Michael Franks Is Happy to Be “Some Old Jazz Guy”

The jazzy singer/songwriter talks about the beauty of poetry, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and nature

Michael Franks (photo c/o the artist)

JazzTimes’ own Christopher Loudon once called Michael Franks “the trippy troubadour,” which has a nice alliterative ring to it that the literary singer/songwriter might well appreciate. The reality is that he’s not some old hippie burnt out on ’70s drugs, but rather a thoughtful and intellectual songwriter whose vocal style and persona are sui generis. And as we learned in the conversation excerpted below, he delights in being called “some old jazz guy.” (Though he’d likely prefer to be known as simply “a jazz guy.”)

Since arriving on the jazz scene in the early ’70s, Franks has not only amassed a remarkable and consistent discography as a leader, but also has had the thrill of seeing his songs covered by a wide range of singers and performers inside and outside the world of jazz. That list includes Diana Krall, Carmen McRae, Al Jarreau, Natalie Cole, Lyle Lovett, Patti Labelle, and the Manhattan Transfer. He’s even had some hits that crossed over onto popular radio and sales charts, including the infectious and sweet “Popsicle Toes” and the romantic ballad “The Lady Wants to Know.”

Nowadays Franks continues to turn out distinctive albums with his unique aesthetic, albeit at a little slower pace than in his halcyon years. Regardless, his loyal fan base still comes out to see him wherever and whenever he performs, though as he explains in our interview, he’s cut back on touring because traveling ain’t what it used to be—and his family life is not really compatible with doing 40 dates in 47 days.

Although many people associate him with the West Coast because of his laid-back vocal style, his early recordings on Warner Bros., and his collaboration with bands like the Crusaders and the Yellowjackets, Franks actually has called upstate New York his home for more than four decades. His frequent branding as a smooth-jazz artist is a similar miscategorization, which perhaps has something to do with the fact that his music rarely swings in a bebop style the way, say, a Mark Murphy or Kurt Elling might have done. Instead, it relies on Brazilian rhythms and a (dare we say it) smooth sonic palette over which his lilting vocals can deliver those well-crafted lyrics unlike any other American songwriter. But it’s  decidedly not smooth jazz.

The Music in My Head (Shanachie), Franks’ 18th and latest album and his first since 2011’s Time Together, delivers the same quality of writing and singing that has marked his career from the beginning, replete with absurdly clever rhymes, hip references, and soft-spoken vocals. He may not be the first songwriter to rhyme “sci-fi” with “WiFi” (as he does on the Philip K. Dick-inspired “Suddenly Sci-Fi”), but he’s sure enough the jazziest. Jazz fans will also revel in his poignant memories of the West Coast club scene in “Bebop Headshop,” with its references to the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and the thrill of discovering jazz as a young person. Much of the material reflects his deep love of nature, best exemplified in “The Idea of a Tree,” which swings very much like a big old tree in the wind, slowly and a little stiffly.

From the beginning of his career working with, yes, bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Franks has been a born collaborator. His latest album reflects the contributions of many of his longtime musical brothers-in-arms, including bassists/producers Jimmy Haslip and Scott Petito, arranger Gil Goldstein, keyboardist and musical director Charles Blenzig, and the late Chuck Loeb. And don’t forget his sisters-in-arms, keyboardist Rachel Z and vocalist Veronica Nunn, the latter of whom has been singing with Franks since 1993 and even recorded a whole album of Franks songs with the very direct title The Art of Michael Franks.

A downright dog lover, Franks has also committed himself to the cause of animal protection and rescue, doing numerous benefits and special appearances on behalf of Hearts United for Animals and other like-minded organizations.

Franks spoke with JazzTimes’ Lee Mergner about his long and productive life in music.

*****

Lee Mergner: You have a real gift for language. Did that come from being a reader? Or did your academic training in English and comparative literature resonate?

