Saturday, February 14, 2015

Remembering Our Best Valentine's Day Gift: Meeting Frank Brown

Frank Brown, Craig, Steph, B.B. King, and Kevin on B.B.'s bus
North Shore Music Theatre 5/21/05
It was 11 years ago today that we met a dear friend who enriched our lives immensely in the year and a half that we knew him.  We had our web site for travels but not our blog back then, so I never really got a chance to write much about our friendship online. I tried soon after he passed away in 2005, but it was too painful and fresh. But it seems that now is the perfect time…as it makes us smile thinking of him on Valentine's Day. So here is an edited compilation of our journals from the time we shared with Frank. Happy Valentine's Day!

Craig and I are big fans of the blues as a musical genre. We have traveled to Memphis and Chicago on several occasions to explore the blues roots / culture there, and we have seen many blues performers in concert in the Boston area. In early 2004,  our local newspaper ran a story called “Blues Traveler” about an elderly man named Frank Brown who was a retired bus driver for B.B. King and James Brown. Frank was originally from Mobile, AL, where his family still lives. But he had moved up north after retiring due to diabetes-related complications, and was currently a resident in a nursing home about 5 minutes up the highway from our house. It was a very interesting article, and since he had no family up in Massachusetts, we thought it might be fun to set up a visit with him, to get to know him and talk about our mutual interest in the blues. Having had two grandparents in nursing homes for an extended time, I knew how important visitors can be to someone’s morale.

We sent a letter to Frank at the nursing home, introducing ourselves and requesting a visit. A few days later, on February 13, we got a phone call from Frank, who was eager for us to come for a visit. Craig and I have never really been into celebrating Valentine’s Day. It seems like a Hallmark holiday, and our relationship is no more special on Feb 14 than it is on any other day of the year. But we thought it might be a nice day to visit Frank, so we told Frank that we would come by the next day.

As soon as we met Frank, he immediately won our hearts. He was chatty and clever and had a great sense of humor. At first we weren't sure when he was putting us on and when he was serious. As time went on, we grew more used to his sense of humor, but there were still times when we weren't quite sure. I think he liked that.

Frank’s memory wasn’t what it used to be, and he was often confused, but we enjoyed chatting with him and hearing stories about the old days, when he drove James Brown’s tour bus, and subsequently drove B.B. King, first in a Cadillac and then in B.B.’s tour buses. He used a walker to get around these days, and he nicknamed it his Cadillac. Frank referred to B.B. simply as "B". Our visit flew by and Frank asked us when we would be coming again.

From that day on, we were hooked. He got under our skin. Visiting Frank on Sunday afternoons became our weekly ritual. During the week he would call us on the phone just to say hello. When we talked to him on the phone, we could hear the smile in his voice.

We would bust him out of the nursing home to take him out to eat when he was in the mood for some southern soul food (Redbones for fried catfish and hushpuppies, Bel Air Diner for liver and onions), and we would take him to blues concerts. Frank referred to us as his "ace boon coons". But he could never seem to remember our names. He called Craig "The Boss" and me "Mama." As time went on, he would start calling Craig "Sherlock" for his ability to locate items that Frank had misplaced. Then he started calling him "my lawyer, for reasons unknown to us. He had nicknames for his nurses, too. One he was especially fond of was called "Rolls Royce."

Frank would always argue with us when we tried to pay for anything. “You ain’t got no grown up son named Frank Brown that you got to pay for.” Craig said “You’re the 80 year old black son we never had.” Frank thought that was hysterical, and it became our little inside joke.

We asked Frank about his family in Mobile. He told us about his wife Beatrice and their daughter Bernice, a jazz singer. However, he only ever talked about them in the past, and sometimes the information he recounted was contradictory, so it was difficult to know whether he still maintained a relationship with them. He got us in touch with his sister Eloise in Mobile, and we corresponded with her via letters and phone calls about Frank's health. She was very sweet.  We tried to locate Bernice, but we were unsuccessful.

In addition to driving musicians, we were always finding out about other jobs Frank had held. He had worked on a banana boat, at a state mental hospital, at a funeral home, and at Mardi Gras selling roasted peanuts. We're sure the list goes on and on. When he was younger, he excelled at football and participated in boxing as well, but gave it up because driving was his passion and he couldn't train and drive at the same time.

