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It's a frame-up: Frankie & Johnny

By Paul Slade
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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Allen Britt, colored, was shot and badly wounded shortly after 2 o'clock yesterday morning by Frankie Baker, also colored. The shooting occurred in Britt's room at 212 Targee Street, and was the culmination of a quarrel. The woman claimed that Britt had been paying attentions to another woman. The bullet entered Britt's abdomen, penetrating the intestines. The woman escaped after the shooting."

     - St Louis Globe-Democrat,
October 16, 1899.

Just 48 hours after Frankie Baker pulled that trigger, a ballad telling her story was already being sold on the city's street corners. Allen wasn't even dead yet - he didn't finally succumb to his wounds until October 19 - but already the balladeers had him six feet under. The song's been in constant circulation ever since.
The fact that Allen's murder took place just a few blocks from where Stagger Lee had killed Billy Lyons four years before means the two ballads have always tended to get tangled up with one another, swapping fragments of their lyrics at will. It's no surprise that many of Frankie's musical biographers - Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Mississippi John Hurt - have tackled Stag's story too, but what is unique about her is the degree of interest that Hollywood's always shown.
From Mae West's 1933 outing She Done Him Wrong to the 1991 vehicle for Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, Frankie has seldom been off the silver screen. She's trod the theatre's boards pretty regularly too, appearing in both John Huston's 1930 play about her crime and Terrence McNally's Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which was given a London production as recently as 2005. As we'll see, very few of these productions have bothered themselves much with the facts, but they have ensured that the two lovers' names remains firmly linked together in all our minds.

'Frankie was a beautiful, light brown girl who liked to make money and spend it'

Frankie Baker was a young prostitute, aged about 24 when the killing took place, who lived and worked at 212 Targee Street in the heart of St Louis' flourishing vice district. Richard Clay, a former neighbour, described her like this: "She was a beautiful, light brown girl, who liked to make money and spend it. She dressed very richly, sat for company in magenta lady's cloth, diamonds as big as hen's eggs in her ears. There was a long razor scar down the side of her face she got in her teens from a girl who was jealous of her. She only weighed about 115lbs, but she had the eye of one you couldn't monkey with. She was a queen sport."
Allen Britt, who was about 17 when he died, shared Frankie's Targee Street rooms, and seems to have acted as her pimp. He was a talented piano player and known as a snappy dresser. He was also cheating on Frankie with an 18-year-old prostitute called Alice Pryar.
The film director John Huston, then a struggling writer, interviewed Clay for a footnote essay to his play, the text of which was published in 1930. "Frankie loved Albert all right," Clay recalled. "He was wise for his years but not old enough to be level with any woman. Frankie was ready money. She bought him everything he wanted, and kept his pockets full. Then while she was waiting on company he would be out playing around."
Clay, who had sat with Allen while he died in City Hospital, also gave Huston his own account of what had happened on the fatal night. He said Frankie had surprised Allen with Alice at the Phoenix Hotel, calling him out into the street for a furious public row. Allen, Clay said, had refused to go home with Frankie, so she'd returned to Targee Street alone. Allen turned up there about dawn, admitted he'd spent the night with Alice, and threatened to leave Frankie for good. According to Clay, Frankie had then started crying and started out the door to find Alice. Allen threatened to kill her if she took another step, and that's when the fight broke out(1).
Frankie gave her own version of events when interviewed by Daring Detective Tabloid in 1935. She said she had known Allen was at a party with Alice on the Saturday night, but refused to let that bother her. She went home and went to bed. "About three o'clock Sunday morning, Allen came in," she said. "I was in the front room, in bed asleep, and he walked in and grabbed the lamp and started to throw it at me. [...] I asked him, 'Say, are you trying to get me hurt?', and he stood there and cursed and I says, 'I am boss here, I pay rent and I have to protect myself.' He ran his hand in his pocket, opened his knife and started around this side to cut me. I was staying here, pillow lays this way, just run my hand under the pillow and shot him. Didn't shoot but once, standing by the bed." Frankie also claimed Allen had beaten her badly a few nights before the killing(2).
Allowing for the assumption that both Frankie and Allen were trying to salvage what pride they could when relating the incident, there's no real contradiction in these two accounts. Allen - via Clay - tells us what happened up to the point when Frankie went home, and Frankie takes up the story from there.
Allen staggered from the room when Frankie shot him, and made it as far as the steps of his mother's house at 32 Targee Street before collapsing. He told her what had happened, and - according to Clay - she began to scream "Frankie's shot Allen! Frankie's shot Allen!" By the time he'd been taken to City Hospital, everyone in the neighbourhood knew that Frankie had got her man.
Police took Frankie to the hospital too, where Allen confirmed she was the one who'd shot him. He died four days later. Frankie was arrested, and went to trial on November 13, 1899, where the jury found for justifiable homicide in self-defence. "I ain't superstitious no more," she later said. "I went to trial on Friday the 13th, and the bad luck omens didn't go against me. Why, the judge even gave me back my gun."

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Doing her right: 10 great versions of Frankie's story

Leaving Home, by Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers (1926). Poole's retitled version of Frankie & Johnny gives the song a jolly hillbilly treatment, courtesy of Ramblers' fiddler Posey Rorer. Poole makes Frankie the villain of the piece. She shoots Johnny in the back for threatening to leave her and then begs to be jailed afterwards. Available on: Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers and the Highlanders (JSP, 2004).

Frankie, by Mississippi John Hurt (1928). As with his reading of Stagger Lee - based on another St Louis murder of the 1890s - Hurt gives his subject all due gravitas. The gentle beauty of his guitar picking is never allowed to disguise what a sad and wasteful episode he is describing. Far from glorifying the sensational aspects of murder, Hurt's version is full of human sympathy. Available on Candy Man Blues (Complete Blues, 2004).

Frankie & Albert, by Leadbelly (1934). Recorded at Angola prison by John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly gives us a half-sung, half-spoken version set to the steady strum of his own guitar. Frankie's a cook in the white folks' kitchen here, and Alice Pryar is given her real name. Albert's mother gets a walk-on part too, as Frankie apologises for killing the woman's only son. Available on: Best of Leadbelly (X5 Music, 2008).

Frankie & Johnny, by Sammy Davis Jr (1956). Notable not only for the determined use of jazz lingo ("He was her mate / But he couldn't fly straight"), but also for Cyd Charisse's stunningly sultry dancing. The 1956 MGM musical Meet Me In Las Vegas has Sammy singing the story while Cyd slinks through Frankie's role in a big production number which is sexy, witty and inventive. She's never been more of a "queen sport" than this. Available on: The Decca Years (MCA, 1990).

Frankie's Man Johnny, by Johnny Cash (1958). Cash casts Johnny as a touring guitarist who leaves his faithful woman at home to have some fun on the road - just as Cash himself was doing at the time. Powered along by the Tennessee Two's trademark chug, Johnny tries to seduce a redhead at one of his gigs only to discover it's his girl's sister checking up on him. It's a near-miss but he's Frankie's man and "he still ain't done her wrong". Available on Cash: The Legend (Sony. 2005).

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