For years, admirers of Jimmy Franklin’s “Hey Mr. Presley,” one the hottest rockabilly disks on Detroit’s Fortune label, had no idea where he’d gone after cutting that record. Fans will be glad to know he remained true to his artistic callings after moving back home to Kentucky. Part 3 of 3.
Where You Gonna Rock Tonight: Jimmy Franklin, Part 3
For years, admirers of Jimmy Franklin’s “Hey Mr. Presley,” issued as by Pete DeBree and the Wanderers on Detroit’s Fortune label, had no idea where he’d gone after cutting that record. Fans will be glad to know he remained true to his artistic callings – which included painting! – after moving back home to Kentucky in 1971.
Morgan County Jamboree
West Liberty, Kentucky, is a small city nestled in the heart of Morgan County, where it serves as county seat. In 1971 Jim Franklin’s father died, and he returned to his hometown to live close to his mother. After entertaining across North America, Franklin continued playing music with friends and family on a mostly local basis.
“Jimmy played on a Saturday night jamboree at the county courthouse, that was broadcast on WLKS, the local radio station,” said historian Lynn Nickell. “I believe the station went on the air in 1964.” 
During the early 1940s, Franklin and his brother Marvin (known as “Whitey” in Detroit) performed with a group called the Morgan County Jamboree. Unaffiliated with a radio station, the band played schools, halls, and events around the region. The lineup sometimes included famed fiddle and banjo player Santford Kelly (1898-1973). After World War II, the brothers moved to Dayton, Ohio, to play music in nightclubs. With guitarists Chuck Oakes and Happy Moore, they broadcast over WSAZ radio Charleston, West Virginia.  From there, they moved to Detroit, Michigan (see Part 1 and Part 2).
In 1971, Morgan County boosters introduced the Sorghum Festival, an annual celebration of bluegrass and mountain music, traditional Appalachian food, art, and crafts. Franklin participated as an emcee and pickup bass player. Around 1973 he met teen-aged musicians Robbie, David, and Jamie Wells. “Jimmy was real well-known around the area,” said Robbie Wells.  “I guess he liked our group, and he helped and inspired us. … For a man from east Kentucky, he was different. I mean, he dressed up in flashy stage clothes. … He really knew how to entertain a crowd. He’d play his bass rockabilly style. He’d lay it down and get on top of it while he played with bluegrass bands.”
Franklin recorded the Wells brothers as Wells Fargo at the WLKS radio studio. He issued a 45rpm record on his own Kinfolk label, featuring the bluegrass instrumental “Cuttin’ The Cane” and “Morgan Sorghum,” a tribute to the music festival. In front of a single microphone, Robbie played lead guitar, David the banjo, Jamie second guitar, and Franklin played bass. “It was just a little project that Jimmy organized,” said Wells. “I guess he saw some talent in us, and wanted to help our careers.”
“We cut that for a documentary film about the Sorghum festival,” said Franklin’s cousin, Langley Franklin. “The music was used in the documentary.” 
My Lonely Nights
In 1972 Franklin visited Rusty York‘s Jewel Recording Studio in Cincinnati, Ohio, and remade “Help Me Make It Through The Night” backed with “He’ll Have To Go,” issued on the Jewel label in its custom series (no. 966). The arrangements included banjo and guitar supporting Franklin’s expressive voice, and the instruments may have all been played by York himself.
In 1974 Franklin and his cousin Langley produced a country version of the 1963 Japanese pop hit “Sukiyaki.” They traveled to Nashville to cut the song with English lyrics as “My Lonely Nights (Sukiyaki)” (not to be confused with the Jewel Akens version titled “My First Lonely Night”). Along with another Franklin original, “Fill My Empty Arms,” “Sukiyaki” was pressed on the Atlanta, Georgia, label Great World of Sound (no. 4064).
“We tried to shop the record to a bunch of labels,” said Langley Franklin, “including Capitol, who had the original version [in America], but no one picked it up.” It was Jim Franklin’s final venture into the record business.
That same year, Franklin returned briefly to Detroit, to witness his brother Whitey’s funeral. It was probably Franklin’s last visit to the Motor City, whose nightclub scene, filled with a new generation of country musicians, included fewer and fewer musicians who remembered him.
Playing the brushes
After living separately from his first wife Dimples for many years, Franklin remarried. He worked at the Sound Shop music store in West Liberty, supported the Morgan County Sorghum Festival as emcee and an entertainer, operated a barber shop, and painted.
“Ricky Skaggs had a show nearby [in 1984], and Jim went to see him with a painting he’d done of Santford Kelly, who was an early influence of Ricky’s,” said Langley Franklin. “Ricky bought the painting.”
At the time, Skaggs likely had no idea of the painter’s own history as an entertainer, and just as likely he had no time to find it out, because Skaggs was a rising country music star with a full schedule. When Franklin let go of his Santford Kelly painting, a portrait of someone who had an early impact on him as well, he may have secretly felt he was passing a torch to Skaggs, from one Kentuckian to another. A generous soul, Franklin distributed many such torches, through his attention and support to younger musicians in and around Morgan County, until he passed away in 1988.
- W. Lynn Nickell interviewed by Craig Maki in 2013. WLKS radio is based in West Liberty, Kentucky.
- The story of Chuck Oakes appears in the forthcoming book “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.”
- Robbie Wells interviewed by Craig Maki in 2013. Visit his website at robbiewells.com.
- Langley Franklin interviewed by Craig Maki in 2013. A note on the Kinfolk record label reads “From the Appalshop Documentary / Morgan County Sorghum Festival – 73.”