Tag Archives: Fran-Tone

IMAGINATIVE THEN, INVISIBLE NOW: THE ABSENCE OF FRAN KELLEY

Even now, when it seems that everything can be known, some people appear for a moment and then vanish.  One such is Fran Kelley, whose work as an imaginative record producer came to me some months ago, as I describe here.

Before I offer more information and speculation — all of the print data excavated by the diligent, generous Professor Brian Kane of Yale University — please hear one of the two sides that Fran made possible. Ethereal music:

A gentle caution: if you come to JAZZ LIVES only for videos, I’ll see you tomorrow or the next day.  I think this is a terribly important post, though: my attempt to make sense of a brilliant life from fragments of information.  And I can’t promise any melodrama: death from automobile accident or medical crisis: no, Fran Kelley seems to have turned from “the scene” to choose another life.

Here is not only a portrait (a disembodied one, alas) but the most thorough biographical sketch we have, even though it might be based on her answers to a questionnaire, when Fran was West Coast Editor of METRONOME (1953-57):

For the moment, a few additional facts.  1246 Orange Grove Avenue would have been near Spaulding Square, in what is now considered “West Hollywood,” once a residential area of single-family houses and small apartment buildings, but Google turns up no photographs, which leads me to think Fran’s residence was torn down sometime after 1957.  Whether the “Met” was the opera or the museum, I could find nothing relevant about her father.  Clyde Reasinger, famous for his work with Kenton and for being a section trumpeter on the television performance of MILES AHEAD, was long-lived, 1927-2018.  He has a Facebook page (whose administrator did not reply to my inquiry); his spouse has none.

Based on decades of reading, but jazz writing circa 1945-1957 (the years in which we have the most evidence) was primarily if not exclusively done by men, exceptions being Helen Oakley Dance and a few others, so even given the mildly patronizing tone of the sketch, it shows the regard in which Fran was held by her colleagues.  (In my previous post, I note the stories / reviews she’d written for Metronome.)  I am sure no one asked Bill Coss what he cooked, but that merits only a sigh.  By the way, if you think it condescending of me to call her “Fran,” I am writing this post out of fond admiration: “Kelley” seems icy.  Please don’t write in to lecture.

She accomplished great things, and I say here to readers, “Fran is now invisible in a landscape of Gene Norman, Norman Granz, George Wein and more, all of whom deserve their fame.  Her name is absent from studies of Dizzy, of Bird, of Benny Carter.  Had Fran been Francis, would she be so erased?”

She feels so much, at this distance, like Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s sister.”

Let us follow the paper trail.

DOWN BEAT, 15 November 1945: “Fran Kelly [sic] of Hollywood House of Music will launch her new international label with star jazz headliners.”

More about “the Hollywood House of Music,” from      https://peggyleediscography.com/p/LeeResearchCapitolEarly.php:

The Nebraskan son of an Union Pacific Railway accountant, Glenn Everett Wallichs had been interested in electronics since his childhood — focusing on the design of radio sets and the mechanics of train railroads. A North Hollywood transplant (at 16 years of age, in his family’s company), he started his adult workdays locally, as a radio station technician (at WFWB) and then as the owner of a car-radio repair shop (at Ivar Avenue). Wallichs’ small shop evolved into a radio and electronics store, and that one store brought enough profit to allow for its multiplication into a chain (a total of five stores, all of them in the Hollywood area). In 1938, Wallichs took his business ventures even further. Accompanied by his brother Clyde, he joined forces with former WFWB co-worker Al Jarvis (the pioneering disc jockey, who also happened to be an LA record shop owner) to create Hollywood House of Music, a compound that merged Jarvis’ record shop with the fifth, youngest of Wallichs’ electronics stores. The most noteworthy aspect of the merger was that the latter was no longer just a retail store: it was converted into a small specialty recording studio, whose specialty became custom recordings. Though “normal civilian” requests for recordings of events such as weddings or parties were certainly taken, the studio primarily catered to artists’ requests of airchecks from radio broadcasts. It also chiefly became the place from which Jarvis’ legendary creation, the Make Believe Ballroom show, was broadcast during the late 1930s. Known to have been recorded there in 1938 is a novelty tune that featured Wallichs himself along with Stan Kenton, Paul Weston, Jo Stafford and others (all of them playing instruments, Stafford included, and some of them under pseudonyms). The resulting instrumental number was chucklingly titled “The World’s Worst Record.”

METRONOME Yearbook, 1956, showing the astonishing roster of musicians who performed at the concert Fran organized on April 12, 1946:

My friend Nick Rossi — guitarist, jazz scholar, painter — magically turned up the program for the concert here.  Someone’s bought it, but what can be seen here is stunning.

