Houston's Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon are to contemporary blues what Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are to golden-era Hollywood films: the ultimate couple.
Veterans of the music business for an amazing 97 years between them, Fran and Hollimon are two individually gifted, highly respected performers whose finest work has emerged since their husband-and-wife collaboration began in 1983. On CD and in performance they create an artful mix of down-home blues, mellow jazz and gospel-tinged soul, all flavored by the spirited nature of their ongoing love affair.
Featuring the vocal talents of one of the sassiest R&B divas ever to emerge from the Louisiana swamplands and the instrumental genius of arguably the best guitarist ever born in the Fifth Ward, a Fran and Hollimon public appearance is an all too rare occurrence in the city they call home. This week, however, Houston gets the chance to witness its internationally acclaimed blues couple in concert on Fran and Hollimon's birthday weekend (hers is the 23rd, his the 24th). Cosmic convergence of dates or not, this show should be considered special.
Reflecting on a professional singing career that began more than half a century ago, Fran says, "I've truly been blessed. I mean, I've been around for a good while, but I can still deliver." Though her past solo credentials are impressive, she has never before enjoyed making music as much as she does now.
"I don't think I could ever do anything musically again without my wonderful husband," she says, sitting at the couple's apartment in southeast Houston. "He has brought things out in me musically that I didn't know I had." She adds moments later with a convincing sigh, "It's a fine thing we've got."
Though they initially met, and flirted with each other, around 1958 in New Orleans at the legendary Dew Drop Inn, it took a chance crossing of paths some 25 years later to make them a couple.
At that time Hollimon had settled into obscurity back in Houston. Shifts in musical tastes in the late '70s meant there wasn't much work available for the once-sought-after bluesman. It was a hard blow for the guitar wizard who had begun playing professionally while still in high school and gone on to perform with Big Mama Thornton, Charles Brown, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker, O.V. Wright, Joe Hinton, Dionne Warwick, Buddy Ace and many other stars of black popular music of the '50s, '60s and '70s.
Meanwhile, Fran, who had started singing on stage at age 15 and recording regional hit singles by her mid-twenties, was also at a low ebb in her career. Having once toured in R&B revues with Guitar Slim and Joe Tex, she was reduced to working solo in hotel piano bars in Miami by the early '70s. Figuring she couldn't do any worse, professionally speaking, she moved to Houston in 1975 to be closer to her mother, Laura George. In the Bayou City she worked the River Oaks private-party circuit and various clubs, playing pop, C&W, whatever it took to pay the bills.
Then in 1983 Fran and Hollimon happened to meet again at a low-key blues/jazz jam session in a Houston club. Though she had noticed the wiry gentleman with the big guitar standing near the door, Fran initially had no idea that he was the same fellow who had charmed her -- and bought her a plate of red beans and rice -- back at the Dew Drop Inn a quarter of a century earlier. But after hearing Hollimon's name called from the stage and witnessing his graceful guitar playing, she knew exactly who he was.
"That's where this thing got started," Fran says. "I told him, 'This time you're not getting away,' and we've been together ever since."
Once settled, the two ran a cleaning service during the mid-'80s. But after performing together as a duo for a few private functions and making guest appearances on Grady Gaines's first CD, Fran and Hollimon decided in 1989 to recommit themselves to full-time careers in music. The difference this time around: Neither would be going it alone.
Living proof of the maxim "opposites attract," Fran and Hollimon seem the perfectly matched pair. Hollimon is by nature a quiet, reserved man who reveals himself most fully when he's artfully bending a guitar string or laying down a sophisticated chord progression. Small in stature but a devoted sports fan, he's often too distracted by a televised game to make much conversation when friends drop by the place he shares with the woman he lovingly calls "Blabs" (also the title of a rocking instrumental shuffle on one of their CDs).
His wife, on the other hand, is full of banter and wisecracks, truly a dynamo not only at singing and playing piano but also at quick-witted chatter on stage. And in her daily conversations, as in her singing, she teases and plays off her immediate audience.
For instance, in the midst of a stream-of-consciousness chat recollecting a concert she headlined as a teenager, Fran is about to utter the promoter's name when she suddenly grimaces and stops. Head bent forward, she clutches her temples and says in a whisper, "Forgive me. It's the disease." When, after a painful silence, the visitor sincerely sympathizes, she reveals the diagnosis. "I've got CRS," she says, then waits a beat and bursts out laughing. "Can't Remember Shit!"
That flair for the dramatic, as well as the comedic, serves Fran well, particularly as the vocal center of attention of this festival-hopping team. In recent years the always-dapper duo have played high-profile gigs, including the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. They've also performed for a presidential inauguration party in Washington, D.C., as well as at countless festivals, from Long Beach to the Poconos, from New York's Central Park to Monterey.
But since their renaissance as full-time performers, Fran and Hollimon have made steady overseas touring their primary source of work, often playing Germany (where they've recorded a live CD unavailable in the United States), France, Belgium and Switzerland, as well as such places as Turkey and Brazil.
"We go to Europe a lot, and we work hard," says Fran. "People think it's a holiday when you're doing Europe, but it ain't." Given their penchant to economize, including often cooking their own meals over a hot plate while traveling (they're both fine cooks), the couple have been able to make a decent living by touring a few months of the year and mainly cocooning back home.
"We're just doing the occasional private party thing in Houston these days," Fran says. "I don't care to make people dance no more and compete with all the racket out in the clubs. So we really don't do that scene much. You know, once in a while we might open for someone special, but other than that, uh-uh."
It's no wonder that performing in fine European theaters before knowledgeable, rapt audiences appeals to her. The money, like the number of annual workdays required to make ends meet, is also a whole lot better on the international plan.
However, Fran and Hollimon also grace stages elsewhere around the Lone Star State far more often than they do in Texas's largest city. For most of the past decade they have worked regularly with the Austin-based organization Texas Folklife Resources, performing at special concerts statewide and serving as artists-in-residence in weeklong programs in various small communities. TFR Director Pat Jasper says, "They're the best: classy and down-to-earth at the same time, a real Texas treasure."
So it's doubly ironic that the coolest blues duo in Houston seldom play on the home turf. That being the case, local fans hear their music mainly via a series of CDs on the Black Top label. Their affiliation with the New Orleans-based record company resulted from a recommendation by lifelong friend Gaines. "Clarence and Carol was with us on Full Gain (1988)," the saxophone-playing bandleader says. "They're husband and wife, but they're just like a blood sister and brother to me. They are great people."
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After returning to the studio for that first Gaines CD, Fran and Hollimon were featured artists on the 1990 compilation Gulf Coast Blues, Volume One. They appeared again on Gaines's Horn of Plenty in 1992. That same year they released their first complete album as a duo, Soul Sensation, followed in 1994 by See There!
These last two discs showcase the full stylistic range of Fran and Hollimon, incorporating diverse elements into a dominant sound best described as timeless R&B, with heavy emphasis on the B. From achingly beautiful instrumentals such as "Blues for Carol" (which also made the soundtrack for the 1993 film The Pelican Brief) to such gritty ditties as "I Needs to Be Be'd With" or upbeat funk like "Door Poppin'," their first-rate original material makes them perhaps the finest husband-and-wife songwriting team in contemporary blues.
They may also be Houston's best-kept-from-itself cultural secret.
Fran and Hollimon perform Saturday, October 23, at the Beer Garden Stage (downtown, corner of McKinney and Smith) at Power of Houston '99. Showtime is 4:30 p.m. $5 for adults; $2 for kids age four to ten; free for kids three and under. Call (713)220-2000, extension 7697.