The Blues of Frances Burnett
FROM MEMPHIS TO MOTOWN – AND BACK AGAIN
Frances Burnett lived like a star.
A lush apartment on New York’s Central Park West. A French poodle whose fur was dyed to match the colour of her dresses. An appetite for champagne.
A contract with Decca Records, and a vocal coach known for work with Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Marilyn Monroe. An agent whose clients included Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Bookings at the Apollo in New York, the Deauville in Miami Beach, Churchill’s in London, the Flame Show Bar in Detroit.
This twenty-something from Memphis also recorded songs written by Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, and cut several others at Motown. Among them was one of Robinson’s most sophisticated ballads, “Your Mother Called On Me Today.”
Burnett’s career as a singer began during the 1950s in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where she was talent-spotted and persuaded to move to Detroit. There, she met a fellow who said, “You know what, Frances, you’ve got possibilities!” This she recalled in Better Than I Was, an earnest autobiography where she also revealed that her benefactor was a numbers bookie. “He was really quite an operator, booking $30,000 on an average day.” To advance her career, he paid for the move to New York, and all that went with it.
Soon, Burnett was at the Apollo, opening for the likes of LaVern Baker, Jackie Wilson, Big Maybelle, the Falcons, Buddy Johnson and another Johnson, Marv. She appeared on television’s American Bandstand, and was hailed by Variety as “a sharp and clear belter with high sight values.” Show dates in other cities soon followed, at home and abroad.
The man who bankrolled Burnett was an acquaintance of Berry Gordy. “George Kelley, a local businessman, paid us fifty dollars a day to work with Frances Burnett, a singer he was managing,” he wrote in To Be Loved. (The “us” was Gordy and his writing partner of the time, Roquel “Billy” Davis.) Kelley wanted to put up money for the launch of Tamla Records, too, according to Raynoma Singleton. “There was an offer from George Kelley, a Detroit nightclub owner – ten thousand dollars in exchange for half-ownership of our organization,” noted Gordy’s second wife in her own memoir. “But no, as astronomical and tempting as that amount of money sounded in our hour of need, we had to reject it if we were ever going to achieve autonomy.” Instead, they obtained their finance from the Ber-Berry Co-Op.
The businessmen stayed in touch. Indeed, Kelley came by 2648 West Grand Boulevard soon after Gordy bought the building, as he also recalled in To Be Loved. “What are you going to call it?” Kelley asked. When told it was to be “Hitsville,” he laughed. “You’re joking.” No, said Gordy. “That’s the only name I can think of that expresses what I want it to be.”
TWO TREATS FOR THE TEENS
Hits, meanwhile, had eluded Frances Burnett at Decca and its subsidiary, Coral Records, despite her strong, bluesy voice, those “high sight values” and the involvement of producer Dick Jacobs, who had capably steered Jackie Wilson in the studio. After recording material by various writers to little commercial effect, Burnett (or Kelley) began tapping the talents of Gordy and his team. The puzzle – with an explanation almost certainly lost to time – was that the first such move featured the very same song used to introduce Tamla Records.
“Come To Me” was written by Gordy and Marv Johnson, who recorded it at Detroit’s United Sound in December ’58. The following month, it was released as Tamla 101, then picked up for national distribution by United Artists Records in February. In what must have been a parallel timeline, the 24-year-old Burnett taped the song in New York with Jacobs, with Coral issuing it as a single, also in February.
That month, trade paper Cash Box reviewed both discs together: “A contagious, spiritual flavoured charmer, ‘Come To Me,’ gets renditions from Johnson on United Artists and Frances Burnett on Coral that do all that can be done to capture the rhythm of the opus in commercial, either pop or R&B, chart style. In fact, both readings are strikingly similar. Two treats for the teens.” The teens ultimately opted for Marv, whose version reached the Top 30 of the Cash Box and Billboard pop charts.
Berry Gordy apparently harboured no grudge over the competition. Burnett’s next Coral single featured a song written by him and sister Gwen Gordy, “How I Miss You So,” supervised in New York by Dick Jacobs. It was a lively, uptempo side with an earworm “doobie-oowee-ooo” chorus. Still, no sales action.
