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Earwig Beginnings

Bill Wax: Well! Good Day! My name is Bill Wax and I’m really honored here today to be with a friend and a guy that I’ve known for a while in the blues world and most of us should know of because his work has lasted for at least 30 years, Michael Frank who is the president and the man that started Earwig Music. Michael, welcome to B.B. King’s Bluesville!

Michael Frank: Great to be here Bill.

Bill Wax: It’s a pleasure to have you after talking with you and working with you all these years, to finally get it to the place. (laughs)

So Earwig music 30 years. Now one of the things I’ve always found unique about your label is I don’t believe you’ve ever signed a band, at least from what I can tell, where you signed ’em and thought, I’m gonna sell a  ton of  records on these guys. There’s real money to be made from this guys. I  mean even some of these smaller blue labels I think they do chase that dream, and I don’t get the sense that that was ever the vision you had for Earwig.

Michael Frank: You’re right about that Bill. I do think about it a lot more now, but really I got started and I still am a fan of musicians and the blues music, and in every case I just believed in the artist and their unique statement and I wanted to facilitate getting their music heard by other people, and that’s my driving force.

Bill Wax: And I think that’s true. When we go  through your catalog we play some of these and talk about these artists everyone will see that. But Michael, even beyond that, you could still believe in an artist and want to get them heard and think they could make a hit. I mean there’s something more going on, (Yeah, Michael says) and you really like, I would say, a more rural musician, more – uh, less sophisticated isn’t the word, less fancy, produced more sort of something you might hear if you were walking around and happened to step into a juke joint in Mississippi.

Michael Frank: I think that has to do with my philosophy as a producer. I want the audience and myself to hear the music on the Earwig record the way the artists conceptualize it, the way they hear it in their head, the way they articulate it in performance. And you know I’m kinda like a facilitator and a coach. I am trying to make a great record every time out that will add to the genre of  blues music and to my collection, be an asset to anybody’s collection, not just a really nice record. I’m really not trying to steer the artist in any direction other than a peak performance with fresh repertoire or fresh arrangement of old repertoire. It’s gotta to be fresh, it’s got to be exciting. All the other stuff is really just getting in the way.

Bill Wax: Well its an incredibly unique way of going about it and especially to make it work for 30 years and it blows my mind sometimes when I think about it. So let me ask you, we’ll get this out of the way right out of the top. How did you come up with the name of Earwig?

Michael Frank: Actually my sister Barbara came up with it. I was looking around for a name for the label and I am from the Bob Koester school of .. Bob Koester –  the owner of  Delmark Records and the Jazz Record Mart, who many of us worked for, said you know if you’re gonna have a label, you gotta have one early in the alphabet, because in those days the bins were in alphabetized order and people would sort of skim through the bins. And then my sister … I wanted something representing how the music grabbed ahold of me, something to do with the ear and she saw this night gallery show which I to this day have never seen. I just know her synopsis of the story, so if anybody is out there and has it on video, send it to me.  (Note: A fan actually did so after I told them this story)

Bill Wax: Michael is in Chicago. We’ll get you an address later. (Bill laughs)

Michael Frank: So the Earwig got into this guy’s ear and worked its way through. The guy’s in excruciating pain and I guess it laid eggs on the way through, and the guy lived with these earwigs in his head. So the image appealed to me because that’s kind of what to the blues did to me and what it does to people. It grabs ahold of you and it doesn’t let go, and it has a powerful impact on people. So I liked that idea.

Bill Wax: Well, I like that part of it. I’m not sure I agree with the excruciating pain. I’m a little concerned. (He laughs)

Michael Frank: Blues is .. it can be cathartic, joyful. People who don’t listen to a lot of blues think blues is all about sadness and pain. It’s not. It’s joy, its every range of emotion. But I like the image of it but if you look at my logo it’s got hands and feet which is supposed to be a dancing earwig.

Bill Wax: Ah, there we go. See now the thing about blues, Usually when people come in “well I don’t listen to blues, it’s too depressing.” My answer usually is that you know, honestly blues are really about life. And there are good times, there are bad times, there’s are high times, there’s low times, there’s all that stuff but it’s all there, its not, for whatever reason this idea got out that blues are sad or down or whatever. I don`t know where that came from. The musicians themselves never thought that or felt that.