When we would visit him on Sunday afternoons, he was usually watching church services on TV. He would marvel at how much a particular preacher "walked the floor," delivering a particularly animated sermon. We told him that we had seen Al Green preach in Memphis. Frank couldn't believe that the same Al Green he used to know could ever be a preacher. We assured him that it was true. Frank also liked to watch Red Sox and Patriots games. Other times when we would visit, the TV would be off and he would be listening to blues CDs.

B.B. King 4/30/04

B.B. King and Frank Brown
Casino Ballroom, Hampton, NH 4/30/04
Frank was always in the loop about when B.B. King was playing in the area. We took him to Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom to see B.B. King on April 30.  During the concert, Frank sat there and at times it was hard to tell if he was even paying attention. Then, once an old song started, Frank just looked at Craig and burst into song. His intonation was correct and he even had the little parts right where B.B. stops and says something in the middle of the song. Frank was so sweet and people around us were smiling at him as he sang.  One stranger came up to Frank and shook his hand and said that he liked how Frank dressed and he looked good. Frank talked to some of the crew and told them that he wanted to talk to B.B. By this point Frank was very animated, dancing in his seat, shaking his hands around, etc. 

A bouncer came over and told us to wheel Frank to the side of the stage. We went behind the small barricade and waited near the exterior wall, near the elevator. B.B. did an encore, and we watched it from side-stage. Were we going to actually meet B.B. King? My knees were literally shaking. Then at the end of the show, B.B.’s entourage cleared the exit aisle (we were the only ones allowed to be there, even the backup band was cleared away) and they wheeled B.B. right towards us. One of B.B.’s guys shone the flashlight at Frank so that B.B. could see him. B.B. lit up immediately. In all of the commotion, Frank couldn’t tell where to look and even as B.B. grabbed his hand he was looking elsewhere. B.B. said “Frank, Hi Frank! I’m right here. Don’t you recognize my voice?” We turned Frank’s attention to B.B. and they shook and then held hands. I asked B.B. if I could get a picture of the two of them together. He said “If you like”. I took the photo and B.B. talked to Frank for a minute. B.B. called him "Big Brown." 

Then it was obvious that B.B. had to go; fans were congregating near where we stood, hoping for autographs, and the entourage needed to get B.B. safely downstairs and out to his bus. As they wheeled him away, B.B. looked me right in the eye and said “Thank you.” He then looked Craig right in the eye and said the same. B.B. King was thanking us for something? We were the grateful ones...he had made Frank so happy! And it was such an honor for us to get to meet him as well. It was really nice to see that the love and respect that Frank has for his friend and former employer was mutual.

They wheeled B.B. onto the elevator and as it was descending he looked at us and waved. We asked Frank about the nickname "Big Brown". He said that B.B. had called him that since their first meeting. Frank was on cloud nine for the rest of the evening!

Buddy Guy 8/27/04
Frank Brown and Buddy Guy
Backstage, Casino Ballroom Hampton, NH 8/27/04
On August 27 we drove Frank up to the Casino Ballroom in Hampton, NH once again, this time to see Buddy Guy. Buddy had befriended Frank back in the early years when Frank was driving B.B.  When we got to the venue, I spoke to Buddy Guy's road manager and introduced Frank. The road manager went backstage, talked to Buddy Guy, and came back to tell us that we could go backstage before the show. As in right now.  (The show was a double bill with Robert Cray, and Buddy Guy was on first).

Once again, my knees started to knock. We followed him and a security guy behind the little barricade, past a rack of Buddy’s trademark polkadot Stratocaster guitars, and into a little tiny room. There was a purple velour chair, on which Buddy Guy was sitting. We walked in and there was barely room to maneuver the wheelchair. Buddy was stylin'. He was wearing a monochrome striped black suit, white and black wingtips, and a white hat. On one hand he had a large ring that spelled out “Blues” in diamonds. On the other hand was a ring with “BG” in diamonds. “Frank! What you doing in that chair? Ain’t you pimping no more? The last time I saw John Lee he was in a chair but on the stage he was dancing around. He said he couldn’t be seen in a chair in front of them ladies.” He asked Frank how he was, and Frank said fine. He said that he’s living in a hospital, and we explained that it was a nursing home. Buddy asked if they treat him well there and he kinda shrugged. Buddy continued “Well, we ain’t gotta talk about that." 

