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With a soft, breathy tone that owes little, if anything, to the legendary likes of Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine, John Hendricks or even Mel Torme, Michael Franks sings like no one else. As a staple of contemporary jazz radio, he draws on an array of influences, from jazz to R&B to folk to (most recently) bossa nova. Then there are his lyrics: Quirky and often laced with double entendres, Franks's command of the English language is both clever and artful.
"I always admired the lyricists who wrote that way -- like Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer," Franks says. "Those types of writers who were able to include linguistic energy in lyric writing, which so often in current times -- and really since the great era of American songwriting -- has been somewhat absent. Ironically, I think in country music there's certainly more irony and wit and thought sometimes in the lyrics than in mainstream pop music."
Franks ought to know about such things: He studied English literature, doing his undergraduate work at the University of California and earning a master's from the University of Oregon. His career as a songwriter began in the early '70s, when he began churning out tunes for other singers, most notably blues legends Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. "I never really intended to write songs for myself," Franks says now. "I was teaching part time, painting houses part time and writing songs part time. That's kind of how I got into it -- making a lot more money house-painting, incidentally, than doing the other two vocations."
Almost despite himself, though, Franks started to get noticed, and he eventually got the call to score the feature film Zandy's Bride. That job would lead to his first big break, as he was able to audition for a group of label executives on the Warner Bros. movie lot. He didn't have a demo tape at the time, so he simply ran through a couple of numbers on the spot.
"I tried to play my most normal-sounding things," Franks recalls. "Then I got into the stranger stuff, like 'Eggplant' and 'Popsicle Toes.' I found they liked those the most."
Hard to believe, when you consider the lyrics to "Eggplant": "When my baby cooks her eggplant / She don't read no book / And she's got a Gioconda / Kind of dirty look."
Yet, somehow, Franks grabbed the label brass's attention. The audition landed him a recording contract with Warner, where he has remained for the past 23 years. His 1976 debut, The Art of Tea, was a runaway success. He was backed by top-caliber studio musicians (including three members of the Crusaders -- Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton); his arrangements had a slick, light-R&B feel, to which contemporary jazz radio gravitated immediately. But while The Art of Tea's success in that format was almost a foregone conclusion given the backup help involved, no one expected the clever "Popsicle Toes" to become a crossover success. With its catchy opening riff, Sample's nasty keyboard fills and Franks's silky smooth vocals, the tune cut through the tacky, trendy mid-'70s clutter to become a major radio hit. And its sexy lyrics didn't hurt matters any: "We ought to have a birthday party / And you can wear your birthday clothes / Then we can hit the floor and go explore those popsicle toes."
"I was very encouraged in the beginning," Franks says, "being so lucky to have a single from that record -- which, of course, was on the AM side of the dial at the time. So I proceeded in that fashion."
And proceed he did. Fast-forward to 1998: With more than ten releases to his credit, Franks has been a top concert draw for years and is a fixture on the popular smooth-jazz format. He's just released The Best of Michael Franks: A Backward Glance, a 15-song retrospective that is a worthy introduction to the singer's whimsical style. He's also in the process of assembling a new album, with one track, featuring guitar ace Pat Metheny, already in the can. Even after more than two decades, Franks confesses he occasionally finds it difficult to come up with songs, though he hesitates to call it writer's block.
"For the next couple months, I'm going to write four or five songs. At this stage, I wonder what I'm going to write about," Franks says. "I don't write songs all the time, as some songwriters do. My time's sort of divided between touring, recording and writing. When I get to the writing phase of it, I don't think I've really had anything like a full-blown case of writer's block."
That's a little hard to believe when you consider that, in 25 years, Franks estimates he's recorded about 130 of his own tunes. In addition, he adds, "I've written songs that I haven't recorded, that I wrote for other people -- that's a lot of songs, so you kind of say, 'Well, what am I going to do now?' But once you get into it, you sort of overcome that question pretty rapidly."
And no subject, it seems, is immune from Franks's creative orbit. He's even written a ditty about baseball, which he might just sing at his show in Houston. As for the lyrics, see how these grab you:
"You struck me out twice / I singled but died / Then you made me pop up / By sneakin' inside."
Who says sex and sports don't mix?
Michael Franks performs Saturday, August 15, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$45. For info, call 629-3700.
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