"I wore this one for the opening of 307 Jazz & Blues Club," says Fran, holding up a short, platinum blue wig. Grabbing a flowing auburn-red number, she notes, "I had this wig made in New York in the late '60s. It's all human hair, and it cost $1,000 back then." Whether they're white, blond, black, straight or curly, every wig has a story. They've accompanied her to storied venues like Harlem's Apollo Theater, and they complement her extensive wardrobe of sequined dresses, long coats, and high-heel shoes. In more than five decades of performing, Fran has sounded and looked sharp alongside friends and touring partners such as Guitar Slim, Lee Dorsey, and Joe Tex. For long stretches in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, Lafayette native Fran worked with the giants of blues and R&B and soul music, and never stayed in one place too long.
"I was just like a gypsy, traveling around," she remembers. "I'd work with various bands and stay a while, and then I'd go someplace else."
Two years ago, Fran came home. After more than a decade in Texas, the 70-year-old returned to Lafayette, the city that launched her professional career. She hasn't completely given up her nomadic life; she still travels weekly to Houston for a standing gig, and regularly plays festivals from Mobile, Ala., to Monterey, Calif. But her decision to return to Louisiana came after the most difficult personal stretch Fran has ever endured. Those events linger unspoken in the air of Fran's home, where she lives alone. Boxes and boxes of personal items remain unpacked, and she spends most of her nights sleeping on a small sofa bed.
"There were too many memories in Texas," she says quietly while sitting at her kitchen table. "So I decided I would stay at home. And it's working, but it's not working. There are more memories here than there were in Texas. But you've got to go someplace, and I'm too old to start all over again away from home."
FRAN WAS BRON IN LAFAYETTE ON October 23, 1933, and started taking piano lessons at an early age. She also became enthralled with singing, listening to vocalists ranging from boogie-woogie shouters to jazz crooners. When she was 14 years old, an impromptu rendition of "Stardust" so impressed bandleader Don Conway that he offered Fran a spot in his band, which played regularly at a bar on the corner of Washington and Olivier streets. Fran's mother allowed her to take the job -- only after Conway agreed to pick up her daughter and bring her back home immediately after the shows.
"That's really where I learned time, learned a lot of songs, learned keys that I was singing in, and learned to stay in meter," remembers Fran.
Her new employment coincided with a quick decline in her father's health, and the teenager was thrust into the role of family caretaker. "I made $7 a night, but [the Don Conway Orchestra] worked five nights a week. And at that time, my mom was making $7 a week, working in the pressing shop at Quality Cleaners. When my dad took sick, I picked up the slack with my earnings to help my mom take care of us. I raised all my sisters and brothers. They got everything they needed, everything they wanted, and some things they didn't even expect," she says, her voice cracking.
Her father died, and Fran determinedly pursued her fledgling music career. She started taking out-of-town gigs, working on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and traveling to California with singer Joe Lutcher. She also married a saxophone player, and traveled with their band for an extended residency at a club in Juarez, Mexico. Her first big break came when Crowley-based Excello Records producer J.D. Miller recruited Fran for his label. Besides singing backup for Excello artists like Lightnin' Slim, Fran recorded her debut solo effort, the funky ballad "Emmitt Lee."
"It introduced me to the music world," says Fran. "I didn't make any money from the records, but I made money because of the gigs it got me."
Her Excello tenure (from 1957-1960) also led to deals with tiny record labels Lyric, Roulette, and Port. But like so many other artists of her era -- especially black artists -- Fran never received proper compensation from her recordings. Despite the fact that she wrote all the music and lyrics for her original songs, she signed contracts that awarded her publishing income to label executives. "I've been shafted all my life in the record business, because I didn't know anything about it," Fran told Living Blues magazine in 1994. "I was being paid for it, I thought. But when I got a hundred bucks, the promoter got a thousand. That's the way that went. At the time 'Emmitt Lee' was roaming everywhere, I got one royalty check for $27."
Whenever she appeared on the verge of a breakout, fame proved elusive. In 1964, Fran recorded a glorious cover of the Orioles' song "Crying in the Chapel." Right after the record was sent to radio stations, Elvis Presley's version of the song was released, burying Fran's. When Fran bumped into Presley by coincidence later that year, she showed her independence and fearlessness by confronting him. "I was in California to see [songwriter] Jerry Capehart," she remembers. "There was a little restaurant next door, and I went in there, and Elvis Presley was on the back porch eating cantaloupe and ice cream. I went up to him and said, 'Why would you take bread out of my mouth?' He didn't know who I was. He said, 'Little one, what do you mean?'
"I said I'm Carol Fran, and I did 'Crying in the Chapel,' and he said, 'Oh, little one, believe me, I had no control over that. It was just one of the tunes that I recorded and it was there. When they saw fit to release it, they released it.' He wrote me a check and gave it to me. He said, 'Here, baby, this'll buy you lunch. Don't be mad at me.' He folded it and gave it to me. I put it in my purse, and I kept it for two months. Then one day, when I opened it, there was no end to all the zeroes -- he gave me $10,000! I couldn't get to the bank fast enough to cash it." The windfall didn't last long. "I had 10,000 smackers and a stupid husband," she says with a sigh. "We went through that money fast."