They started talking about a lot of mutual friends who had passed away, and Buddy told Frank to be thankful that he’s still around. I asked if I could get a picture and Buddy posed with an arm around Frank. Buddy seemed genuinely happy to see Frank. He introduced Frank to some of his entourage, saying that Frank used to drive around B. when B. was “like this” (holds his hands up to indicate skinny figure). I asked when he started driving B.B. because Frank couldn’t remember. Buddy said it must have been around ’56 or ’57. . 

Members of his entourage came in and said that we needed to leave so that  Buddy could prepare for his set. But Buddy was very generous with his time, and continued talking to Frank, insisting that we could stay longer. Craig and I started to get a bit antsy, knowing that Buddy had to get on stage very soon. Buddy signed a CD for us, and we thanked him and said goodbye, wheeling Frank back out to our seats.

A few minutes later,  Buddy came on stage and played an awesome set. Partway through the set, he stopped and said “Throughout my life, ladies and gentlemen I’ve met some very great people who helped me with my career. And the first time I ever met B.B. King" (the audience applauds) "he had a bus driver and his name is Frank and they brought him in in a wheelchair tonight and he said 'I had to come and see you Buddy'." He had the audience give Frank a hand. He asked where Frank was sitting. I stood up and pointed to him, and Frank waved. Everyone around us was waving and cheering. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, Buddy Guy then asks for a hand for “the people that brought him here tonight”. And there was another big round of applause. "They rolled him in and I said Frank, you know when I met you there was a lot of blues players living that’s no longer with us and you still and you still here so let’s be thankful, Frank, alright?" He asked for another hand for Frank, which the audience heartily provided. "And I’m gonna do this for Frank anyway.” He launched into a great version of "Drivin' Wheel". From that point on, people were coming up to Frank, shaking his hand, patting him on the shoulder. A  man that used to live in the same building, some other acquaintances, a girl who worked in the gas station 30 years ago and whom he brought to see B.B.. a guy who “plays bass”. (During Robert Cray’s set he was onstage and turned out to be Robert Cray’s bassist!) Frank was truly touched, and wanted to thank Buddy for such a nice tribute. I told the drummer to pass along his thanks. As we left and crossed the street to the car we heard someone say “There’s Frank!” and pointed in our direction. Frank was a rock star that night, and he talked about it frequently for the rest of his life.

B.B. King 9/2/04
Frank Brown and B.B. King on B.B.'s bus
FleetBoston Pavilion 9/2/04
On September 2, we took Frank to the FleetBoston Pavilion to see B.B. again. This time Frank's contacts at B.B.'s management company had provided us with backstage passes, and we might get the opportunity to visit B.B. on his tour bus!

As usual, all of the ushers fell in love with Frank and he always had someone to chat with. The Muddy Waters Blues Band played first, followed by Elvin Bishop. Next was Shemekia Copeland. Frank had known her late father, Johnny Clyde Copeland. Then Dr. John did a set. During one of the intermissions a man walked by, saw Frank, exclaimed "Mr. Brown!" and immediately went to get his mother. It turns out they were old friends of Frank's. They wound up sitting in the empty seats next to us for B.B.'s set. B.B. put on a great show. Frank sang along to "Key to the Highway" and "Rock Me."

The show ended at around 11:15 and we headed over to the backstage access area (to the right of the stage).The guy in front of us got on the bus, and I followed, with shaky knees. I climbed the steps and then turned around. Craig and one of B.B.'s entourage were helping Frank out of the wheelchair. and onto the bus. I took Frank's hand and guided him back to where B. was sitting on a leather couch. I said, "This must bring back memories, being on the bus, huh, Frank?" He agreed.

At this point we could see B.B. and I said "There he is, Frank!" B. said "Big Brown! How are you?" He asked Frank to sit down and Frank was a little confused and kind of tried to sit on the table. B said "Frank, man, you're grabbing my computer!" and told him to hold out his hand and feel where the seat was. B. shook both of our hands and said "Thanks for being kind to my old friend. We had lots of good times together." Frank took a seat right next to B.B.. Craig sat on the other side of Frank. I was still standing, but B.B. said "Please. Sit down." and I squeezed in. B.B. reached behind him and turned down the volume on the stereo. We said that Frank had a lot of stories about his days on the road and B said "And they're all true!"