One exception to the contemporary erasure of Fran Kelley is Douglas Daniels’ 2002 biography of Lester Young, LESTER LEAPS IN, where he writes of this concert:

In Los Angeles, [Norman] Granz, Billy Berg, and Fran Kelly [sic] typified a new type of jazz promoter dedicated to racial equality. Kelly, with the aid of Lester Young, Ray Bauduc, Kay Starr, Lucky Thompson, Red Callender, Charlie Parker, Nat Cole, Benny Carter, and other artists, sought to foster racial tolerance by booking UCLA’s Royce Hall for a performance to benefit the scholarship fund of the George Washington Carver Club, named after the famous Tuskegee scientist. A Metronome recap reported that Young and Parker offered ‘‘the best number of the program.’’ All the musicians either donated their services or received a nominal fee, with proceeds going to the scholarship fund. This marked a first for UCLA. . . .

Granz gets top billing; Kell[e]y is unidentified.

DOWN BEAT, 6 May 1946, a very small comment on the concert, compared to the coverage of Les Brown’s “ball team”:

CLEF, June 1946, a concert review which begins with a beautiful quote:

METRONOME, August 1946.  More about the concert.  Linger, please, over the names of the musicians, and when you are through with time-travel, also note that a new Lester Young record gets a “C+”:

Because online research is part pearl diving and part trash collection, my continued inquiries into the George Washington Carver Club led me to this site, which I avoided as if made of Kryptonite: Twin Towers 911 Video Clips Video De Sexo De Paris Hilton …8.aksuchess.ru › VkjWBA.  

We move on.

BAND LEADERS AND RECORD REVIEW, August 1946, notes “Kelly,” “gal platter impresario”:

DOWN BEAT, 6 May 1949, noting that the Fran-Tone masters were sold to Capitol (which Wallichs, Johnny Mercer, and Buddy De Sylva had founded) — my guess is that they did not sell and they were never issued on that label . . . plus a famous Lester interview:

DOWN BEAT, 14 December 1955, a nameless reviewer mocks Fran’s liner notes for a Chico Hamilton record:  “Only clinker are the notes on the individual numbers by Fran Kelley, written in her inimitable prose, a cross between science fiction and theosophy.”

DOWN BEAT, 4 April 1956, an approving review of Jimmy Rowles’ first session as a leader, where Fran is called “the only pretty jazz critic”:

And here are the notes for that album, with a tiny portrait of the author:

METRONOME, February 1957, Fran’s imaginative profile of Keely Smith:

DOWN BEAT, 3 April 1958: the last mention of Fran — “poetess,” working for Ellington:


There the trail stops, except for Ellington’s coda in MUSIC IS MY MISTRESS: “And there is one more person–Fran Kelley, musician, poet, songwriter, singer, orchestrator, manager, executive. This great woman with all these talents gave up running a radio station and record company in Los Angeles to pursue her
spiritual quests in San Francisco.”

I have not been able to find out anything about Fran Kelley’s life after 1958.  And that may have been the way she wanted it, to turn away from the secular world, “the music business,” to shuck off being called “pretty,” and live another life.  If you are born Fran Kelley and you enter a religious order and take the name of Sister Angela, even Google cannot find you.  (Consider Boyce Brown, “Brother Matthew.”)  And even a rudimentary glance at actuarial tables would suggest that she is no longer living.

But I hope she wasn’t driven away by misogyny.  Yes, regarding the past through the lenses of the present can distort, but someone so sensitized might want to abandon the world where music was for sale and one’s best efforts got ignored.  A world where Lester Young got a C+.

I feel her absence.  A great loss.  Her legacy is and should be more than a dozen or so clippings from jazz trade papers.

This post is in memory of Fran Kelley, once remarkable and now unknown, with no biography and no Wikipedia page. And it is also in honor of all the women who create imaginative ideas and art and don’t get heard at the meetings or find their ideas vacuumed up and presented by men, but still keep creating.

Thanks to Katherine Vasile, Brian Kane, and Richard Salvucci: without them, this post would never have happened.

May your happiness increase!

BEAUTIFUL AND RARE: FRAN KELLEY’S “THE DOUBLE QUINTET,” 1945

I haven’t watched ANTIQUE ROADSHOW for years, but to me the record below is like finding that the old painting in my basement is really a Caravaggio.  In 2019, I bought it on eBay for fourteen dollars, thinking, “I’ve never seen this label before nor heard of this session; it has wonderful people on it, and how disappointed could I be?”

I am elated, not disappointed.  Here are reverent still portraits:

And the other side:

The Double Quintet is Emmett Berry, trumpet; Eddie Rosa, Willie Smith, alto saxophone; Eddie Lucas, oboe; Clint Davis, reeds; Arnold Ross, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Billy Hadnott, string bass; Keg Purnell, drums.  Joe Macanarny or Herb Jeffries, vocal; Johnny Thompson or Herschel Gilbert, arranger.  Los Angeles, October, 1945 The four sides issued were LOUISE (instrumental) / PRELUDE TO A KISS (Jeffries, vocal; Thompson, arrangement) / LOVE FOR SALE (Joe Macanarny, vocal?) / YOU’RE BLASE (Jeffries, vocal).  I have not heard the latter sides, and my collector-friends’ network has not found a copy.  I would be interested in obtaining the disc, to put it mildly.