Michael Franks: I think it did. When I was in graduate school trying to figure out how to support myself, it didn’t seem that helpful. But it’s really been an advantage, I think. And the amazing thing is that my fans have appreciated that part of it, so I’ve been able to proceed down that path—the literary aspects of stuff.

I guess now you’re showing that maybe an English degree isn’t so bad for a career, right?

Well, I’m the exception that proves the rule, I guess.

One of the bios I read cited Theodore Roethke as an early influence on you.  What did you pick up from him?

He was a lyric poet. He lived in the shadow, unfortunately, of Robert Lowell and other poets who were more famous and won more prizes. But he published in all those right little literary magazines. He mainly taught. I think he was a tennis coach—he was a great tennis player. I first got turned onto him as a senior in high school and he was teaching at that time at the University of Washington, and I wanted to go to school up there. But I couldn’t really afford it. I ended up staying in state. I went to UCLA, which was great also, but he passed in 1963. I started college in ’62, so there was no chance to meet him. He was just a very interesting poet with a lot of kind of off-rhymes and eye-rhymes. Then sometimes very rhyme-y. But [he was] interested in nature and that appealed to me a lot.

You could just as well be describing yourself there. Were there other poets who caught your fancy back then?

I loved poetry, and when I went to graduate school I wrote a little bit of poetry and got into a few little magazines that probably right away went out of business. I loved John Berryman; The Dream Songs is his masterpiece. But I liked all of them. I thought Eliot was great, and Robert Frost. My mother turned me onto Frost when I was in the eighth grade. I had a Jesuit education up until I got to college, so I did a lot of reading.

You say you wrote some poetry, but did you do other sorts of writing back when you were in high school and college?

I did do a little short-story writing, but mostly poetry. When I was in graduate school, I wrote a little anti-war musical that was produced for three days in L.A. in an off-Melrose theater. And that was the first thing I ever did where I sat down and actually tried to write something that had continuity. It was a great project, and I learned a lot trying to do it. Mark Hamill [later to become world-famous as Luke Skywalker] was in this theater group at the time. He played one of the parts and sang one of the songs, which is funny.

One of the amazing things about your career is that you had an early gig with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the great Piedmont blues legends.

That’s how I got started as a songwriter. Lately I’ve been trying to write down stories of all the great players I’ve met over the years, and it’s been so much like wish fulfillment for me to be able to work with all the people I’d admired so much. That was the first thing that I started with in this little, I guess you’d say, memoir. I was teaching part-time at UCLA extension, and one of my students came up and said, “I’m trying to start a project with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.” This was a guy who was a real musician and had written some songs and worked a little bit as a studio guy in L.A. I was just fascinated, because I grew up in San Diego and I had gone to see Sonny and Brownie whenever they came to town. There was a little club next to San Diego State, it was called Circe’s Cup at the time—it was a little coffeehouse type of place. They played there, usually once a year. And I loved them so, somehow I got involved in this project and ended up writing [for them]. I wrote one song for them, which they recorded. They were trying to get a deal—because they’d made so many records by then.

They actually got a deal at A&M, which was great. The song I wrote, which was called “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” they made a recording and A&M liked it, so they let them do a whole album [Sonny & Brownie, released in 1973]. I wrote them a couple more tunes, which they recorded also. But it was great because I got to make suggestions about guest soloists. We ended up getting some really [great people]—John Hammond, Jr. played guitar and John Mayall. I loved a guy named Don “Sugarcane” Harris, who was a blues guy, and we got him on the record.

You know, Sonny was blind and Brownie had polio and they stayed in this miserable sort of apartment hotel in Hollywood, and we were working in Paramount, which was also right there in Hollywood. But they were always trying to figure out how to get to the studio and back from the studio, and I had plenty of time so I tried to pick them up and drive them as much as possible. And just in those little short trips, the stories they told were so incredible.

They were a fiery duo offstage.

