Jackson C. Frank's "Blues Run the Game" is an emotional touchstone on This Is Us—but the singer's story is just as dramatic

By Jordan Runtagh
February 24, 2017 11:00 AM
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Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” serves as the emotional centerpiece of This Is Us, providing the thread running through William’s tragic tale. Making two appearances on the NBC hit series, we hear it first in a flashback as William meets Randall’s mother Laurel on a city bus, and again during his final days as he travels back to Memphis and reflects on his life as he knows it’s reaching its end. Though gut-wrenching, Frank’s tragic true story rivals any drama that Hollywood could ever hope to dream up.

He released just one album, his 1965 self-titled disc, in his short working career. Though it featured strong songs and the production work of a young Paul Simon, the disc was met with general indifference in a market flooded with a host of acoustic troubadours hoping to be the next Bob Dylan. From then on he lived in obscurity, struggling with poverty, mental illness, debilitating health problems and familial catastrophes before his premature death in 1999 at age 56.

All told, Frank’s commercial failure was perhaps the least devastating of the personal misfortunes that plagued him from an early age. Born in 1943 in Buffalo, New York, he was badly injured as an 11-year-old when a furnace exploded at his school. The accident left Frank with burns over 50 percent of his body, and claimed the lives of 15 of his classmates, including his young girlfriend, Marlene du Pont—whom he would later immortalize in the song, “Marlene.”

You know the fire it burned her life out
Left me little more
I am a crippled singer
And it evens up the score

The unspeakable horror brought with it a hidden gift: music. During his eight-month recovery in a local hospital, a teacher brought him an acoustic guitar to help pass the time. Frank soon developed an affinity for the instrument, and before long it had become his raison d’être.

His burgeoning passion was further stoked by his love for Elvis Presley. A rare bright spot in his early years occurred when his mother took him to Memphis, Tennessee to visit the King of Rock’s newly purchased estate, Graceland. Amazingly, he was invited inside the mansion and posed for a photograph with his hero. Not long after, he would later record a demo version of Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”

The boiler accident earned Frank a sizable insurance payout, and on his 21st birthday he received a check for over $100,000—worth nearly a million dollars in today’s currency. The windfall allowed him to book a passage on the posh Queen Elizabeth ocean liner bound for England, which had become a major musical hotbed following the Beatles’ skyrocketing global popularity in early 1964. He would chronicle the journey in “Blues Run the Game”—allegedly the first song he ever wrote.

Catch a boat to England, baby,
Maybe to Spain,
Wherever I have gone,
Wherever I’ve been and gone,
Wherever I have gone
The blues are all the same

Frank quickly ingratiated himself with London’s Soho coffee house folk scene, including fellow musical ex-pat Paul Simon, who was on the precipice of worldwide superstardom as a member of Simon & Garfunkel. Simon was impressed with Frank’s strong vocal, agile fingers, and prodigious songwriting talent.

John Renbourn, who would later find fame in the British folk group Pentagle, remembers Frank as “rather quiet and self-effacing, not overly sensitive, but he wasn’t a falling-on-your-arse-and-get-wrecked kind of guy, he worked at his craft, conscious of doing really great stuff. He was the opposite of the loud American, as it were. He wasn’t promoting himself or blagging at all. I was knocked out whenever I heard him play. Jackson Frank was a lot more highly thought of on the scene than Paul Simon was.”

Simon agreed to produce Frank’s debut, which was recorded in one rapid three-hour session in London’s CBS Studios. The nervous singer was so intimidated by the presence of Simon—not to mention Art Garfunkel, who had dropped in for the session with local folkie (and future “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” hitmaker) Al Stewart—that he insisted on performing while hidden behind sound baffle screens.

The album failed to make an impact, and within a few years Frank’s insurance fortune had been whiled away on cars, hotel rooms and other frivolous expenditures. He returned to upstate New York, settling in the musician’s stronghold of Woodstock—the rural retreat of Bob Dylan and other major figures of the era.

