Obituary: Frank Frost

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The Independent Culture
A PROPHET is without honour in his own country, it is said, but that wasn't true of Frank Frost, the pioneer blues harmonica-player. The street where he lived for most of his life and died had been called after him several years before.

He was born in 1936, in Auvergne, Arkansas, but did not really get into music until he moved to St Louis, Missouri, at the age of 15. He had started his musical life as a guitarist, playing with the drummer Sam Carr and harmonica player Little Willie Foster in 1956, and later with the great Sonny Boy Williamson in St Louis from 1957 until 1959. After a hand injury he graduated to the mouth organ and was lucky to be taken on by Sonny Boy, who taught him the tricks of the mouth-harp. By 1954 he was touring with Sam Carr, and Carr's father, Robert Nighthawk, in a trio that later became known as the Jelly-Roll Kings, from a song on their album Hey Boss Man, issued by Sam Phillips, notable for his discovery of Elvis Presley some years earlier.

Presley's guitarist, Scotty Moore, produced Frost's next album in Nashville in 1966. Playing with Frost. Carr, Big Jack Johnson, whom they had met in the early 1960s, and the session bassist Chip Young were in the R&B charts for three weeks with "My Back Scratcher", based on Slim Harpo's "Baby Scratch My Back".

Frost was scathing about Sam Phillips. "I never got a quarter off that album," he said. "We recorded it, and all he offered me was $800. That's all. We didn't come out with it. Then it came out later, and I didn't get paid." This may have been because the album didn't sell, because its authentic, gutbucket sound was out of keeping with contemporary taste in those rock-influenced years.

Frost's attack and tone were legendary. When asked how he did it, he would touch his stomach and say "You gotta play from your stomach, not from up here," pointing to his chest. What some critics called his "whisky- filtered-through-gravel voice" was in the same, down-home vein. When other black musicians were searching after the elusive "cross-over" sound, Frost and his fellow musicians stayed true to their roots.

In 1998 there was a reunion with Sam Carr and Big Jack Johnson on the album Off Yonder Wall. Frank Frost performed just four days before he died, at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in his home town of Helena, Arkansas, on 8 October. He was a sick man, and playing with tears in his eyes. Years of cigarettes and alcohol had taken their toll.

Frank Otis Frost, harmonica player: born Auvergne, Arkansas 15 April 1936; died Helena, Arkansas 12 October 1999.