Yeah, all the time. That was their shtick, but it was also really the way they were. I can’t remember them ever having a conversation that didn’t take a turn into an argument. It was like dialogue by Edward Albee. That’s just what they were like.

You grew up in southern California and therefore, besides all that great folk and blues stuff that was around then, you got to hear a lot of the West Coast jazz guys during that renaissance period in the late ’50s and ’60s, with people like Art Pepper and Chet Baker.

Unfortunately I never got to see Chet. But it was great. I got interested in jazz as a senior in high school. I was over at a friend’s house and his father and I were talking and he says, “Hey, do you like music?” At that point I was really just interested in blues and folk. And he said, “Well, let me play some stuff.” He played At the Pershing by Ahmad Jamal, and then he played a Mose Allison record. I remember walking out of my friend’s house and going, “My God, this is the most amazing stuff.”

Also right at that time, there were things happening on the radio that were so phenomenal. Like, “Take Five” was on the radio. The Getz/Gilberto album came out around that time. I felt like I had been given second sight or something, however you could translate that metaphor into your ears. I did get into the Lighthouse, which wasn’t that far from Westwood, which is where UCLA is. Shelly Manne had a place called the Manne-Hole in Hollywood, and I got into that once in a while. You know, I would get thrown out a lot because I was underage.

I just interviewed Sonny Rollins about the Way Out West album, and he talked about how much he loved Ray Brown and Shelly Manne. Everybody credits Sonny because he led that great saxophone trio album, but he said, “Hey, it was these two guys who enabled me to make it work.” As you know, jazz people had that whole New-York-versus-California thing back then.

When I first moved to New York in 1977, 41 years ago, it was so great. My wife and I were living in Queens, and we would take the 7 train into the city and go see Joe Pass and then we’d walk across the street and see Bill Evans. It was impossible to know what more you could do. There were so many great clubs then and, unfortunately, it’s not the same anymore. I was at Warner Bros. for so long, 24 years, that when I moved to New York, people at Warners were offended, you know what I mean? Nobody went from California to New York.

Right, you were supposed to go from New York to California, you fool!

Exactly! [Laughs] It was funny how their feelings were really hurt.

When did you realize that you could actually do this for a living instead of teaching at some college?

Sonny Terry and his wife [Emma] got me the deal. It was through this record that I made before I got to Warners. I had given them a demo tape, and somebody made a short documentary film about [Terry and McGhee] in the studio. And the person that was involved in that, they were starting a little record company, and so Sonny and Emma Terry called me and said, “Michael, we’ve got this guy. He might want to make a record with you.” And I said, “Wow, great!”

“This guy” was George Barrie, who was a perfume magnate. Fabergé was his company. He was one of these self-made men; he sold hairspray door-to-door out of the back of his car. He then built this big company, but he always wanted to be in show biz so bad, and he started a little film company, and they actually made [some good movies]. They won an Oscar one year. The only artists on their label [called Brut, like the Fabergé perfume] were me and [comedian] Robert Klein, and the best thing was that I got do a tour with Robert, opening up for him. He was really funny and he was a really good singer and he played harmonica.

Michael Franks (photo c/o the artist)
Michael Franks (photo c/o the artist)

What’s your creative process? I know you love the outdoors and nature. What gets you going with writing your songs?

It varies. I love standards and I have this great fake book that Will Lee’s father Bill Lee put together. And I refer to that. These two big fans of mine in Belgium got involved in publishing, and they somehow published this great book of Jobim stuff. It’s mostly all piano stuff like most music books, but it has some guitar stuff in there as well. They sent me these two great books. I always try to learn a standard I like, or I love to try to play the Jobim stuff. A lot of time I’m just learning and practicing, and it always starts with a musical idea. I make a little home demo of the music, and then I listen to that, and then the idea for the lyrics—or at least for the title or some kind of refrain—those ideas come to mind, and that’s how it all goes.

Do you do that on guitar or piano?