I asked if I could get a photo of the two of them together and B.B. said sure. He leaned in to Frank and put his arm around him and I got a nice closeup shot of the two of them. It was really great to see B.B. in his own element where he could be himself. Seeing him sitting in his own bus, calmly receiving everyone, being a gracious host and oh so friendly and low key...he was a joy. We were really happy with the way the whole evening turned out. Frank didn't talk much (he doesn't like to interrupt other people) but it seemed like he enjoyed just being there in such close proximity to his good friend. B.B. signed some photos and gave us a couple of B.B. King lapel pins. When we were leaving (with some encouragement from Craig) I asked B.B. if I could have a hug, and he said of course. I gave him a big hug and told him that Frank is our good friend and we love him. B.B. said "He's a good man. He's a good friend of mine. He took good care of me."

One day we invited Frank to our house for dinner. At the time, Craig’s brother Steve and his kids lived upstairs in our house. Frank was a bit concerned and asked if Steve would mind him coming over to the house. Naive as we are, we didn’t understand what he was getting at. We asked what he meant, and he said, “Well, sometimes, neighbors have a problem with someone like me…” and he trailed off. Only then did we realize that he was talking about racism. Having always lived in this area, we hadn’t even considered this as a concern. It saddened us that his experiences growing up in the South had led to this kind of concern, and we assured him that our family and friends would welcome him with open arms.

When he came over that day, he surprised us even more. I was flipping through a coffee table book of photographs of blues musicians. When we got to Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Frank said “I worked for him too!”

On the subject of photographs, Steve had given us a coffee table book of Beale Street photos. In there, we found a photo of B.B. King with his first tour bus, in front of the King's Palace Cafe. The photo shows his entire entourage and 2 bus drivers. We wondered whether one was Frank.  Then our friend Francis gave us a book of the music photographs of Ernest Withers, an acclaimed African American photographer who photographed the Civil Rights struggle, as well as the Memphis music scene and the Negro Baseball League. The credits listed the people in each photo, and there was his name: Frank Brown!
Is that The New England Patriots #80 Troy Brown?
Nope - it's 80 year old Frank Brown!
October 2 was Frank's 80th birthday. We wanted to do something special.  He had once admired my Patriots Super Bowl Champion shirt, and had asked why I hadn't bought him one. I told him that we hadn't even met him yet at the time of the last Super Bowl. (He always thought he had known us for much longer than he actually had.) But I had stored it in my head and thought about getting him some sort of Patriots clothing. It dawned on us that not only do the Patriots have a Brown on their team, but he is number 80! So we got Frank a Troy Brown replica jersey for his 80th birthday. I looked all over for a bakery that would sell sugar-free cakes, but came up empty. So I bought a sugar-free cake and frosting mix at the store and made a chocolate 2 layer cake. We went to visit Frank in the morning on his birthday, as we had a wedding to attend in the afternoon. Craig read Frank the card that we brought: “80 years and a million memories.” “And a million miles,” Frank replied. He was thrilled by the Patriots jersey, and we also gave him an alarm clock with large digits as he was having a hard time seeing his previous clock. We each had a piece of cake, and though it looked rather amateurish, Frank sang its praises and thought it was delicious.

Frank wanted to go to the movies sometime. We asked what kind of movies he liked. "Oh, everything. Westerns..." Hollywood isn't putting out too many westerns these days, and we didn't want to take him to anything he might find offensive (he was a spiritual man), so we decided to sit back until the time was right. That time came when the Ray Charles biopic "Ray" was released. Perfect! He had known Ray Charles. Of course he had.

So we took him to the movie theater.  I asked Frank if he wanted anything and he deadpanned "tonic and gin". Then he asked for a diet coke and a hot dog. He was quite pleased.  He couldn't believe the size of the theater even though it was a small one.  At the end of the movie Frank seemed sad. He told Craig it was a shame Ray got into drugs because he could have had the world. I asked how he liked the movie and he said something to the effect of "more or less" He said he thought it was a little confusing (I think it had to do with the flashbacks).
Christmas dinner 2004
We invited him to Craig’s parents’ house for Christmas dinner.  The whole family really enjoyed meeting him.  Frank was just watching as everyone opened their presents, and occasionally, when Craig was free to watch, I would pass Frank a present.  He was guessing all of the presents but wanted me to open them for him. He correctly guessed several boxes of handkerchiefs. I handed him a T-shirt and he said “What football player is this?” I said it wasn’t football but baseball. “Red Sox?” he asked. I said Red Sox World Series Champion with all the players’ names on it. He looked at it and smiled. I made him hold it up for a picture. He guessed that the next gift was a dress shirt. It was indeed - a pimpin' purple shirt. He said it was beautiful and he hoped that it would fit. We said that Sherlock Holmes had been on the case and had checked out his size. He said that he was surprised that Sherlock Holmes picked out a shirt like that. I said that Craig had determined the size, but I had picked out the shirt. He said that  made more sense. We then gave him Craig's parents' present: fancy sugar-free chocolates. He was happy and asked me to pick one out for him to eat. I said “Do you want milk chocolate or dark chocolate?” He said “I want one like me.” I said “sweet dark chocolate, then.” 