What she lacked in her bank account, she made up for by earning the respect of her peers. She performed at some memorable multi-act revues, including an Apollo Theater performance with Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Ronettes, and King Curtis. "I crossed paths with everybody," she notes.
"I got some pictures in the days when I was playing the Dream Room on Bourbon Street, which is now the pizza parlor," she says. "When the big stars would go to the Roosevelt Hotel's Blue Room and work, they'd come over. Johnny Desmond was so good to me. He was filming a movie called Say Darling, and he invited me to spend some time on the set. I got to meet Johnny Desmond, the Vagabonds, the Ink Spots, Alice Fay and Phil Harris. Man, what a night that was."
THE HIGHS WERE MIXED WITH LOWS. Fran got divorced, and by the late '70s she was working the Gulf Coast nightclub circuit in relative obscurity. But her fortunes changed when she bumped into a wiry, shy guitar player named Clarence Hollimon.
Fran first met Hollimon at a gig back in the '50s, right after he got married. When the two saw each other again, they were both single. The pair quickly became inseparable. He called her Blabs, and she called him Superchief. They married, lived together in Houston, and became a fixture of the Texas blues scene. They took trips together, visiting old stomping grounds like New Orleans' Dew Drop Inn. Hollimon was a superb guitar player; those are his unforgettable solos on Bobby "Blue" Bland's seminal early recordings such as "I Smell Trouble" and "Lend a Helping Hand." In Hollimon, Fran found a personal and musical soulmate. "We just breathed together," says Fran. "He felt me, and I felt him. We never rehearsed. We'd talk a tune over, and then he'd get his guitar. It was always 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. We'd wake up and say, how are we going to do this song? So we'd put the pieces together and when we'd go to the job, we'd have it together."
The pair's performances earned them a record deal with New Orleans-based Black Top Records. Their superb 1992 debut album, Soul Sensation, was a riveting document of their musical partnership. From the churning bump and grind of "I Need to Be Be'd With" to the up-tempo jump blues of "Golden Girl," the interwoven combination of Fran's voice and Hollimon's swing and jazz-tinged guitar lines sounded like a lovers' dialogue. It also captured the intensity of their live performances, where the duo would push each other to new heights with shouts of encouragement and knowing looks. Soul Sensation introduced Fran to a whole new audience.
"When I first heard Carol in Houston, my first thought was, 'Why haven't I heard her before?' says fellow pianist and boogie-woogie queen Marcia Ball. "That's the frustrating part -- until they made their resurgence, I'd never heard of Carol before, and I felt gypped that I missed all this." Ball became -- and remains -- one of Fran's biggest fans. "I was booked for a concert in Houston called 'The Cradle,' and the inspiration was to present a show that exhibited the wide range of music that began on the Gulf Coast. So they had Gatemouth [Brown], me, Jesse Dayton, Robert Earl Keen, and Flaco Jimenez. The promoter asked if there was anybody that could be a special guest that would personify the whole theory, and I said, 'Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon.' They stole the show.
"I've seen Carol do it time and time again," continues Ball. "I've noticed this about a couple other people, like Koko Taylor and Katie Webster. They'll be backstage before a show talking about their problems, or how bad their feet hurt, and then they'll go squeeze those same feet into sparkling high heels, and just tear it up onstage."
With a new label, new album, and glowing reviews from the press, Fran and Hollimon were winning new converts. But nothing could have prepared them for the 1994 Chicago Blues Festival. As part of a Black Top revue that also featured labelmates Earl King and Robert Ward, the pair wound up with the coveted closing headliner's slot at the three-day festival. The free event annually draws more than half a million attendees.
"No one still really knew who Carol and Clarence were," says Heather West, a Chicago-based publicist who worked for Black Top Records at the time. "And there was a sea of people out in the audience. Carol and Clarence came out dressed to the nines, and as soon as they started playing, it was silent. The whole place was spellbound. And at the end of their set, the entire audience, not just the faithful thousands pressed up front, gave them this huge standing ovation.
"To have that kind of impact on people who've never heard your songs and don't know your music is incredible," West adds. "The next morning, we went down to get the paper, and on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, there was a giant color picture of Carol and Clarence, with a huge write-up on how amazing the show was."
Besides witnessing Fran receive some long-overdue recognition, West saw the fierce pride that's one of Fran's defining traits. "Carol's a great cook, and she'd make lunch for everyone in the office," remembers West. "One day she was cooking, and [Black Top owner] Hammond Scott, who's a rabid Republican, was going on and on about his views. Carol's a lifelong Democrat, and was trying to talk to him about her opinions. Hammond raised his voice and kept talking. And Carol just stopped. She put down the spoon and said, 'You just shut your mouth right this instant. How dare you try to talk over me? I've been voting longer than you've been on the planet.'"
