Versatile singer/musician Jimmy Franklin, originally from West Liberty, Kentucky, landed in Detroit with his brother Whitey around 1949-50 during the city’s postwar country music boom. Click here to read Part 1.
Sons of the West
Danny Richards had just begun fronting the house band at Detroit’s Roosevelt Lounge (located at Mack and Montclair) when the bartender took a phone call from Yankton, South Dakota, one summer evening in 1952. Steel guitarist Johnnie White was on the line. White had found work at WNAX radio Yankton, and he needed a bass player. He remembered Richards in Detroit. Richards respectfully declined, and recommended Jimmy Franklin for the job. Franklin joined White and accordionist Billy Grey the following week. 
A feature in the September 1954 Country Song Roundup noted Johnnie White and the Sons of the West was the first musical group to broadcast from KVTV Channel Nine in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1952.  Franklin, Grey, and White broadcast daily radio programs from WNAX, and performed on the WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance every Saturday night. In the following issue of Country Song Roundup, Franklin’s image appeared among a page of snapshots titled “Spotlight On The Stars.” Dressed as “Cousin Clem,” he wore the rags of a rube, with blackened teeth and exaggerated freckles dotting his face, as he held the neck of an upright bass and kicked a bare foot into the air. 
When the WNAX gig ended, Franklin and his wife Dimples entertained together through the Midwest, before returning to Michigan.
By the spring of 1956, Franklin traded in Cousin Clem’s old-fashioned rags for modern duds, playing with Eddie Jackson and the Swingsters at Dutch’s Log Cabin in Port Huron. The most popular country nightclub in the Blue Water region, Dutch’s attracted hundreds of patrons every night of the week – many from Sarnia, in Canada just across the St. Clair River.
Jack Brown of Fortune Records invited Jackson to cut a rock and roll record, and he whipped up a bopping number called “Rock And Roll Baby,” with Franklin singing backup. On the flipside, Franklin led “You Are The One,” a heart song that revealed his vocal style had matured into a pop sound not unlike Frankie Laine or Guy Mitchell. In fact, Franklin’s singing helped Jackson book better-paying gigs in nightclubs known for pop music.
After Jackson left Port Huron for a more lucrative booking in Detroit, steel guitarist Tommy Durden (author of Elvis Presley’s first RCA hit “Heartbreak Hotel”), Dee and Vic Cardis worked at Dutch’s. Franklin returned to Port Huron in 1957, joining the Wanderers – Durden, pianist Pete DeBree, and drummer Larry Green – at Colby’s Bowling Alley lounge. That year the band cut an Elvis Presley tribute record, “Hey, Mr. Presley,” in which Franklin wove titles of Presley’s hit records into the lyrics. 
Well, he took the crazy rhythm and he set it to the blues
Started into rocking with his “Blue Suede Shoes”
“Heartbreak Hotel” brought fame to his name
He got ’em all shook up with his “Mystery Train”
Hey, hey, Mr. Presley
Where you gonna rock tonight?
At the session, Franklin updated “My Long Tall Gal From Tennessee” (hear it in Part 1) to “Long Tall Lou (From Louisville).” Ten years before in Dayton, Franklin boasted of a “honky tonkin’ gal” who “never uses peroxide” in her hair. By 1957 she was a “rock and roll gal” – and in an alternate take from the session, she wore “one streak of peroxide.”  The band’s shouting made for a party atmosphere, and Franklin sang as if these were the last songs he’d ever sing.
When the Wanderers moved north for bookings in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, and at the Sand Bar near Houghton Lake, Franklin followed. Durden eventually settled down near Houghton Lake, where he played music, wrote songs, and made recordings until his death in 1999. Franklin continued performing in restaurants and nightclubs across Michigan, leading his own groups.
The Roman Emperors
Around 1963, Franklin started a trio called the Roman Emperors. They combed down their pompadours and performed in Roman-styled togas in nightclubs around Phoenix, Arizona. “They were booked to play the ‘Tonight Show’,” said Langley Franklin, a cousin. “On their way out to California, they got into a real bad car accident, and they missed being on TV.” 
After Franklin’s recovery, he made his way to Detroit, by way of Nashville, Tennessee, where he cut “You Took The Wind Out Of My Sails” and “Is It Christmas Time In Vietnam,” issued by JED International Records (no. 0017) in 1965. Franklin penned the latter as “Is It Christmas Time In Korea” while he lived in Detroit, during the 1950s. The arrangements and Franklin’s vocals combined for a radio-friendly record, but he wound up selling most copies from the bandstand.
Franklin’s next efforts took place at Guido Maresco’s “GM” recording studio (now the Recording Institute of Detroit), located next to Maresco’s auto repair shop in the suburb of East Detroit. He cut several country tunes, including sentimental fare such as “My Dad,” and social commentary in “Remember Youth,” but the performances were never released. The band included steel guitar, banjo, and organ. Franklin seemed capable of doing whatever he wished with his powerful and emotive voice; from recitations to melodic improvisation, he seemed at the top of his game.
However, in 1971 Franklin returned to West Liberty, Kentucky, for good.
Coming in Part 3: Jim Franklin’s West Liberty legacy.
- Danny Richards interviewed by Keith Cady in 2000, and by Craig Maki in 2005, 2006, 2007. Whitey Franklin worked in the band at the Roosevelt Lounge when Richards received the call from Johnnie White.
- “Hillbilly Harmony” Country Song Roundup (September 1954. No. 34), 20.
- “Spotlight On The Stars” Country Song Roundup (November 1954. No. 35), 9.
- Franklin even included the title of Janis Martin’s record “My Boy Elvis.”
- The original (1957) Fortune record label featured a misprint of the title as “Long Tall You.” During the 1970s, Fortune re-issued “Hey, Mr. Presley” backed with an alternate take of “Long Tall Lou” (black labels with silver print). Franklin hired Al Allen to play electric guitar at the session.
- Langley Franklin interviewed by Craig Maki in 2013.