We enjoyed a nice roast beef dinner which Craig's mom had prepared. It was delicious, and Frank was so  appreciative of a home-made meal. (He never enjoyed the food at the nursing home).  Ever the generous spirit, Frank was genuinely saddened by the fact that he had no gifts to give to the family. We assured him that his presence was all the gift any of us needed.

Frank was so happy when we brought him back to the nursing home that he was singing in the elevator

He laughed when he got to the nurses' desk.  They asked what had gotten into him, and he said “I had some great scotch!’ We said “Oh no you didn’t! Don't get us in trouble!” and the nurses laughed and said they wouldn’t tell anyway.

Shemekia Copeland 2/25/05
Shemekia Copeland and Frank Brown
RegattaBar Cambridge, MA 2/25/05
On February 25, we took Frank to see Shemekia Copeland at the RegattaBar. As she sang, she was about four feet directly in front of Frank. We could tell immediately that he was enjoying himself. He kept raising his right hand and he was practically dancing right out of his chair. At one point Shemekia introduced  "Love Scene" by quoting a line from the song “Is anyone out there capable of giving me high romance on a foreign train?” Frank raised his hand and she saw him and burst into a smile saying “He wins. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.” It was obvious that he was having a blast. He couldn’t sit still. Near the end of the show he asked me if I shad seen her daddy [Johnny Clyde Copeland] perform. I said I had only heard him on records. Frank said that he used to do a little boogie. Shemekia sang "2 A.M." and asked everyone to sing along with the chorus at the end. Frank was singing away. “It’s 2 A.M.!” It was so cute.

After the show, we bought Frank Shemekia's CD "Wicked" so that she could autograph it for him. Shemekia saw Frank and said, “Well hello. Thanks for coming.” He asked if she knew who he was. She said she thought she remembered seeing him before. He said that he knew her dad and that he used to drive B.B's bus. She said that she toured with B.B. in the summer and we said that we had seen her with him. She signed the CD’s and I asked if she could pose for a photo with Frank. She put her arm around him and I got a cute photo.

B.B. King 5/21/05
Steph and B.B. King on B.B.'s bus
North Shore Music Theatre
Beverly, MA 5/21/05
Frank Brown, Craig, Steph, B.B. King, and Kevin  on B.B.'s bus
North Shore Music Theatre
Beverly, MA 5/21/05
On May 21, B.B. played at North Shore Music Theatre. We managed to get front row tickets because we were members of the theater. The theater is round and the stage rotates, so we didn't always have a front view of B.B., but we still had a great view of the entire band and their very entertaining performance.

We all really enjoyed the show. When the opening notes of “Please Accept My Love” started up, I leaned over to Frank and said “I remember when he did this song last time, you really sang along!” Frank turned and laughed, and Craig jokingly looked at me like I was being an instigator. As soon as B started singing “I don’t even know your name, but I love you just the same”  Frank was belting it out right along with him. And Frank knows all of the little intricacies, all of the little starts and stops, all of the interruptions. It was great. B.B. was facing the other way for pretty much the entire song, otherwise we have no doubt that he would have heard Frank singing along.

The stage manager told us that B.B. was ill with a cold, so it was doubtful whether he would feel well enough to receive visitors after the show. We knew that Frank would be extremely disappointed if he didn't at least get a chance to say hello, so we kept our fingers crossed.

After the show, it was pouring rain. We were told that we would be able to get on the bus, so we walked outside and boarded the bus. We were very grateful that despite not feeling well, B.B. was still being very generous with his time. Our friend Kevin worked for the North Shore Music Theatre at the time, and he was at the show as well. He knew all about our relationship with Frank, but had never met him. So we introduced them, and Kevin was able to accompany us onto the bus.

