Frank Stokes (January 1, 1888 – September 12, 1955) was born two miles north of the Mississippi line, in what is now a suburb of Memphis named Whitehaven, but he was raised by his stepfather in Tutwiler, Mississippi after the death of his parents. He learned to play guitar at a young age, surrounded by a number of Mississippi guitarists, including Dan Sane, who would be his musical partner in the Beale Street Sheiks. Stokes also worked as a blacksmith at age 12 and later in his life. He and Sane would travel to Memphis on the weekends to play on the corners of Beale Street.
He joined a traveling medicine show that toured the South during World War I. It is conjectured that this is where he encountered the “Yodeling Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first recorded country and western musicians. Rodgers learned to perform some of the bluesman’s songs and Stokes would later compose “The Yodeling Fiddling Blues”, perhaps in tribute.
In the 1920s, Frank Stokes went back to blacksmithing and playing music in Memphis on the weekends. After joining a jug band, Kelly’s Jug Busters, he teamed up again with childhood friend, Dan Sane, as The Beale Street Sheiks (in contrast to Sam Chatmon’s Mississippi Sheiks). In 1927, they began recording for Paramount Records and cut a total 38 sides for the label and Victor Records. Some musicologists point to the Sheiks as the genesis of the Memphis blues style, influencing a number of blues guitar duos. They performed a mixture of older, pre-blues tunes, rags and breakdowns, as well as the Delta style.
Stokes occasionally worked with Furry Lewis, Bukka White and teamed up with fiddle player, Will Batts for a few recordings. During the 1930s and ’40s, he played tent shows, juke joints and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus. He settled for a time in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Frank Stokes died of a stroke in Memphis on September 12, 1955. He is remembered as a seasoned entertainer, trained in the traveling tent shows, versed in older songs from the 19th century, as well as 20th century blues, and the father of the Memphis blues guitar style.
image credits: Michael Ochs Archives; Yazoo Records; R. Crumb