Frankie Ford was on a stage his whole life.
His decades-long career began at only age 5 and hit its peak when he was 19. Everyone knows Ford’s biggest hit, “Sea Cruise” — the one with the catchy refrain “Ooh-Wee” — but Frankie would only score a few modest hits afterward.
For decades, Ford kept performing at clubs and festivals in Louisiana, his last in 2013. On Monday, the New Orleans rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll singer and pianist died of natural causes at his home. He was 76 and had been ill for years, the Times-Picayune reported.
Friend Mike Shepherd, who is also the head of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, visited Frankie a couple months ago to choose some items for the museum.
His friend was bedridden and unable to walk, and told him, “Son, you go up and take whatever you want, because I’m never wearing any of it again.”
Shepherd told the Los Angeles Times that he picked a dark red sequined jacket.
“(Frankie) put one hand on the sleeve of the jacket… and he said, ‘My mama made this for me.'”
Ford’s mother supported him from the beginning. Born in 1939, Frankie was the adopted son of Anna and Vincent Guzzo (his name was changed to Ford to make him more marketable to a hot-rod-loving audience).
Ford always loved to entertain; he performed locally starting at age 5, won local talent contests, and at age 12, his parents took him to New York to appear on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour, WWLTV reports. As a teen – – before Ford hit it big with “Sea Cruise” — he was on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, had his own band, and sang with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Lloyd Price, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Fats Domino.
“As a kid, I could sing, dance, play the piano, emcee; nobody wanted to follow me. They’d say, ‘Whaddya got next? A dog act?’ Nobody liked to go on after kids or animals.”
Frankie eventually caught the eye of New Orleans record producers. In the 1950s, producers were looking for white kids to sing rhythm and blues music being made popular by local black musicians. Racism prevented them from getting their songs on the air.
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They wanted to turn Ford into a teen idol, Shepherd said.
“He had the look, and he absolutely had the best voice of all of them. He was capable of incredible runs. He could sing opera … The producers understood the point: This is our music, this is Louisiana’s music, yet we’re letting them take it out of here and making a fortune with — I’ve got to say it — white guys.”
Ford’s first single was released in 1958; both were his own songs, “Cheatin’ Woman” and “The Last One to Cry.” Ford’s hit, “Sea Cruise,” was written and already recorded by rhythm and blues pianist Huey “Piano” Smith. In Frankie’s hands, it sold a million copies, hit No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and ended up being recorded by everyone from Herman’s Hermits to John Fogerty, The Beach Boys, and Don McLean.
At only 19, Ford had a gold record, and he followed this with one other popular single, “Alimony.” Modest hits followed, Ford spent a few years in the Army, and when he got home found the British Invasion had stolen his audience. He hit the local club scene and had regular gigs in New Orleans for decades.
“From ’65 to ’80, I built up quite a clientele. It used to be one of those must-see things. I became sort of an institution.”
As 1950s nostalgia hit in the 90s, Frankie took to casinos, nightclubs, and private functions, spending as much time on the road in his later career as he did when he was just starting out. For 20 years, he was a fixture at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He retired just before Hurricane Katrina and hit the stage for the last time — nearly 70 years after he started — in 2013.
Lifelong friend Barbara Bennett, whom he met in 1958, cared for him toward the end of his life as his health declined.
“We had a wonderful time. Frankie had a God-given talent.”
[Photo Courtesy Rick Diamond / Getty Images]