It is an unfortunate fact that many of our nation’s greatest pioneers of the blues - arguably the quintessential American art form - have been overlooked, cheated, and allowed to slip into obscurity over the decades. Fortunately, the quiet influence of these artists often lives on long after their names have become forgotten. Such is the case with Frank Stokes, the powerfully voiced bluesman who is now considered the father of the Memphis blues guitar style and whose important legacy is only now being fully appreciated.
Stokes was born in the vicinity of Whitehaven, only a couple of miles from the Mississippi border, sometime between 1877 and 1888 (accounts vary). Orphaned as a child, Stokes was raised by his stepfather in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where he learned both the art of guitar and blacksmithing. By the turn of the century, Stokes began traveling to Memphis on weekends to sing and play, oftentimes with his friend Dan Sane. Often setting up alongside Beale Street and in Church Park, Stokes and Sane entertained the masses with an eclectic repertoire that included parlor songs, rags, minstrel tunes, country blues standards, and popular songs of the era. Unlike the stereotype of the world-weary and downtrodden bluesman who sings melancholy songs of heartbreak and loss, Frank Stokes created music that was electric, up-tempo, and fun, even funny. It was party music that transcended the barriers of race and class and demanded that you get up and dance.
In 1917, Stokes joined the Doc Watts Medicine Show with fellow performers Garfield Akers and Joe Callicott as a blackface singer, comedian, and dancer. The show toured around the South during the years of WWI and allowed Stokes to hone his skills as both a performer and a professional, which helped to set him apart from his less polished counterparts. Performing with the medicine show also provided Stokes with the opportunity to collaborate with a host of white musicians. They also earned their keep touring with the traveling shows. According to blues scholar Paul Oliver, one of the white artists with whom Stokes performed was country music legend Jimmie Rodgers. “There can be little doubt that they learned from each other and exchanged items,” Oliver affirms. Rodgers would go on to perform some of Stokes songs, and Stokes would later compose the song “The Yodeling Fiddle Blues,” which is believed to be a tribute for Rodgers.
Tiring of a life on the road, Stokes moved to Oakville, Tennessee around 1920 and returned to his life as a blacksmith and musician. He teamed back up with Dane Sane and the two became a popular fixture at local fish fries, bars, picnics, and house parties. In the mid-1920s, the duo joined Jack Kelly’s Jug Busters, which allowed them to play at white country clubs, parties, and dances. Soon after, the dynamic duo returned to Beale Street where they began performing as the Beale Street Sheiks. In August of 1927, Stokes and Sane brought their raucous party music off of the streets and into the studio, recording the first Beale Street Sheiks album under Paramount Records. In an article about Stokes, the National Park Service writes “The fluid guitar interplay between Stokes and Sane, combined with a propulsive beat, witty lyrics, and Stokes’ stentorian voice, make their recordings irresistible.”
“The fluid guitar interplay between Stokes and Sane, combined with a propulsive beat, witty lyics, and Stokes' stentorian voice, make their recordings irresistible.”
National Park Service
While the Beale Street Sheiks were never financially successful, their recordings did make a big impact on their fellow musicians, especially fellow Memphis Music Hall of Fame inductee Memphis Minnie. Many musicologists point out the ways that the Sheik’s duet style directly influenced Memphis Minnie in her early recordings with her husband and musical partner Kansas Joe McCoy. The Sheiks were also deeply instrumental in helping to establish Beale Street as the one true mecca for original American blues music.
In February of 1928, the Sheiks recorded several tracks for Victor Records at the Memphis Auditorium, a session that also included blues great and fellow inductee Furry Lewis. Unlike their previous recordings, which were largely an eclectic mix of older songs that had been in Stokes’ repertoire for years, this session was all about the blues. Later that year, Stokes recorded the songs “I Got Mine” and a two-part version of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do,” both of which went on to become part of the blues canon and hit songs for later musicians.
Stokes continued to record as both a solo artist and a Sheik for the next year, amassing a catalogue of 38 sides for Victor and Paramount, making him one of the most recorded Memphis artists of the era. His last recordings, which were made in 1929, featured fiddle player Will Batts and are amongst the most wildly original pieces in his catalogue. Unfortunately, Stokes’ creative peak occurred during a period when the record-buying public’s interest in traditional blues music had begun to wane.
Although his recording career had ended, Stokes remained a very popular live performer. He continued to wow audiences with his expert guitar playing and powerful voice throughout the 1930s and 40s, where he performed as a member of medicine shows, the Ringling Brothers Circus, and other traveling acts. In the 1940s, Stokes moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, another center of the traditional blues, and would occasionally play shows with fellow blues great Bukka White. In 1955, Frank Stokes died of a stroke in Memphis, the city whose musical legacy he had helped to define.
While Frank Stokes had largely fallen into obscurity in the years following his death, his name reemerged in the news in 2016 when the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a group devoted to restoring and dedicating new headstones for blues musicians of the early 20th century, constructed a new headstone in his honor. “There were a ton of people,” DeWayne Moore, the director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, said of the Memphis music scene of which Stokes was a primary member. “Memphis itself was a force. Frank Stokes didn’t make Memphis, I wouldn’t say. But Frank Stokes is definitely as deserving as Furry Lewis and definitely as deserving as really any of the people we’ve ever put up a headstone for.” One can only hope that the unmatched greatness of Frank Stokes continues to be remembered and celebrated for years to come.