The interior of the bus was very plush and comfortable. B.B. was seated at the back on a leather couch. He had a table with his laptop set up in front of him, and there was a stereo and X-Box behind him. Frank sat down on a couch on the left, perpendicular to where B.B. was sitting. We tried to convince him to scoot over next to B., but B. said to let the pretty lady sit next to him, so I said thank you and sat. Craig sat on the other side of Frank, and Kevin sat at the little booth opposite B. B kept saying “Big Brown, how’s Big Brown? You’re looking a lot better than you did the last time that I saw you.” Frank asked if B. heard him singing and B. said that he couldn’t hear anything from onstage. 

It was very cool because it was just the four of us and B. It was very hot on the bus, and B. apologized saying he didn’t want to melt the lady, but he wouldn’t apologize to the men. He called to someone up at the front of the bus and asked him to turn the thermostat down to 75. We are sure this was due to the fact that it was a rainy spring night and he was already sick with a cold,

He has two drivers for each bus. He keeps the people closest to him on this bus, and there are two drivers for each so that they can go any time. But he looked at Frank fondly and said “But he used to do it all. That’s why I always take care of him and give him a present."  Craig said that Frank really treasures those memories with B. B said that they had a lot of history together and have been friends for a long time. “But they weren’t only good times. They didn’t always treat us nicely.” 

And he suddenly looked serious. I showed him the picture of the old bus. B. glanced at it very quickly, recognized it, and said “That’s it. That’s his bus.” He was obviously familiar with the picture. Craig pointed to the drivers and said “And Frank said one of those is him.” B. looked again quickly at the photo and confirmed it.

B. said that he doesn’t fly much any more because it is just too much of a hassle, having to take off your shoes, jacket, and cap, plus checking all the equipment etc. He said they strip you down until you’re wearing nothing but underwear. 

At this point a couple of other people had gotten on the bus. Kevin offered to give his seat to one of the guys who had just arrived, but BB said “no, first come first served.” I asked if we could get a picture. I snuggled up next to B and he linked arms with me. Kevin took a pic of me with B but the flash was off. I fixed it and one of the other guys who had just gotten on offered to take it. We got all of us in the picture, with Kevin sitting on the floor in front. I felt like I was practically sitting on B (it was very crowded to get us all in the picture) but Craig said that he didn’t think that B minded.

B. mentioned that he wished we could sit and chat longer, but he needed to see other people. He joked that the bus was too cramped and maybe some day when he made some money, he’d be able to get one that had room for everyone. After the picture we were gathering our things to go. I got the letter and gave it to B.B. saying “I wrote this letter to you explaining Frank’s situation these days, so you can read it if you want to…” and he said he would. He then said “While you’re here Frank…” and he got a little sony digital camera out and said he wanted to take a picture of Frank. Craig and I tried to lean out of the way, but B said “it would be better with the pretty lady in it.” So Craig and I leaned in close to Frank and B took the picture. He was pleased with how it came out and showed it to us. Wow, B.B. King took a picture of us!! Frank mentioned that we were his best friends next to B. B said that was nice and it was good to have friends, and at that point Craig saw him take the letter, which had been sitting on the couch next to him, and put it on his table next to his computer.

As we got Frank up and ready to go, B.B. thanked us for bringing Frank. He looked at me seriously and said to take care of him.  I thanked him and he said it was a pleasure. It took a while to get Frank up to the front of the bus,. When we got to the front of the bus, the driver helped us to get Frank down the stairs.. Another arm appeared from outside, guiding Frank down. It turned out to be Evan Goodrow, the opening act. Craig thanked him, shook his hand, and told him he did a great set. 

This would be the last time that the two old friends and colleagues would see one another. Frank grew ill in the summer of 2005. He told us that he wanted to be buried in Mobile next to his mother, but he was worried that it wouldn’t happen. We promised him that we would see to it that he was buried with his mother one way or another. It was as if that thought gave him peace, and he passed away soon afterwards.

On Wednesday August 10, we got the call from the nursing home that Frank had passed away peacefully in a chair in the TV room. We made a few phone calls and headed down there as soon as we got the message. The nurses had not let Frank leave yet; they had kept him in his room so that we could say goodbye. We were left alone with Frank and we said goodbye and told him that we would see him in Mobile. One way or another, we would make sure that he made it back to be buried with his mother. And we would travel down there for the services. 