Burnett had a couple more 45s released by Coral in 1960, namely “I Love Him So (Firefly)” and “She Was Taking My Baby,” both written by Berry and Smokey. The flipside of the former was also authored by Gordy, with Janie Bradford. None were hugely distinctive, although the first offered a clever Robinson lyric with a female perspective. “Sweetie,” the flip of “She Was Taking My Baby” credits Burnett and Kelley as songwriters; it owes a debt to Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”
By then, Burnett was beginning to have doubts about her life choices. “I travelled along for seven years, floating in and out of clubs,” she wrote in Better Than I Was. “There I was with my mental knapsack on my back, going into an oblivion whose ending I could not predict.” The short-term outlook was improved by George Kelley’s decision to return to Detroit, and a proposal of marriage. “I was more than willing to exchange the performing and singing for that,” she declared.
A DIFFERENT SMOKEY: 'YOUR MOTHER CALLED...'
Kelley also decided to open a nightclub in the Motor City, buying a building on Chene Street on Detroit’s East Side and converting it. At one time, this was a vibrant, prosperous thoroughfare, populated by a variety of ethnicities and, for many of its residents, within walking distance of their jobs at the auto factories. Mr. Kelley’s Lounge became a fixture of the city’s nightlife. Former Motown executive Barney Ales remembers it as a lively, popular spot, which he frequented in the company of Mickey Stevenson.
Although Burnett made no reference in her autobiography to Motown Records, she recorded there during November 1961. It’s unclear whether this was because Berry Gordy and George Kelley knew each other, or whether the singer was auditioning for the company. Perhaps Kelley paid for the sessions. The material included “Outta My Mind,” authored by Mickey Stevenson, and “To Think You Would Hurt Me,” written by Robert Gordy and Eddie Holland. The latter was also recorded by Martha & the Vandellas, and included in their debut album, Come And Get These Memories.
The strongest piece of work was “Your Mother Called On Me Today,” blessed with a Smokey lyric that is more sophisticated than anything else in his canon. It commands attention from the get-go, with ten seconds of nothing but Burnett’s pure voice: “Your mother called on me today/To have a heart to heart/I took her coat and rested it/And we sat down to start/And then she said…”
What follows is nightclub poetry – you can almost see the cigarette smoke curling upwards – which utterly validates the jazz credentials of the players behind Burnett: a lonesome piano (Joe Hunter, surely), a walking bass (Jamerson, who else?), a tender guitar (Eddie Willis, it must be). She wraps her voice around the song intuitively, as if she’s mesmerising a crowd at the Flame. The lyric tells of a mother concerned about her son’s love for the singer and its effect on his career prospects (“He’s going to be a doctor/Not some lovesick fool”), while the singer, of course, is having none of that (“But he’s my man”).
Adding to the intrigue is that Smokey most likely produced this himself – at age 21! – and that his 1964 remake with Kim Weston entirely lost the adult mood. Weston is a highly capable singer, but it’s like the track has been Botoxed, injected with organ, instead of piano, and juvenile background vocals. The lyric’s power is preserved, but set in a distracting environment, like looking at stretched skin instead of the whole of a face.
None of the Motown recordings came to Frances Burnett’s rescue; not one was commercially released. George Kelley was evidently preoccupied with his nightclub, and its pleasures. “I became so miserable,” she told Memphis journalist Michael Donahue, by which time she was a Church of God in Christ evangelist and living back in her hometown. “My husband was staying away longer and longer and longer. He didn’t pay me too much attention. I wasn’t singing anymore.” This eventually led to a suicide attempt, a separation from Kelley, and a new career as an American Airlines ticket agent in Memphis, then as a TV presenter.
Her husband maintained his life as an entrepreneur and club owner in Detroit. Mr. Kelley’s Lounge showcased singers and entertainers throughout the ’60s, and even hosted political workshops for the cause of black nationalism, as noted in Suzanne Smith’s authoritative Dancing In The Street.
According to a 1987 newspaper report, Kelley was also said to have helped develop low-income housing in Michigan and consulted with local government officials in setting up a state lottery. Unfortunately, the same press item noted that Kelley was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiring with others to smuggle heroin into Michigan from Thailand. He is no longer alive.
Frances Burnett found her peace beyond music. “In heaven, I don’t expect there will be applause when I step into the scene,” she wrote in Better Than I Was. Nonetheless, there was applause in an earlier era, when she also earned – at the very least – a footnote in the history of Hitsville.
Music notes: only a handful of Frances Burnett’s Coral recordings are easily accessible today, via the YouTube links embedded above. On Spotify, “How I Miss You So” can be heard in a compilation called Spirit of Soul. Kim Weston’s version of “Your Mother Called On Me Today” was part of 2005’s The Motown Anthology 2CD set, which is currently available on streaming services.