Frankie Lee Sims was probably born in New Orleans, April 30, 1917. However in the only interview he ever gave, he told Arhoolie Records’ Chris Stachwitz that he was born February 29, 1906. Oddly enough, since 1906 was not a leap year there was no February 29th that year.
Our story is already confusing. Not much is known about Frankie Lee Sims. He gave one interview in his life, there is only one known photograph of him. Anyway, he was raised in East Texas where he picked up the guitar at a young age. His cousin was Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins who would go on to great fame and fortune (see the Jan. posting Lightnin’ Loses His Choppers for a great TV clip of him). Sims made his first records in 1947 for the tiny Blue Bonnet label out of Dallas– Home Again Blues b/w Cross Country Blues and Single Man Blues b/w Don’t Forget Me Baby, both good records but nothing to shit your pants over. They are very rare today and fetch big bucks at auction but I’d say they are for completest only. The second disc is notable for the presence of a steel guitar player whom Frankie claimed was Carl Perkins of Sun Records fame. This however is highly unlikely. Frankie appeared on a couple of discs backing up Smokey Hogg, and on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Jailhouse Blues on Gold Star. He played a lot of bars and juke joints, put together a band with drummer Mercy Baby (a teenage King Curtis passed through this group briefly before heading to New York and stardom).
In 1953 Sims came to the attention of Johnny Vincent, then working as an A&R man for Specialty Records out in L.A., he recorded Sims in Dallas in two sessions that year from which three singles would be issued. Eventually Specialty would gather up the outtakes and issue an LP in the seventies, and in the nineties a CD. The three Specialty discs are excellent, primitive blues, much like cousin Lightnin’, Sims had a rather loose style and kept to no regular meter.
The first disc– Lucy Mae Blues b/w Don’t Take It Out On Me was a good seller, it was based around the guitar riff that goes back to Tommy Johnson’s Big Road Blues and can be heard on hundreds of blues records. The second disc Yeah! Baby b/w I’m Long Long Gone was a good, solid blues rocker but didn’t sell squat and the third Specialty disc Rhumba My Boogie b/w I’ll Get Along Somehow was the least interesting and nobody bought it. Some of the best material he cut for Specialty didn’t emerge until the LP was released in 1970 such as Married Woman (which the Flamin’ Groovies covered in ’72) and Lucy Mae Blues Part II.
Four years passed. Frankie Lee played his guitar all over west Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Johnny Vincent left Specialty and struck out on his own, forming the Ace record company out of Jackson, Mississippi (he’d hit pay dirt recording New Orleans greats like Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns and Frankie Ford, but he always had a soft spot for blues and issued great blues discs into the seventies). Vincent signed Sims, and his first session resulted in the 1957 single issued on Ace What Will Lucy Do? b/w Misery Blues, basically a remake of Lucy Mae Blues, but a remake that is superior to the original, Sims’ had improved immensely as a guitarist in the four years since his last Specialty session, and the addition of drummer Mercy Baby gave his sound more drive. A second session was soon scheduled, this time with two sax players added to the band– Jacquette Brooks and Jack White, and now they were playing full fledged rock’n’roll.
The next disc would be the pinnacle of Frankie Lee Sims’ career– Walkin’ With Frankie b/w Hey Little Girl, the a side is a thundering blues rocker (Barrence Whitfield & the Savages covered it in the eighties) that remains one of my all time favorite discs. While I usually prefer 45’s, Ace mastered their 78’s particularly hot (i.e. loud) and Frankie Lee Sims’ Ace 78’s are some of the best sounding discs I’ve ever heard. At the same session that produced Walkin’ With Frankie, six sides were recorded with drummer Mercy Baby singing and these were issued under Mercy’s Baby’s name, the first– Marked Deck b/w Rock and Roll Baby appeared on Ace in ’57, the second Silly Dilly Woman b/w Mercy Blues was issued by Ace in ’58 and the third and final Mercy Baby record– Pleadin’ b/w Don’t Lie To Me came out on the Ric label two years later (’60). All six Mercy Baby sides are excellent blues rockers, all were highlighted by the guitar playing of Frankie Lee Sims.
Frankie Lee cut a third and final session for Johnny Vincent in Jackson in late ’57, his next single for Vincent, issued on the Vin subsidiary– She Likes To Boogie Real Low b/w Well Goodbye Baby, soon followed by the Ace disc My Talk Didn’t Do Any Good b/w I Warned You Baby give him a batting average of 100%. All four tunes are hard blues stompers, the best being She Likes To Boogie Real Low which re-writes Louis Jordan’s Blue Lights Boogie as a guitar rocker, Sims playing more like Guitar Slim or Gatemouth Brown than Lightnin’ Hopkins at this point. Recorded at the same session but left in the vault until the nineties was the excellent How Long. None of these records were big sellers, although Walkin’ With Frankie got some airplay in the South and Sims claims to have appeared on American Bandstand to promote it, although no one has ever been able to find evidence of such a broadcast.
Frankie Lee Sims recording career wound down, in 1960, on the recommendation of King Curtis (whose hit Soul Twist, Sims claims to have played on, although it’s actually Billy Butler on guitar, many think he confused it for Bobby Davis’ Monkey Shout (Vest) a disc which King Curtis played on and the guitarist sounds just like Sims), Bobby Robinson brought Frankie to New York and recorded him, although these sessions, lackluster remakes of his previous recordings, wouldn’t be issued until the eighties when the U.K. Krazy Kat label finally released them. He may have done some recording for Arhoolie in 1969 but if he did, none of it was ever issued.
Frankie Lee Sims died in 1970, his health had been in constant decline since a 1963 shooting “incident” and heavy drinking. His passed away just before Specialty issued his first LP, a disc which brought much attention to a career that had been previously unnoticed by the growing white blues audience. He was 53 years old and didn’t look a day over 70. While he was alive he released nine singles on four labels, after his death two LP’s appeared. Not exactly prolific, but the best of it was some of the finest rockin’ blues ever recorded. Yet somehow, like all these stories, it all seems rather tragic to me. I hope he had as much fun making those records as I do listening to them.
ADDENDUM: In a bit of confusion it took me until today to post the sounds that accompany the first Mercy Baby single, and also to correct the dozen or so typos, my apologies.