After Frank's death, we were in touch with some of his other friends in the area. We met Bob and Angela, who had been really close friends with Frank for many years, and had helped to get him admitted to the nursing home when he had no longer been able to live by himself in his apartment. They decided that they would go to Mobile for the services too. We met up with them at their house for dinner prior to the trip. They were very nice people and we shared a lot of memories about how Frank had touched our lives. We were sure that Frank would have been happy that we got to know each other.

We made all of the arrangements with the local funeral parlor: delivering Frank's clothes (including a B.B. King lapel pin we had gotten from B.B. himself), and arranging for them to transport Frank to Mobile, where he would be picked up by the funeral parlor down there.

We were in touch with Eloise (Frank's sister), and we got an unexpected phone call from his daughter  Bernice. They told us that the services would be on Saturday the 20. We made hotel reservations and booked flights for Friday the 19th with Bob and Angela. We stayed at the Marriott, and after running into Danny Glover in the lobby, Frank's daughter Bernice (also known as Karmilla Ali for her jazz singing career) and her partner Don arrived. We sat with them on couches in the lobby and enjoyed drinks. It was so nice to meet them.
Angela, Bob, Bernice (Karmilla Ali), Don, and Craig
Marriott Mobile 8/19/05
I ran up to the room to get the photo album that we had made for Bernice. She looked through the pictures and we started to talk about Frank. She and Don were so nice, and it was obvious that they were happy that we had made the trip. We took some photos and enjoyed chatting. Bernice and Don had printed up memorial programs for the funeral. She had brought us a copy to show us. While looking at it, Craig noticed his name. This was Bernice's surprise: she wanted Craig and Bob to speak at the funeral. Craig was quite honored, though a little unprepared. But he was happy to be given the opportunity to give a tribute to Frank in front of Frank's friends and family.

I didn't really sleep very well overnight. Seeing Frank for the last time today would be difficult, and the anticipation led to a restless night.  We drove to Bernice's house and waited until the limo arrived to pick her and her daughter up. We then followed the limo to Eloise's house. All of the family started to assemble and cars were lining up ready to make their way to church. Everyone we met we extremely nice and welcoming to us. We went into Eloise's house. After talking to her on the phone and corresponding via letters, it was really nice to finally meet her. We also met Frank's brother David, who wouldn't be attending the funeral due to health and mobility issues. We went back outside and met Bernice's 14 year old daughter.

All of the cars followed the limo in procession to the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. We parked the car, and everyone stood in line in front of the doors of the church. The immediate family went in first, and then the rest of the line followed. Frank was laid out in the front of the church.He looked very stylish in his suit and favorite pink shirt. He had his B.B. pin on his lapel, and we knew that there was also a backstage pass in his coat pocket. It was our little secret.

We paid our respects and met Frank's 93-year-old wife Beatrice. We sat down in a pew a couple of rows back on the right-hand side of the church. There were several large flower arrangements, and from our seat we could see that one of the biggest ones (an arrangement of tropical flowers) was from B.B. King. A man came over and told Craig when he would be speaking. The funeral started at around 11 o'clock. There was a small choir. Bernice's friend sang some beautiful solos, including a very touching version of "I'll Fly Away.". It was a very moving ceremony, and it viewed Frank's passing as a "homegoing celebration." It was really quite inspiring. Craig and Bob spoke about their friendship with Frank, and Frank's nephew who had once visited him in Massachusetts several years ago also spoke. They read some sympathy cards aloud. The service ended at 12:30, and we joined the automobile procession to the cemetery.