Mostly on guitar, but lately I’ve been using the piano, simply because I don’t know anything about it and I’m totally self-taught anyway. Now on this [new] project, I did about half the songs on piano. Even the stuff with Jimmy Haslip—Jimmy and I have known each other for so long and he usually can figure out what I’ve done when I send him a demo, but this time I had to actually explain what I played note by note, because I had made some things that were pretty strange and, for me, different, with complicated chords. And I also recorded them in a way that didn’t make it that clear to understand.

You mention Jobim, and it’s clear what a big influence he is on you. When did you first discover all that great Brazilian music generally, and Jobim in particular?

As soon as I heard that Getz/Gilberto album. Before that I might’ve heard the music from Black Orpheus. But once I heard that, I couldn’t get enough of it. The great thing was that my producer, Tommy LiPuma, called me one night and said, “Hey, Warner Bros. is going to sign Jobim.” And I said, “Great.” Tommy said, “I’m going to New York and we’re going to sign Jobim and Claus Ogerman is with him and they’ve been working on something.” And it’s the only time I’ve ever done something like this, but I said, “Well, is there any way I could go along? I’d pay for my own ticket, I’ll pay for my own room.” Tommy said, “No, no!  You come. You’re part of the entourage.”

That was such a great thing, because we hooked up with Claus Ogerman first and then we went to see Bill Evans, and after that, we went to Jobim’s apartment with Bill Evans. Jobim was so incredibly nice. And Bill Evans was fascinating. He went through the whole history of his recording career. I wrote a poem about it once because it was like from the Bible almost, or like an epic by Homer. He went through every place he’d ever recorded, and what it was like, and what had happened with the records. Mostly, it was a kind of liturgy of disappointments, but it was done in such an amazing way. The only thing he didn’t have was the [serial] numbers of the records, he didn’t remember those.

We had just recorded The Art of Tea [released in 1976], and Tommy played these rough mixes, which was incredible, just to be sitting in a room with all these people. But the great thing was, Jobim got up and went to pee, and I heard him sort of humming “Eggplant,” which was one of the tunes from that record. And that was the ultimate compliment! To hear somebody like that walking down the hallway and humming a tune that he had just heard. Then he invited us down to Rio, where we recorded part of Sleeping Gypsy [released in 1977], so I got to spend time with him there.

And he and his girlfriend at the time came to New York and they spent about half a summer there. He would call me, and my wife and I would come into the city and hang with him. He wanted me to write lyrics for some really out stuff he had written. He had just read the Carlos Castaneda books and he was all interested in that. And he wanted to write music. He actually had written some things, and then he had a tune which he wanted me to write lyrics for—which I did, and which was amazing. So, it was just great to know him and spend a little time with him.

Your tunes have been covered by a large number of folks. Leo Sidran and Veronica Nunn have even done whole albums of your songs. Do you hear anything new in your songs when someone else does them? 

It’s the greatest thing. We were talking about Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s version of “White Boy Lost in the Blues”—but Lyle Lovett recorded that, and it was so great to hear his version. First of all, it was like resurrecting it from the dead because Sonny and Brownie did it in 1972, I think. But those are the peak moments for me. I was playing this little club in the city on 72nd Street on the West Side, and legend had it that it was kind of a mob place. It was a money laundering project for something. I think it was called the Grand Finale. I played there for a week and a couple years later, it was gone. But one night near the end of the week, there was a knock on the dressing room door, I opened it up, and it was Carmen McRae. And she said, “I just recorded ‘Underneath the Apple Tree.’” And I said, “Wow, that is so great. Can you stay a while?” And she came in and stayed for a while. That’s the peak kind of experience, when somebody else does your song.

Particularly when they are these gifted artists who have their own strong style and persona.

Oh, yeah. Plus I idolized her growing up. That was like the only hip music my parents had, vocalists like Nat King Cole and Carmen McRae. I did get to hear some great singing. And Peggy Lee—I got to work with her later in life, too, which was amazing. But that is the ultimate compliment when somebody else records it.

