Artists & Models with Jane Froman and Jackie Gleason. She had long out-of-town bookings in Baltimore, Chicago and Buffalo and around that time Irving Berlin said “Frances is one of those rare mortals who has rhythm in her body and soul”. In 1946 she recorded her signature song Drunk With Love for the first time. She recorded it on three occasions over the years and it became a regular part of her stage act. Later on in the 40s she retired. “I gave up the whole business for a while. I had enough invested not to worry about where the next dollar was coming from”.

…she performed a number of songs at an audition including The Man I Love but hinting at her sexual orientation she sang ‘The Man, The Man, THE MAN??? What am I saying that for?’

In the early 50s she left the Manhattan club scene and relocated to California where her career was given a new lift when she started recording for Capitol Records. In a 1952 Downbeat article Leonard Feather said “Frances found she didn’t need records to play the smart spots in Florida, Chicago and Los Angeles that have supported her for many years. But she has found that (Capitol) record fame has opened up a new market for her”. In that same issue an anonymous reviewer felt one of her early Capitol recordings of She Would and I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate would probably be banned by some radio censors. That said, they both seem pretty tame today. Just prior to her Capitol contract she performed a number of songs at an audition including The Man I Love but hinting at her sexual orientation she sang “The Man, The Man, THE MAN??? What am I saying that for?” She also changed her image at this time, discarding the ball-gowns and wigs that were her signature style in the 40s. Trousers and a rather severe crew-cut were now the order of the day. “When you’re pretty it doesn’t matter how you wear your hair” she joked to her audiences, who were shocked at her new and rather dramatic appearance. The witty Milt Bernhart in a reference to her often outrageous behaviour summed her up best: “You wouldn’t call her a raving beauty – just raving!” She herself aptly summed up her philosophy as a performer: “I love to make people happy. As long as they accept me for what I am, it makes me happy too”.

Around 1955 she switched to Bethlehem and one of her first albums for the label was I’m Wild Again with Russ Garcia’s Four Trombone band which featured her good friend Frank Rosolino along with Maynard Ferguson, Herbie Harper and Tommy Pederson. A highlight is her tender ballad medley which included Little Girl Blue, Where Or When, Embraceable You, I Don’t Know Why and My Funny Valentine, all performed with her customary crystal-clear diction. The following year Bethlehem released the ambitious Complete Porgy And Bess on a three-LP set featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra, a 13-piece string section and a huge cast of top studio players from New York and Los Angeles backing Frances Faye, Betty Roche, Mel Tormé and Johnny Hartman. Frances and Mel sang Bess You Is My Woman Now and Porgy I Hates To Go. According to Tormé’s autobiography the project was not entirely successful, but it became a cult favourite. In 1956 she and Tormé appeared on Steve Allen’s TV show and that year she recorded Relaxin’ With Frances Faye which featured that dilettante of the tenor Allen Eager on Don’t Blame Me, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and My Baby Just Cares For Me. Such a pity that he dropped out of the jazz scene in the late 50s.

‘Pure dazzling show-business, part jazz, part comedy, all energy and heart. Once she signals her musicians for the downbeat it’s every man for himself’

By now she could command about $4000 a week performing at the Crescendo and the Interlude in Los Angeles as well as some of the top rooms in Las Vegas usually with Jack Constanzo (Mr. Bongo) who started working with her at this time. Stars like Bob Hope, Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra all came to see her. Columnist Rex Reed accurately described her act as “Pure dazzling show-business, part jazz, part comedy, all energy and heart. Once she signals her musicians for the downbeat it’s every man for himself”. Hal Blaine, one of the top session drummers of the time, worked with her and Vido Musso in San Francisco for a while. He thought she was a very hip entertainer but after rehearsing at her palatial mansion in the Hollywood Hills he found that everything, especially the tempos, had changed by opening night. In the late 50s she appeared on a couple of Ed Sullivan TV shows.

In 1958, while working at the Hotel Rivera, she had a fall and broke her hip and for the next few years she was unable to walk properly. This did not stop her performing, which she did while sitting at the piano. Her early 60s Caught In The Act album finds her in typically uninhibited form on a recording that includes a generous selection of witty ad-libs. She was usually on her best behaviour for studio dates but on these performances taken from her act at The Crescendo and The Thunderbird in Las Vegas she really lets her hair down and throws the kitchen sink at an enthusiastic audience that clearly could not get enough of her. Introduced by the dulcet tones of Gene Norman (Crescendo’s owner) she opens with a super-charged Man I Love taken at a breakneck tempo with copious references to Teri Shepherd. (Teri was a glamorous lady who was her manager and partner for more than 30 years). She dedicates Just In Time to “Angelo, the head waiter who’s been trying to make me since I opened here”. The next number is announced as “A feature for my ex-husband on saxophone – what’s your name again?” Jay Goldbar on tenor immediately goes into a Birks Works routine leading nicely into Faye’s version of Fever. Frances And Her Friends is about the gay couplings of a number of individuals, all done, as they say, in the best possible taste. (Mark Murphy on his 2001 Lucky To Be Me CD quotes from this song during a tribute he calls Blues For Frances Faye). Before launching into a foot tapping I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate she asks “Do you think my type will ever come back?” The entire album is full of gems and a delightful reminder of how she could sell a song, working the room with a larger-than-life personality that might well have influenced Bette Midler.

‘Frances Faye hit the New York scene last night with the impact of a ten ton truck smashing through a concrete wall’

For the rest of the 60s and until she retired she maintained a punishing touring schedule regularly performing in Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Chicago. She broke Peggy Lee’s record run at Basin Street East, prompting one reviewer to say “Frances Faye hit the New York scene last night with the impact of a ten ton truck smashing through a concrete wall”. She occasionally worked with Dick Gregory, Don Rickles and Lenny Bruce and in 1961 she played London’s Talk Of The Town. She had bookings in Australia which became an annual destination over the years. In 1969 she was at London’s Playboy Club then the following year she was at the Talk Of The Town again. She was no longer recording but she added fresh material to her act from Lennon & McCartney and Burt Bacharach as well as selections from Hair. New songs like Shadow Of Your Smile, That’s Life, Watermelon Man and Going Out Of My Head were also given the Frances Faye treatment.

In 1976 she was at the London Palladium with Johnnie Ray, Billy Daniels and the Ink Spots. The following year she had an extended run at Studio One in Los Angeles which is where Louis Malle caught her act. He thought she was “an extraordinary comedian and singer” so he cast her as a madam in Pretty Baby opposite Susan Sarandon and Brooke Shields.

She retired from performing in 1981 and after several years of poor health, the lady Leonard Feather once called “the hippest entertainer in the squarest circles” died in Los Angeles on 8 November 1991.

Selected discography
I’m Wild Again (Fresh Sound Records FSR 2208CD)
George Gershwin – The Complete Porgy and Bess (Definitive DRCD 11271)
Four Classic Albums (Avid Jazz AMSC 117)
Caught In The Act (GNP/Crescendo (GNPD 41)
Frenzy and Swinging All The Way (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD778)