Frankie Ford: Singer who rode the wave of 1950s rock’n’roll and had his biggest hit with Sea Cruise

Ford was as camp and as extrovert backstage as he was up front, and the audience loved him

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The Independent Online

“Little Richard and Liberace are at two different ends of the entertainment spectrum and I guess I put them together,” Frankie Ford told me in 1992 when he appeared on a rock’n’roll package show at Southport Theatre, “I didn’t do it intentionally. It just happened that way, but I have always liked to dress up for work. I don’t want to look like I’ve just come off the bus. Sophie Tucker once told me, ‘These people have paid to see you, so dress up!’”

Frankie Ford was born in Gretna, Louisiana, close to New Orleans, in August 1939. He was the son of Vince and Anne Guzzo, his father being a shipyard worker. They encouraged his musical talent as a singer and pianist and he often won talent shows. When he was 12 they took him to New York for an appearance on the syndicated TV show, Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.

Around the mid-1950s, Ford became entranced with the rock’n’roll music that was being made around New Orleans by Fats Domino and Little Richard. “I suppose I was singing legitimate music, but as soon as I heard this, I thought, ‘Yo, this is for me.’ I used to watch the bands playing and fortunately, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith thought I was good.”

Smith had recorded “Sea Cruise” with his group, the Clowns. Bobby Marchan had sung the lead vocal, but as he was planning a solo career, Ford was asked to put a new vocal on the song. The record was enhanced by novelty sounds such as the ship’s bell which opens the record.

Sea Cruise” was released under the name of Frankie Ford and became a US Top 20 hit and million-seller. The song was so infectious that the song has been recorded by hundreds of performers including John Fogerty, the Beach Boys, Cliff Richard and Status Quo, but none have matched the exuberance of Ford’s own version.

Ford had that unique New Orleans phrasing and he made many good records, including “Roberta” and “Alimony”, but he only had moderate success. He made a quirky record with Dr John praising a local TV horror host, Morgus the Magnificent.

When Ford was drafted in 1962, he entertained troops in Japan, Vietnam and Korea. He returned to the United States in 1965 but the British Invasion had changed the music scene. He played bars and lounges, eventually opening his own bar in New Orleans. He always saw himself as a star, having a licence plate with “Ooo-Wee”, his catchphrase from “Sea Cruise”.

Ford appeared in the film American Hot Wax (1978) and made the occasional album, such as New Orleans Dynamo (1984). His singles included “Whiskey Heaven” (where it rains Jack Daniel’s all the time) and “I’m Proud of What I Am”.

As I was interviewing Ford in 1992, a voice came over the tannoy saying, “This is your 15-minute curtain call.” Ford grabbed hold of me, kissed me and said, “Don’t you just love show business? I’ve now got to go out and do the best show of my life.” 

Ford was as camp and as extrovert backstage as he was up front, and the audience loved him, even applauding his scarf, which was covered with piano keys. 

Vincent Francis Guzzo Jnr (Frankie Ford), musician: born Gretna, Louisiana 4 August 1939; died Gretna 28 September 2015.

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