Frank was driven to the cemetery in a very styling white hearse. We smiled and knew that he would be pleased to be traveling in such style.There are two cemeteries across the street from one another on Virginia St. in Mobile. Frank was being buried in the smaller of the two; the black cemetery. There was a small tent over his gravesite, so that people could stand out of the stifling heat of the mid-day summer sun. We saw the headstones for Frank's father, Frank Brown Sr, and Frank's brother John Thomas. Frank is the eighth and final person in the family plot. It was very hot, and they were handing out bottles of water. The graveside service was very brief. We each took a silk flower from the heart-shaped arrangement as a memento. 
Bernice's son, Frank's widow Beatrice, and Bernice (Karmilla Ali)
Frank's brother-in-law Joe, Frank's sister Eloise, and Frank's nephew Jerome
We went back to the church hall for lunch. There was a punch bowl full of lemonade which was very refreshing after being out in the heat. They were serving fried chicken, homemade macaroni and cheese, green beans, potato salad, and rolls. It was delicious. We sat at a small table with Bob and Angela, Eloise, Joe (the widower of Frank's sister Rebecca), and nephew Jerome sat with us. We reminisced about Frank. Eloise and Joe told us that he used to deliver fish on a motorcycle, and we talked about how he used to sell peanuts at Mardi Gras. Eloise said that when Frank was younger and wanted to go somewhere, he would "hobo the train." Joe asked us what our plans were for the evening. He lives across the street from Eloise and was going to have a fish fry. He invited us. We were quite touched and accepted the invitation. 
Saturday night fish fry at Joe's
Saturday night fish fry at Joe's
We arrived at Eloise's house shortly before 7. Eloise and her daughter Patricia directed us across the street to Joe's house. We went inside and immediately recognized the house from a bunch of Frank's Christmas photos. It turned out that when he came to visit Mobile, Frank stayed with Joe. We saw Joe and he was genuinely happy that we had come by. We went out to the garage where some of the younger generation were frying catfish fillets in a turkey fryer. Charlie was battering and deep frying the fish. Another guy told us that he used to drive Frank an hour to the Florida border to buy lottery tickets. Both men raved about Mobile's Mardi Gras, and sincerely invited us to come down. Everyone treated us like family and the Southern hospitality was overwhelming. We were honored to be included in their family party.

Back inside Joe's house, everyone gathered around the table to say grace. We all held hands. As guests, they insisted that we eat first. The food was delicious: the fried catfish fillets, decadent macaroni and cheese, rolls, potato salad, corn, cole slaw, and fried chicken. We washed it down with red Kool-Aid.  They had a hodgepodge of chairs, but insisted that we sit on the leather couches on the back porch to eat, and they asked the younger kids who had been sitting there to vacate their seats. We protested, but they insisted.

Frank's family served us some warm poundcake, and soon Bernice and Don arrived. I talked with Don, who had literally been up the entire night before printing out programs for the funeral. I also talked with Joe,  who said they tried to get Frank to move to Mobile in '99, but Frank wouldn't do it because all of his friends were in Massachusetts. Joe said that meeting us and Bob and Angela, he understands why. We gave Bernice Frank's photo albums. She sat with us and flipped through all of them, and thanked us very much for getting them to her. We got ready to leave, and people came out of the woodwork to say goodbye to us. We got lots of handshakes and hugs, and they thanked us for taking care of Frank. Joe said that we would never understand how much it meant to them that we came down for the funeral. I think we understand; it means just as much to us that they all treated us like family. Don walked us to our car, and we left at 10:30.

We stopped at Bernice's house on the way back. Her house was really nice, and historic too (it had slave quarters in the back).  She said she had something funny to show us. Our sympathy card had arrived in the mail today. Bob and Angela gave her theirs in person today. It was the same card. And we had written almost identical messages inside. "It must be a white people thing," joked Bernice. We got a good laugh out of that.

It was hard to believe Frank was gone. He had suggested car trips to Mobile in the past (he was no longer aware of how far away it was), and we wanted desperately to tell him that we had finally made it to his old home, that we had met his daughter and the rest of his family, that they had welcomed us with open arms, and that we had some massive southern feasts in his honor. Sunday afternoons would not be the same without visiting him.

The following weekend., Hurricane Katrina hit Mobile. We had learned at the funeral from the family that Frank's nickname had been Stormie. We thought of the irony of the fact that a huge storm hit the city a week after Stormie returned home.
Ernest Withers shows his photo of B.B. King's bus, featuring Frank
at Ernest Withers' studio on Beale St., Memphis TN 8/5/06
A year later, in August of 2006, we traveled to Memphis. While there, we arranged a meeting with Ernest Withers, the Civil Rights-era photographer who had taken the iconic photo of B.B.'s first bus. We told him the story of our friendship with Frank, and how we would love to purchase a copy of the photo from him. Our friend Kevin, who had met B.B. with us at the North Shore Music Theatre, was with us. As a professional art director and an avid photographer, he found this meeting to be the highlight of the trip. "How does this stuff happen to you?" We told him that Frank was looking down on us, still working his magic. 

And we know he still is today.

Frank's headstone, photo courtesy of Bernice