Which songwriters from the Beatles onward will still resonate 40 or 50 years from now? 

Boy, I don’t know. I guess the Beatles would probably be in there. But I don’t know. I find it very disappointing that when I play jazz festivals—20 years ago it would be great because I would get to meet somebody I admired. Now when I play these festivals with what I consider a euphemism, “smooth jazz,” I don’t have the same excitement for it that I had.

A far cry from Bill Evans and Jobim, I’m sure.

But even just the great players, like Freddie Hubbard—not only people who were great composers and songwriters, but players who were great. Years ago I did a couple of things with Stanley Turrentine. I did a couple of things with Ella Fitzgerald. Just to be on the same stage with Ella Fitzgerald, because I had loved those Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass records. I struggled hard to try to figure out what the hell he was playing, those amazing little inside passing chords he’d play. And I don’t feel that now. I’m about to turn 74, so maybe it’s a generational thing. I know some of these young guys can play, but they play so little and the compositions are usually pretty forgettable, and the music has these predictable little areas of cuteness or cleverness. You know what I mean? It’s not Joe Zawinul. It’s not a composition that you go, “Wow, that’s something great. I’m going to sing that one on my way home.”

Look at the Yellowjackets. Some of those Russell Ferrante tunes had that magical melodic quality.

Right, they were so great. “Freedomland” and “Geraldine,” those are really great tunes. I worked with them and did a few tours with them, and we had such a great time. It was great to hear that music every night.

Cover of Michael Franks album The Music In My Head on Shanachie
Cover of Michael Franks album The Music In My Head on Shanachie

Let’s talk about The Music in My Head. It’s been six or seven years since the last album. Back in the day, it was like one a year—that was just the way it was if you had a record deal.

Yeah, I think I got to 1987 doing that, and then I went three years to Blue Pacific [released in 1990], and then I was in kind of a three-year or two-year rotation. But I don’t know. I think it just takes longer to be content with what you do. I enjoy it just as much—more—than I ever did. But I think maybe it’s just a natural evolution. I know people think that I repeat myself, and I probably do, but I try hard not to.

You have a very specific style and sound, and that’s the greatest thing to have. So for anyone to say, “Well, he’s doing the same thing,” then good for you.

I’m so grateful that my faithful have kept me employed all these years, because it’s great to be able to go into the studio. It’s nice to have a project, and to have people be interested in what you’re doing, so I really appreciate that.

You still perform live a fair amount—you’re doing maybe 30 or 40 shows a year?

This year I’m doing 10.

Really? You lazy bum.

I am. Because flying isn’t that much fun anymore, nor is traveling. I know it’s terrible to complain, but it is one of our unalienable rights guaranteed by the Constitution. I’ve got the same group on the road now, and we have some subs, who have also been subs for a long time, when the original group can’t get together. But we started in around 1990, so most of the core, we’re all old guys now.

Who is your working band now?

I’ve got the same musical director that I’ve had—the pianist Charles Blenzig. The bass category, it kind of changes. We’ve got a young guy named Sean Conly, but also Mark Egan and Jay Anderson kind of rotate from acoustic to electric. Right now Richie Morales is our drummer, and he’s great. We’ve got this young guy from the Czech Republic, this huge, tall guy whose name is Karel Ruzicka. He’s a really interesting guy and saxophonist. He plays the flute really well.

It’s just not as much fun to be on the road. I’m really lucky that I can pick and choose. It seems like we always go to New Orleans every year, and we just did the Capitol Jazz Festival. We’re doing a new venue in New York City called Sony Hall. I’ve never been there. But yeah, 10 or 12 or 13 dates a year are fine with me.

