Jackson C Frank: The forgotten folk hero whose tragic life overshadowed his genius
Meet Jackson C. Frank, a folk singer who released just one album in 1965. His life was a tragedy: a boiler explosion at school killed 15 of his classmates and severely burned him. Later, his son died of cystic fibrosis. Then, while homeless, his eye was shot out in a random attack.
Born in Buffalo New York in 1943, Jackson Carey Frank was 11 years old when he was injured in a fire at his elementary school in Cheektowaga. Jackson and his fellow classmates had been sitting in their music class when a furnace in the basement directly below exploded. Fifteen of his classmates perished while Jackson suffered severe burns that would scar him both physically and mentally for the rest of his life.
Jackson spent months in hospital and was visited by one of his teachers who brought him an acoustic guitar to help with his recovery. It took him many long months to recover from his burns and in 1957 at the age of 13, he was taken on a trip to Graceland where he met his idol Elvis.
At the age of 21 Jackson received an insurance check for his injuries worth $110,000 and he took off with it. His first stop was Toronto where he bought a Jaguar car and drove all over Canada playing in bars and clubs. Then he travelled further and ended up trawling through the folk clubs of England where his musical career briefly took off.
When Jackson arrived on the English folk scene he instantly stood out. A clean-shaven, polite, well-dressed young American, nonetheless Britain’s folkies embraced him right off the bat. He befriended Paul Simon who helped Jackson record his debut album in 1965 simply titled Jackson C. Frank. The stand out track on that album was ‘Blues Run the Game’ which went on to be covered by Simon & Garfunkel.
The recordings did not go smoothly. Jackson was crippled with shyness and during the session he requested a screen to be put up around him so he couldn’t be seen, stating that he would be unable to play if people were looking at him. Still, the album was made in less than three hours at the CBS Studios in London.
While in England, Jackson got romantically involved with Sandy Denny, the darling of the British folk scene. She had been splitting her music career with her nursing career but somehow Jackson managed to convince her to give up nursing for music.
His time in England had, up to a certain point, been musically successful but in 1966 things started going wrong. His insurance money was drying up, as was his song writing. His love life was in shreds and his mental health was taking a turn for the worse so, Jackson packed his bags and headed back to the States. His stay back home didn’t last long. It was a scatty period in his life. By 1968 Jackson decided to head back to England and make another go of it in the music scene there.
However, he couldn’t adjust to the fast moving English music scene. The one he left was an acoustic style of folk, old fashioned you might call it, but two years later it had changed into a type of hippie rock inspired folk, one which Jackson just couldn’t get on with. His mental state plummeted, he was a chronic depressive and he quickly left England again, making his way to Woodstock in upstate New York.
For a short time in Woodstock it seemed as though Jackson had found a peaceful happiness. He met and married the English model Elaine Sedgwick and had two children, a boy and a girl but as soon as a joyful period began for Jackson it was suddenly ripped from him. His infant son died from Cystic Fibrosis. He spiralled into a depression which would see him placed into the care of a mental hospital.
By the 1970s Jackson was out of care and penniless. He had to beg from friends who in turn tried in vain to resurrect his career, even helping to re-release his 1965 album. Sadly this did not bring him the attention he deserved. During the 1980s he moved back in with his parents until one day he mysteriously disappeared.
Jackson’s mother had been in hospital having surgery. When she arrived home she found her son had just upped and left. He didn’t leave any note behind and neither did he make any phone calls. For many months it was presumed he had taken his life.
We now know he made a long journey to New York City in order to find his old friend Paul Simon but his trip proved disastrous. He ended up sleeping rough in the Big Apple. From time to time he was picked up and thrown into various institutions for the mentally ill. All seemed lost for Jackson until the 1990s dawned.
A music fan called Jim Abbot made it his business to seek out this enigmatic man who made an album full of beautiful folk songs in the mid 60s but had fallen on hard times in New York City. When Abbot found him, Jackson was a far cry from that impeccably dressed young man with bleach blonde hair who stirred the folkie scene in England. The Jackson C. Frank that Abbot came across was overweight due to a thyroid problem which stemmed from his fire injuries and he looked aged beyond his years.
The authorities in New York had put Jackson in a small apartment in a run down area of Queens. With the help of Abbot he made plans to move out of that situation and back to the comforts of Woodstock. Unfortunately another blast of bad luck slapped Jackson back down again. While sitting outside his apartment one day in Queens, Jackson was shot in the eye by a thug in a mindless drive by shooting. He lost his eye and even more confidence.
The mentally exhausted and physically battered Jackson eventually returned to Woodstock with the help of Abbot. Slowly he started to record new material but like so many times before, this stable happiness would not last. Twenty years ago on March 3rd 1999, one day after his 56th birthday, Jackson C Frank suffered a heart attack and died.
He sang the blues but by hell did he live them too.