(November 2, 1912 - November 8, 1991) U.S.A.
Musician, singer, performer
Born Frances Cohen in Brooklyn, New York on November 2, 1912, Frances Faye's professional career began at the age of sixteen, on a local amateur show where she filled in for an absent pianist. Faye then spent a few years in the vaudeville and nightclub circuit, as an accompanist for singers. She took upon singing when a nightclub owner fired the singer in Faye's act.
An extensive career as a nightclub performer followed. By 1934, Faye had already begun a demanding schedule that would keep her working usually 11 months a year, often on the road. Well into the 1970s, she was still headlining in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, as well as England and Australia.
She appeared in at least two movies, 40 years apart. In 1977, Faye would play a wise-cracking madam on Louis Malle's Pretty Baby, a picture that - according to Faye herself - "opens with me in bed smoking an opium pipe with a wig half off my head." Her screen debut took place back in 1937, in the Bing Crosby-Martha Raye vehicle Double or Nothing. Playing a sister act in a nightclub owned by the Crosby character, Faye and Raye can be seen performing After You with Crosby.
Around the time of her screen debut, Faye became a recording artist and songwriter. Co-star Crosby had taken Faye to Decca Records, where she made her debut recordings in 1936. In 1939, with Don Raye, Faye composed Well All Right, which became a big hit that year for the Andrews Sisters. She would perform the song on screen a few years later, in a 1942 "soundie" - the equivalent to the modern "music video." Another 1942 soundie features her singing I Ain't Got Nobody. Faye continued to compose throughout her career, and recorded a number of her own songs, including Purple Wine, You're Heavenly, Well All Right, Frances and Her Friends, and A Good Idea.
Her recordings, songs and movies notwithstanding, Faye made her greatest impact in live performance. With an act peppered with double entendre and saucy modification of lyrics (often cut short at will), Faye can be deemed a precursor of artists such as Bette Midler, Phyllis Diller and Eartha Kitt. Much of the patter and jokes pertained to her looks - unattractive, by standards of the day - and her sexuality, which was shrouded in playfully ambiguous comments. A favorite among gay audiences, Faye was also adept at switching gender pronouns on the songs she performed, and at uttering manifestos such as "Gay, gay, gay, Frances Faye, is there another way?" Her two live albums on GNP offer a good representation of her unique onstage persona.
Health problems forced Faye to limit her number of appearances as the 1950s came to a close. For most of the 1960s, she was carried onto the stage, unable to walk after a broken hip (1957) and three ensuing operations. She was walking again and traveling the club circuit during the 1970s, even within a few months after a heart attack and the installation of a pacemaker (1978). "I'm glad when I get up every day," she told New York Times critic John S. Wilson at the time. "I'm glad I didn't die during the night. I get up swinging." Despite a series of strokes that followed, she continued to swing at clubs until 1981, when she retired, and lived another full decade. She was survived by Teri Shepherd, her longtime companion.
On record, Frances Faye covered a wide and audacious musical territory that included hard swingers, mellow ballads, novelties, rock and roll, and folk songs. Despite her brash manner and her rough voice, Faye's ballad work is surprisingly dexterous. She remains in need of rediscovery as both an expert lounge performer and a one-of-a-kind interpreter of classic pop.
Published with gently permission by the author Ivan Santiago
Frances Faye was one of the most durable and beloved performers in the night clubs, particularly among lesbians and gay men - sometimes called "Faye-natices." These loyal listeners were particularly fond of songs like Frances and Her Friends, and Night and Day.
Not a glamour girl, "Fran," as most of her friends called her, was as much a comedienne as she was a singer. When Caught in the Act, an album capturing "au naturel" her night club performance at the Crescendo was released, she was living with her "secretary and four French poodles" in a hillside home on Sunset Strip in Hollywood.
Merril's memories also returned to the oceanfront Cas-Bar operated by Shirley. "What a wonderful casual place. People would come up off the beach. There would also be buffets and there was a great jukebox with lots of dancing. Inside was the 'mad, mad wall' painted black where each person who hung out there would trace around her hands and put her name inside the handprint."
A take-off from Frances Faye's jazzy album, Caught in the Act, the lyrics from Night and Day, written by Cole Porter, inspired the mad, mad wall. In her night club performance, before beginning that song she would sometimes sing, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, warning her listeners that she never does it "on account of the gay kids. They resent one word." Then she begins in her alto voice, horns and snare drum in the background: "There is heaven right here on earth with those beautiful queens." Abruptly, she stops singing and asks a laughing audience, "See what I mean? I never do that song, such a drag!"
While the song does not appear on Caught in the Act, there is a rendition of Night and Day, sung against the syncopated rhythm of horns, drums, cymbals, and bongos:
Like the tic, tic, toc
of a steady clock
as it stands against the wall
the crazy wall,
the mad, mad wall
the meshuginah wall....
Night and Day
What is there to say?
Is there another way?...
Pulling the album from her collection, Merril then sings the lyrics of another Frances Faye song, Frances and Her Friends. Again the singer first warns her listeners, "This is not dirty. It's the way I say it." Merril mimes:
I know a guy named Joey
Joey goes with Moey
Moey goes with Jamie
And Jamie goes with Sadie
And Sadie goes with Abie
And Abie goes with Davy
And Davy goes with Howard
And Howard goes with Charlotte
And Charlotte goes with Shirley
And Shirley goes with Pearly
And Pearly goes with Yetta
What a drag, what a drag
I'm not mad
I'm too hip to get mad....
Merril smiles. "That was a very popular album among us. It was a big deal that she was so blatant, so publicly open. We had so little. This was so precious."
Her work (incomplete)
LPs & CDs:
- No Regrets / You're Not the Kind of a Girl, Decca (8/19/36)
- Boogie Woogie Washerwoman / Return to Sorrento / Purple Wine / Well, All Right (International 1946)
- Night and Day / Tweet Tweet Tweetheart / She Looks / I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate / My Last Affair / On a Raft in the Middle of an Ocean /
- There's a Bell that Rings in My Heart / A Fool in Love / Sometimes I'm Happy / I Was Wrong About You / The Dummy Song / Uh-huh / Hey, Mister / Sorry Baby / Summertime / Mad About the Boy (Capitol early 1950s)
- John Henry / St. James Infirmary (Bethlehem 1957)
Appearances in other's albums:
- No Reservations (Capitol 1953)
- I'm Wild Again (Bethlehem 1955)
- Relaxin' With Frances Faye (Bethlehem 1956)
- Porgy and Bess (Bethlehem c. 1956)
- Frances Faye Sings Folk Songs (Bethlehem 1957)
- Frances Faye Swings Fats Domino (Imperial 1959)
- Frances Faye Sings the Blues (Imperial 1959)
- Caught in the Act (gnp 1959)
- Frances Faye in Frenzy (Verve 1961)
- Swinging All the Way With Frances Faye (Verve 1962)
- Caught in the Act, vol. 2 (gnp 1963)
- You Gotta Go! Go! Go! (Regina 1964)
- Bad, Bad Frances Faye (Bethlehem 1976)
- Frances Faye: Caught in the Act (gnp/Crescendo 1978)
- Frances Faye Sings Folk Songs (Bethlehem 1999)
- Bunny and Louie: 3 complete 15 minute Radio Shows (Shoestring)
- Martha Raye (Legends)
- Peter Allen: Continental American (a&m - 1974)
- Faye Song: Just a Gigolo (duet w. Peter Allen)
- Double or Nothing (1937)
- Pretty Baby (1977)