Around this period, Frank’s mental health began to decline. The insecurity and anxiety hinted at during the sessions with Simon had evolved into full-blown depression. When he briefly returned to England in 1968, his friends were horrified by the transformation they saw. “He proceeded to fall apart before our very eyes,” says Stewart. “His style that everyone loved was melancholy, very tuneful things. He started doing things that were completely impenetrable. They were basically about psychological angst, played at full volume with lots of thrashing. I don’t remember a single word of them, it just did not work. There was one review that said he belonged on a psychologist’s couch. Then shortly after that, he hightailed it back to Woodstock again, because he wasn’t getting any work.”

Upon arriving back in the States, he married English fashion model Elaine Sedgwick, and the couple had two children—a boy and a girl. He began work on his long-delayed second album, but, as he later told Folk News, “personal and private affairs forced me to break it off … [which] was unfortunate.” In truth, Frank’s young son had died of cystic fibrosis. The tragedy sent Frank into a psychological tailspin, which ultimately saw him committed at a psychiatric institution. Sedgwick and Frank split not long after.

Frank lived with his parents for several years after his discharge, before traveling to New York City in 1984 in a desperate attempt to find Paul Simon, by then a modern musical icon, whom he believed could help revive his career. Deeply unwell and confused, Frank was unable to find his old friend, and ultimately lived on the city sidewalks and homeless shelters. One facility diagnosed him as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, but he blamed his condition on the trauma of the boiler explosion. Though he narrowly escaped the flames as a child, the after effects threatened to engulf his life decades later.

By the late ‘80s he resolved to return to Woodstock, but fate would continue to be cruel to Frank. One afternoon, as he sat on a park bench in Queens, a gang of local kids shot him in the face with a pellet gun, permanently blinding his left eye.

He arrived in Woodstock soon after the incident with the help of Jim Abbott, a fan who had managed to track him down in New York. “When I went down I hadn’t seen a picture of him except for his album cover,” Abbott said in 1995. “Then he was thin and young. When I went to see him, there was this heavy guy hobbling down the street, and I thought that can’t possibly be him…I just stopped and said, ‘Jackson?’ and it was him. My impression was, ‘Oh my God,’ It was almost like the Elephant Man or something. He was so unkempt, disheveled.

“He had nothing. It was really sad. We went and had lunch and went back to his room. It almost made me cry, because here was a 50-year-old man and all he had to his name was a beat-up old suitcase and a broken pair of glasses. I guess his caseworker had given him a $10 guitar, but it wouldn’t stay in tune. He tried to play ‘Blues Run the Game’ for me, but his voice was pretty much shot.”

Abbott encouraged Frank to create again, persuading him to perform in local talent shows and sketch new ideas for songs. “Sometimes his voice doesn’t sound too bad,” Abbott said at the time. “Nothing like it used to though. It’s more gritty and gravelly, sort of like Townes Van Zandt. It’s a lived-in voice.”

In the ‘90s he was visited in Woodstock by John Renbourn, who found the meeting troubling at first. “He was very overweight, looked really wrecked, his eyes were all f–ked up, he told the Guardian in 2014. “He had some gizmo that he flipped around his head like an antenna. It was a shock to see him. But we were sat around and all the old chat came back, and he was as easy as you like.”

Frank died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest in March of 1999, ironically just as a new generation of music lovers began to learn his name. His songs have since been covered by a myriad of artists—including Counting Crows, Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold—and appeared on soundtrack albums for Daft Punk‘s Electronica, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Brown Bunny and, most recently, This Is Us.

“Blues Run the Game,” his most famous work, offers a fitting epitaph for a man who few knew during his lifetime—but few who hear him today will ever forget.

Living is a gamble, baby,
Loving’s much the same,
Wherever I have played,
Wherever I throw them dice,
Wherever I have played
The blues have run the game