In the ’90s we used to go out on the bus. And then we’d have a couple of weeks off after we worked an entire region, and then we’d go home for a while. And then we’d fly out and meet the bus somewhere. I remember once we were near Palo Alto. We played this pretty little venue up there. We had a day off and we were in Campbell, California, which is right near Silicon Valley. And about half of us were in a laundromat, and we were just staring at our clothes turning around in a dryer. [Laughs] And I remember saying, “Wow.”

Right, now you’ve made it. One of the people I wanted to speak to you about was the late Chuck Loeb, who loomed large in your personal and professional life.

The last several years have been really hard. When Joe Sample passed, I couldn’t believe it. Because Joe and I wrote a couple of tunes together, too, and he was just so important in my career. That whole group with Larry Carlton and Joe had such a profound influence on what I did.

A few years ago, I ran into Chuck. [He was in] that group with Jeff Lorber and Jimmy [Haslip] and Everette Harp. We did a couple of shows together. I saw Chuck and I talked to him, and he said, “Oh, I had sort of a health scare.” And I said, “Well, what’s going on?” And he told me, and then he seemed to be very positive about what was happening. He hadn’t had any surgery at that point. Then over the intervening years, I’d talk to him and it’d be up and down. And then, finally, it was obvious that it was the final chapter. And I sent him some tunes, and right away—he was feeling really good last January when I sent him some things—he sent me back this great feedback for the tune that he ended up producing [on The Music in My Head]: “As Long As We’re Both Together.” And it was—the solos and everything—perfect. He said, “Well, I’m probably going to do the solos over.” And I said, “No, please don’t! Don’t touch them.” Because I always loved that Wes Montgomery octave thing he did in his solos. And he gave us that. My wife loves that, too, and so it was like he knew exactly what we wanted and he delivered. And then he had two other tunes.

But then it was a downward glissando. Wow, what a sharp curve from that point on. I was just so sorry that he couldn’t do more. I was grateful that I had done some work on the road with him, too. He had invited me as a guest to a couple of European tours he did, and that was fun. In the very beginning—I think in the late ’80s—when I was touring with the Yellowjackets in Europe, I hired Chuck to come play in my part of the show, so that there would be something different in my part of the show. The Jackets were working their asses off—if we were working co-billed that way and doing our own show, they were also doing other things. Like, any time there was a night off they’d fly somewhere and work for somebody else or do something. Chuck and I, we had three days off in Paris and two days off in Copenhagen, and we played so much tennis. He liked to run at that point, and we did some running. I was really grateful that I had that kind of brotherly bond with him too, in addition to just the musical stuff.

It’s clear that you’ve worked with, for want of a better word, some impressive “secret weapons”—these arrangers who can take a tune or part of a tune and turn it into this bigger thing.

Absolutely. Like Gil Goldstein. I love Gil, he’s always been so great at comprehending what I desire.

Have you ever gotten something from one of these guys, whether it’s Charles or Chuck or Gil, where you’re like, “Ah, this is not quite where I wanted it to go”?

No, I have to say. I mean, I once asked Chuck if he could switch from acoustic to electric. And that was the only request I think I ever made. [Bassist] Scott Petito did such a beautiful job, too. And I’ve worked with Scott in the past, but boy, he really outdid himself on this project with the great little horn [charts] he wrote. And then he turned me onto Rachel Z, whom I did not know, and she played really beautifully. And I got to reunite with David Spinozza, with whom I worked with in the late ’70s and boy, he’s one of those guys who knows exactly what to do and he does it better than he ever did each time.

Do you think your style has evolved much over the years? Or do you think you’ve just fine-tuned it? It feels like the latter to me.

I think that’s true. In the mid-’80s, I made a couple of records with Rob Mounsey. They sounded a little different. But I wanted to go in that direction, because Rob was so comfortable with what at that time were new sounds. It might’ve been slightly excessive once in a while, but still we had all the great players, Michael Brecker and Hiram Bullock, just these great rhythm sections.