The Fran-Tone label — whose complete output was two discs, four sides — was the creation of Fran Kelley, about whom I would like to know much more.  These two sides received good press in Billboard, January 12, 1946 (thanks to Ellington scholar Steven Lasker for sending this to me):

Fran Kelley wrote articles or reviews of Chet Baker, Jimmy Giuffre, Leith Stevens, Bud Shank, Howard Rumsey and the Lighthouse All-Stars, and  others in Metronome in 1955 and 1956.  And (thanks to Brian Kane, Yale University) we know this:

Erroll Garner’s “Frantonality” is named after Frances Kelley, who briefly ran
a label in Los Angeles called Fran-Tone records. Garner’s recording of
“Frantonality” (recorded in Hollywood, April 9, 1946) was for that
label [but was issued on Mercury] and the title is also an advertisement for the
label.  She appears in Duke Ellington’s Music is My Mistress,
the chapter on San Francisco. “And there is one more person–Fran
Kelley, musician, poet, songwriter, singer, orchestrator, manager,
executive. This great woman with all these talents gave up running a
radio station and record company in Los Angeles to pursue her
spiritual quests in San Francisco.”

If you would like to disappear from public scrutiny, meaning no disrespect, pursuing spiritual quests is one surefire way.  As they say in detective films, the trail goes cold after 1956.  But we have this extraordinary record.

I’d start with the arrangers first: both Thompson and Gilbert wrote arrangements for Harry James c. 1943-45 — Gilbert also played viola, and went on to be a prolific orchestrator for television: I looked at the listing of shows for which he provided music over several decades, and concluded that everyone over 50 has heard his work.  But it’s Thompson’s arrangement of PRELUDE that is so beautifully arresting.  As well as James, he did arrangements for Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey (many for her 1944-45 radio show), and Tommy Dorsey.  They were big band charts almost exclusively, but one example of Thompson’s intriguing writing for a small group can be heard on the Norvo Keynote Records 1944 date.  If you need to know more about Thompson’s subtle mastery — more than PRELUDE will tell you — know that Norvo, interviewed for the liner notes of a CD containing live material from an otherwise unrecorded 1942 band (“Live at the Blue Gardens”) speaks of him in the same breath with Eddie Sauter.

Incidentally, only the most superficial listener will say, “Oh, it’s just like the Alec Wilder Octet, those Third Stream experiments.”  Much more, technically and emotionally, is going on here.

When I took the record out of its cardboard box, I first played LOUISE — a song I love — also because I had not seen the curious “vocal phrases” notation on the label of PRELUDE, and thought, “This is going to be a Jeffries vocal feature, and I know both him and the song very well already.”  It’s lovely to be proven wrong, but I will start with LOUISE.  I thought it began with a harpsichord, but the introduction seems to be played by Lucas and Reuss, oboe and guitar — a very unusual sound.  What follows is a little less surprising, a chorus scored for a compressed big band, although with space for Willie Smith and Emmett Berry, their voices so singular, then outings for clarinet (is it Davis?) before everything shifts gears into 3 / 4 for the kind of interlude one hears in films — the hero and heroine are suddenly wearing eighteenth-century clothing and powdered wigs — moving to a swing-to-bop passage for Arnold Ross.  (Yes, that was a car going by beneath my window — think of MISS BROWN TO YOU in July.)  For the last minute of the recording, Gilbert seems to have run out of ideas: yes, Berry noodles beautifully on top of the ensemble, and solo voices have brief moments, and it’s swinging dance music — but it almost feels as if he’d brought an incomplete arrangement to the date and needed to fill space before Billy Hadnott so eloquently closes the performance.  Perhaps I am being unkind to Gilbert, but the opening and closing of this arrangement are so rich in detail that the late interlude seems bare.  I was still glad I’d bought the record.

Consider for yourselves:

When I turned the disc over, I expected a formulaic vocal showcase: an introduction, then Jeffries would deliver a chorus of the song, the band providing background.  Perhaps a piano half-chorus, then a horn solo to finish out, and Jeffries might take the last eight or sixteen.  But what I heard was a delightful rebuke to formulaic expectations.  I won’t delineate all the pleasures of this performance, but I had never heard a recording where a song’s lyrics rose and fell as part of the instrumental background.  Whether Jeffries sings in half-voice or was consciously asked to turn away from the microphone for the first phrase, I can’t know — but the effect is unlike anything I’d ever heard on record.  The first twenty seconds are dreamlike, a mist-enhanced forest landscape, instruments and voices heard from afar, brief but telling personal utterances from Reuss, Ross, Berry — so delicate and earnest, before Willie Smith enters to rhapsodize in the Hodges manner.  Jeffries returns to sing the title, and the record — a marvel — ends.  I couldn’t believe it, and on return listenings, shook my head at the way Thompson treated every instrument in his small orchestra with equal respect: the reed section, Reuss, Hadnott, as well as “the singer” and “the jazz soloists.”

See if you don’t share my pleased amazement:

Marvels appear to us in the most subdued ways.

And I repeat: does anyone have a copy of Fran-Tone 2005?

May your happiness increase!