Michael Frank: No, for everybody who believes that you and I and any of us who are real fans could pull out any a number of records that would refute that whole stereotype.

Bill Wax: Good Rockin’ Tonight alone.

Michael Frank: Yeah! That’s right! (They both laugh)

Bill Wax: So we got, now we understand where the name came from. How did the label start? What motivated you 30 some years ago whatever, to start a record label?

Michael Frank: Well part of it had to do with working for Bob Koester at the Jazz Record Mart part time, and I was the blues clerk on the floor so when  people came in and did not know what blues record to buy. I was  supposed to know every blues record and tell them which ones were good ones or not. And I did pretty much know that. By that time in 1975 I had already been around in the Chicago blues scene for 3 years and was friends with Honeyboy Edwards and Sunnyland Slim, Kansas City  Red, Lester Davenport and all the old timers…Floyd Jones. But the label really started after I went down to Mississippi enroute to the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in April of 75, and looked up Frank Frost who I was a fan of, because I ‘m a harmonica player and he was a great passionate harmonica player, and found him. This is chronicled on the back of the Jelly Roll Kings album in the  liner notes and I found him and heard Jack Johnson and Sam Carr and Frank Frost, collectively known as the Jelly Roll Kings, also known as the Nighthawks in their early career. And they were so exciting and so different from a Chicago blue band. They played, you know, Chicago blues like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and that kind of stuff, but they were a blend of country and soul and rock n` roll and blues and just a whole mixed bag of a different sort of repertoire mixed together differently than a typical Chicago blues band. And that was very exciting and their chemistry as a three piece was hard to believe when you listen to them that it was only three people. So that kind stuck with me from ’75 until ’78 and that time I guess with a little more nudging from Bob Koester I started the label and I went back down to Mississippi and recorded those guys in Memphis at Ardent Studios. The Bar Keys were in one room at 150 bucks per hour and I was doing 8 track DBX for 50 bucks an hour. And they were a very exciting band and Jack Johnson – I knew right away at that time as soon as I heard him, that Jack should be a star in his own right, and so as the result of that, I ended up recording Jack on four other albums. So that’s how that started.

Bill Wax: We’ll get to some of those. But let’s start with those the beginning which is your first record, which was the Jelly Roll Kings Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down.

Michael Frank: Yeah! Great record!

Bill Wax: It is a great record and it’s an amazing record to come out of the box. But you really don’t get the three of them back together to record for many years.

Michael Frank: Well I did but not under the name of the Jelly Roll Kings, but yeah it was a long time. Part of what happened was I got more and more involved with Honeyboy Edwards and Chicago blues musicians and did more recording. But the band had its own, like many bands, dynamics and inter-personal issues. They were friends but there were also various issues in the band and so they broke up. I mean they had broken up between ’75 and ’78 and then between then and when I got back with them again in ’87 they had broken up again, you know, and Jack really was chomping at the bit to be a star by ’87.  (Bill Wax interjects “and have his own band”.)  Right but actually the second album I did with them was Midnight Prowler which is the 14th recording in my catalog, but it is the Jelly Roll Kings, but it’s Frank Frost doing all the vocals, the lead vocals, although it does have Sam and Jack doing background vocals on three  tunes.

Bill Wax: So, Jelly Roll Kings, first record, got the favorite tune off of that one?

Michael Frank: Well I love them all. The one I was thinking of was a Howlin’ Wolf tune called “No I Didn’t Know”. I love the passion of that, how tight the band is and also every time I listen to it, I hear where Frank thought he made a mistake. There is an edit in there that it, when I get to the point I know the edit, probably nobody else knows it’s there unless they have incredibly good ears. But Frank thought he had made a mistake so right in the middle of this incredible take where Jack had really cranked up to solo, Frank stopped. And so it took, the second take it took a whole first half of the second take before Jack got back to the level of excitement that he was playing where I could put it back together. So it brings back a lot of memories in the studio and of those guys and it’s a great performance.

Bill Wax: So let’s do “No, I Didn’t Know”. This is the Jelly Roll Kings and this is the disc and a song that begins the 30 years odyssey of Earwig Music.