Frankie and Johnny (Music Review)

Frankie and Johnny cover

Various Artists - Frankie and Johnny

I’ve seen quite a few albums dedicated to murder ballads, but a CD filled with different renditions of a single one is a bold new idea. “Frankie and Johnny”, the chosen song, is unusual in that it’s about a wronged woman killing her man. It’s one of the classic murder ballads, but not nearly as well-known these days as “Stagger Lee” or “Long Black Veil”, so the tracks still feel fresh. I’d never heard of Righteous Records before this, but I’m intrigued now. Unfortunately, my impression of them after this is mixed.

To begin with, the songs are excellent. All from the first half of the 20th century, the sound and production quality is uniformly clear and rich. That’s unusual for recordings from this era, and many classic, well-written songs are done an injustice by the muddy, washed-out versions we have today. Whether Righteous was responsible for the remastering of these, or if they were just very discriminating in their selection, they deserve congratulations for putting together a compilation that retains the feeling the music must have had at the time it was performed.

Unfortunately, Righteous skimps in other ways. The same heavily-pixelated art is used repeatedly across the CD and booklet, despite having nothing obvious to do with the story, and there is at least one typo in the track list. In place of the rich, fascinating liner notes a project like this could have yielded, all we have is a short essay apparently cribbed from the internet. (Its saving grace is referring readers to Planet Slade, possibly the best website for the history of murder ballads.) There aren’t even any details about when the songs were recorded, or what makes each version notable.

Fortunately, the songs are more important than the album they came in. Despite telling the same story, they are not simply copies of each other. The elements of the songs, both musically and lyrically, are recognizable from track to track, but with constant variations. Across blues, jazz, and country roots styles, it flows together into one long but interesting performance, much like something that today’s culture of remixes might provide. The songs generally agree on some details (when Frankie found out Johnny was “doing her wrong”, she shot him three times with a .44), but constantly change up where the events occurred, what they were wearing, and who the focus should be on. (Ironically, the parts they agree on differ from the actual historical event that inspired the song: Johnny, whose real name was Albert, was shot a single time from a .38 pistol. All the songs gloss over the fact that Frankie was a prostitute and Albert her pimp.) Only Champion Jack Dupree drastically changes the story, turning Johnny into a murderous robber who survives to be captured by the law.

The frustrating part is that, out of the fifteen renditions provided here, seven are instrumentals. A few music-only tracks would add some enjoyable variety, as well as emphasizing the way a recognizable melody is adapted across multiple artists’ styles. But it borders on false advertising that almost half of the songs on this “murder ballad” compilation have no murder in them.

My ideal version of this would replace a few of those with other, more varied recordings of the songs. The perfunctory essay in the CD booklet even mentions that this has been performed by Elvis, Steve Wonder, Gene Simmons and others, but presumably those were too difficult to license. Still, it’s disappointing that they don’t include any of the seven artists they list to demonstrate that the song is a classic.

I do have some misgivings about this compilation, but it is an important document of a little-remembered song. The target audience is probably not very large, but those who like murder ballads or classic recordings will find a lot to like here.

Grade: B-

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