Ironically, on one of those records I had this great rhythm section with Warren Bernhardt, Ron Carter, I think Michael played sax and Steve Gadd played drums. We were talking about Woodstock and John Simon, the producer, was the guy that got us up here. I made a record with John, Tiger in the Rain, in ’79 and we were living in Queens and he said, “Well, why don’t you guys go to Woodstock?” And the next weekend, we drove up. And we found this little old wooden house, and we said, “Oh, we can come up here on weekends.” After about a year of that, we said, “Why don’t we live up here and go down there on weekends?” And when we’d take a walk, we’d walk right by Big Pink [legendary site of recordings by Bob Dylan and the Band], even though it’s hard to recognize it now.

How do you feel about your relationship with your fans?

I always spend time—unless a venue won’t allow it—meeting and greeting after the show. It’s amazing. They’re so supportive, and I love them. I’m not that good with my Facebook stuff, because I got dragged kicking and screaming into the Facebook world. But I do try to post once in a while. There are these two or three other sites—fan sites—that I don’t have anything to do with. And those people are great too. The only thing that’s disappointing is when you make a new record and somebody posts a YouTube video that says, “Entire record.”

Right. “Here it is! Enjoy!” It’s amazing what YouTube has become. It’s worse than Spotify, because at least with Spotify, if you play it a million times, you get your $20 or $200. But with YouTube you get nothing.

Yeah, it’s disheartening. I always like to work on the covers. So now when you’re working on a cover, you’re like, “Do we really need to obsess this much about a cover now?”

You’re in your own spot in the bins. Does it bother you that you’re sort of lumped in with smooth jazz?

Most of the time it is [being lumped in with smooth jazz]. Here’s a story. We always go to New Orleans, and sometimes we play the House of Blues down there. [One time] the soundcheck was late. I came to the gate and people were coming in. The band was already there, and I was like the last person to arrive. So there was this big line of people coming in, and this young kid was one of the line wranglers telling people to come a certain way. And I had to cut through the crowd to get to the stage door. And this couple walks up, kind of like the Woody Allen movie where they’re walking down the street and they’re the perfect couple but they seem like they might be brain-dead. As I’m cutting through the line, they say, “Who’s playing tonight?” And the kid says, “I don’t know, some old jazz guy.” [Laughs] That was so great! My wife made that as a logo and hat for my birthday.

I don’t know, even from the beginning when I did my Blindfold Test with Leonard Feather, it’s been about jazz. And I’ve always charted on jazz. For some records, like in the ’80s, it was more like R&B or adult contemporary or whatever. In the early years, back in the days when you’d go to record stores for promotions or things, I honestly didn’t care. I was just thrilled that I was in any bin. I’d find myself in Male Vocal, with Jerry Vale or Andy Williams. But, hey, as long as you’re there, that’s the main thing.

You’ve devoted a lot of energy to animal protection. What led you to be more active with that?

I saw a special on PBS about puppy mills. And this was probably 20 years ago, and we’ve always adopted our pets from the local shelter. But, boy, this whole situation with the puppy mills, it just seems like most of them are so horrible. Once I saw that, someone had mentioned this organization in the Midwest, where they focus on rescuing animals from those puppy mills. So I kind of focused on them. My wife volunteers at the local SPCA. We’ve done a few shows—we did one out in California, at a hotel in Newport Beach. I told them that, for me, it was a benefit for this organization, which is called Hearts United for Animals. And they were great. The guy who runs [the hotel] said, “Okay, we’ll donate the bar tab.” Which was almost as much as I was making. Any of the stuff, like any of the catalogue stuff you sell at venues, I give all that to these organizations, and it’s just been great to be able to do something to support them.

Listen to this Spotify playlist of Michael Franks’ songs, compiled by JT reader and longtime Michael Franks fan Jeffrey Stoodt:

[Sign up here for the JazzTimes enewsletter with the latest news and stories from the jazz world.]

Preview, buy or download The Music in My Head on Amazon.