The occasional spat aside, Fran and Hollimon enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect with the principals of Black Top. Then, despite landing songs from their Black Top albums in the movie The Pelican Brief and the TV series The Big Easy, Fran and Hollimon's royalty checks started dwindling. And like so many record deals before, the bottom fell out. Black Top entered into an ill-fated partnership with the Internet company emusic, and ceased operations.
IN THE SPRING OF 2000, HOLLIMON started losing weight. "Every once in a while he'd say, 'Baby, my back hurts -- can you rub my back?' says Fran. "He was a gentle person. He never complained." He died suddenly that April of heart failure.
"I kind of lost it when Clarence died," Fran says. She moved to Fredericksburg, Texas, and stopped traveling. She didn't tell anyone where she was, except her family. She stayed in Fredericksburg for a year, and the only music she played was gospel brunches at a local restaurant. She gave away all four of her late husband's cars, keeping only their touring van. The van broke down six months later, and Fran opted not to have it repaired. Then Fran's mother, whom she talked to every day on the phone, passed away.
"After my husband and mother died, I decided to come home," says Fran. "My sisters and brothers want me here so they can look after me. I still have two sisters and two brothers here. We're a close-knit family. Since my dad died a long time ago, we surrounded Mama, because she didn't want to be alone. Now I'm kind of like Mama -- it's good to be surrounded by family.
"I want to show you a picture," she continues, and gets up from the kitchen table. She returns with an envelope and starts taking out photos. "Two years ago, I was going to go out of town for my birthday, and my sister said, 'You can't go.' I said, 'What do you mean, I can't go?' She said, 'You just have to be here.' So I stayed, and they threw me a big surprise birthday party and family reunion. "Look at this," she says, wiping away tears. It's a snapshot of a handmade banner at the party, inscribed to Fran: "Thank You to Our Surrogate Mother. We Love You."
With the support of her siblings, and the passage of time, Fran has returned to a regular performing schedule. She performs weekly at Sambuca's in Houston, at a hotel and casinos in Bunkie, and occasionally plays local gigs and benefits. She hasn't lost one ounce of her performing power -- or her feisty side. On a recent Saturday evening at Club 307 Jazz & Blues, she walks into the club a half hour before showtime, barely concealing a scowl on her face. "This gig isn't what I was told it was going to be," she says and walks determinedly past the bar toward the back performance room.
When she starts her show a short time later, Fran's suspicions are confirmed. There's no drummer, the bass player is obviously struggling to follow Fran's chord changes, and to further complicate matters, the club's Rhodes keyboard keeps producing a jarring array of space-age synthesizer sounds. But if Fran's flustered, she doesn't show it to the crowd.
She eases into her set with the standards "Georgia on My Mind" and "All of Me," and her rich voice starts to transform the room. She soon gets up from behind the piano, scat singing as the mood strikes her, and raises her left arm like a preacher exhorting a congregation. On "Everyday I Have the Blues," she starts throwing in side growls of "well, well, well," channeling the machismo of Muddy Waters or James Brown.
By the time she launches into "Can't Help Lovin' That Man," Fran is a commanding presence, belting out lyrics informed with decades of wisdom: "He can come home/as late as can be/Home without him /ain't no home to me /Can't help lovin' that man of mine."
When the song finishes, she improvises an added final line, delivered in a whisper: "I still miss him."
The week after the show, sitting at home while Judge Judy plays on the TV in the background, Fran nods when asked about "Can't Help Lovin' That Man." "I still fall apart sometimes when I'm working, especially the numbers that Clarence and I did so well," she says. "We had numbers that we got our groove on. Around Christmas time, when they play 'Please Come Home for Christmas,' that's him." (Hollimon played the solo on Charles Brown's definitive version of the song.)
"This late in the game for me, sometimes, it's not a matter of dollars and cents," she continues. "It's a matter of keeping my sanity. I have to keep productive, because the minute I stop, I get real nervous, and I really fall apart. If I can't do this any more, well, what can I do?"
So there is the warmth of the family functions, filled with brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. Social security checks are a small measure of financial stability. There is the accomplishment of the upcoming busy fall tour schedule she booked on her own, which includes another trek to Europe. And there are the decades of memories -- trials and triumphs -- that live in Fran's stage dresses, high-heel shoes, and wigs.
"I was in Houston a few years ago when I got a call from J.D. Miller," Fran remembers. "He said, 'Fran, next time you come through here, come see me. I made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I'm sorry. If I hurt you, I never meant to. I just did what I thought was best for me, best for you, and best for the business.' It took a lot for him to do that. Two days after that, he was dead. I didn't even know he was in the hospital. He had called me on his deathbed, and he needed to hear me say it was all right. All the years that I was angry at him, I'm not angry at him anymore.
"I've forgiven more people," she says, looking into her bedroom, where the black plastic garbage bags surround the sofa bed. "My sister says that's why I never have anything. Well, I have peace of mind. And that's worth more than anything in the world, to be able to lay down at night and go to sleep, and sleep peacefully. "I rest well."