Frank Stokes, Epitome of the ‘Memphis Sound,’ Given Just Memorial

By Bill Dries

Nathaniel Kent remembers his grandfather as an older man in his 70s by the mid-1950s who came over with his guitar – ill and near the end of his life.



Nathaniel Kent, the grandson of Memphis musician Frank Stokes, with Memphis author and film-maker Robert Gordon at Hollywood Cemetery in June for the dedication of a new headstone for Stokes who died in 1955.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)
“I do remember when he came over and left his guitar at our house,” Kent said as he stood with a small group of people on a sweltering Friday afternoon last month in Hollywood Cemetery just feet away from the grave of Frank Stokes.

“I guess he was sick and didn’t want to play it anymore,” Kent told the group. “I took the guitar from under the couch and just tore it all up.”

Kent remembers his uncle’s music, and that his mother was a good dancer – both part of a musical family. And he knew his grandfather played guitar. But Stokes listed his occupation as “blacksmith.”


FRANK STOKES


More than 20 years after his grandfather died, Kent went to the old Main Library at Peabody and McLean looking for some jazz in the library’s vast musical collection. That’s when he saw his grandfather’s name and records, including a record cover that referred to Stokes as a “creator” of the Memphis blues.

“I saw him on the cover,” Kent recalls. “He was bigger than we even knew about.”

Stokes’ gravesite got a new headstone in June from the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a group restoring and dedicating new headstones for blues musicians of the early 20th century like Stokes.


Stokes had nearly 40 recordings on the market during his career in the 1920s and into the 1930s – first on Paramount and then on Victor – making him one of the most recorded Memphis musicians of the era.

The recordings are just of Stokes and his guitar, or Stokes and Dan Sane and their guitars billed as the Beale Street Sheiks. Stokes has a full voice that comes through loud and clear over a melody and rhythm that moves. Nothing mournful about it. It’s good time music.

“This is 1928 and it must be a new day,” he sings in “Downtown Blues.”

Stokes didn’t just sing and play. He shouted and talked to listeners in a recorded format that today can be almost like a foreign language in its formality. His talking blues style and shouts of chord changes are perhaps the earliest elements of hip-hop.

Stokes broke through with a voice that could be heard on street corners and by those in the backs of crowds.

He busked on Beale Street at the turn of the 20th century. He worked in medicine shows where the music was used to attract attention and draw crowds for the sale of patented “medicines” sold by traveling salesmen.

He performed at the corner of Mississippi and Walker, and at Bellevue and McLemore, streetscapes that today look nothing like they did when he was in full pursuit of the music that influenced him and the city.

He made the recordings that his grandson and his daughter discovered more than half a century after he recorded them.

And then he became a father and grandfather with a guitar. Kent remembers Stokes telling his mother, “Don’t whup that boy. He’s going to do something one day.”
Kent went on to create his own musical legacy in the local reggae band “Exodus” and even worked up a version of one of his grandfather’s songs.

“There were a ton of people,” DeWayne Moore, the director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, said of the Memphis music scene Stokes was a part of in the early 20th century. “Memphis itself was a force. Frank Stokes didn’t make Memphis, I wouldn’t say. But Frank Stokes is definitely as deserving as Furry Lewis and definitely as deserving as really any of the people we’ve ever put up a headstone for.”

Stokes is buried near the gravel road entrance to Hollywood Cemetery on Hernando Road, a cemetery that age has not been kind to, with broken headstones now lying flat and others tumbled over.

Near Stokes’ final resting place, part of another headstone emerges from the ground, obscuring most of the person’s name and all but the end of the epitaph “gone but not forgotten.”

Not too far away, Walter “Furry” Lewis, from the same era of blues musicians, is buried.

Stokes’ new headstone remembers him as a “Memphis Rounder” and “Beale Street Sheik,” with a picture of him holding his guitar in his younger days.

“He was living under a totally different set of rules,” Moore said of the Jim Crow-era that Stokes worked and recorded in. Yet he cautions against stereotypes of blues players that tend to be grouped as either tragic figures or figures from Southern folklore.

“There is a level of flamboyance there,” Moore said. “He sings about joy.”

On the back of Stokes’ headstone are the lyrics to “Bunker Hill Blues.”

“Down on Bunker Hill, place that I love to stay. Where I can have a good time, stay always, every day.”

At the base of the headstone is a small, metallic, square QR code that when scanned, brings up a memorial web page and more information about Stokes.

“It’s amazing how completely modern technology is working to help with these very old types of music,” said Memphis author, music historian and filmmaker Robert Gordon, who co-hosted the headstone unveiling. “It’s sort of fitting in a way I guess, because Frank Stokes -- you can credit a lot of the punch in the Memphis sound to Frank Stokes and the way he played. It seems kind of fitting that it would lead to the QR code.”

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