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Here comes Frani Claus

Francine Reed brings musical treats for good girls and boys

Tis the season for Francine Reed? Yes, so it would seem. You may have seen the singer's smiling face on the cover of her new four-song Christmas CD, Here Comes Frani Claus, or at in-store promo appearances at several Barnes & Noble locations, or most Monday nights at Fuzzy's, or in frequent performances at Blind Willie's, or in a recent guest spot with jazz guitarist Mike Kelly at Café 290. You may have seen her with Willie Nelson on "Late Night With David Letterman," "Live at Austin City Limits" and A&E's "Live By Request," or heard her on Willie's Milkcow Blues recording. You may even have seen her at various locations around Atlanta, bell-ringing and singing Christmas songs for the Salvation Army.
The reason, she will tell you, is simple: "I just love to sing." She comes by it honestly, she says, as the daughter of a man with "tremendous vocal talent" and as the youngest of seven children, only one of which has not pursued music as a livelihood.
"When I was born, the doctor slapped me on the butt and I said, [sung, to the tune of 'Misty'] 'Look at me,'" Reed says, with a laugh. "I've been singing as long as I could talk. It's been a blessing."
Reed has lived in Atlanta for eight years. A native of Chicago, she moved with her family to Kankakee, Ill., at age 9. Later, she moved to Phoenix, where she lived for 18 years before coming to Atlanta. By that time, she had already made her name in the business, having toured Europe and the U.S. as a featured vocalist with Lyle Lovett's band. She also appeared on his first five CDs.
As a performer in Phoenix, Reed typically worked as a jazz and R&B vocalist whose repertoire included a few blues tunes. Upon moving to Atlanta, she found herself singing the blues, thanks to gigs at Blind Willie's, backed by the Shadows. She subsequently landed a blues record deal with Marietta-based Ichiban Records.
"I had a couple of blues numbers in my show before I came here, but I didn't have all these blues songs [that I have now]," Reed recalls. "I learned all of that right here in Georgia, because I was with the Shadows, and when I went to Ichiban they wanted blues. Then people started calling me a blues singer. I never thought that would happen! Not that it bothers me."
After two records for Ichiban, Reed recorded Shades of Blue, released in September 1999 on the Platinum label. Platinum, like Ichiban, is now out of business. Despite the failure of both of her labels, Reed's passion for singing drowns out any hint of bitterness that one might expect.
"At least I got another CD out. For that I have to be grateful," Reed says of her deal with Platinum. "As a musician and artist, you really can't ask for a whole lot more."
Her current Christmas CD is released by CMO Records. The initials represent Brian Cole, Edd Miller and Jimmy O'Neill, who have produced all of Reed's recordings. Armed with a distribution deal with Southern Music Distribution, Reed and CMO will begin work on a full-length CD early next year.
Francine Reed performs at Blind Willie's, Fri., Dec. 22, and Thurs., Dec. 28; at Chip's, Tues., Dec. 26; and at Fuzzy's, Sun., Dec. 31. Can't get enough? See Reed singing and ringing the Salvation Army bell at Phipps Plaza, Thurs., Dec. 21, 3-4 p.m.
Blues notes: Susan Tedeschi's debut album, Just Won't Burn, which prominently featured local bandleader Sean Costello on guitar, has gone gold, with sales of more than 500,000. ... The Atlanta Blues Society has sent out a call for performers for its Third Annual Atlanta Blues Festival, held in April. For information, call 404-237-9595 or visit www.atlantablues.org.
Stocking stuffers: The Music Maker Relief Foundation has just released Outsider Lounge Music, an enhanced (audio and video) CD featuring regional artists Captain Luke and Cool John. It's a folksy, soulful, articulate duo recording that rewards repeated listening. Music Maker is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the support of traditional musicians. Local performers such as Frank Edwards, Beverly Watkins and Cora Mae Bryant are Music Maker beneficiaries. Pianist Eddie Tigner, who performs on Thursdays at Fat Matt's Rib Shack, has a CD release slated with Music Maker in March. Consider a contribution: Contact Music Maker at 336-325-2505 or mmrf1@aol.com.
Many new blues fans discover the music through such guitar-based blues-rockers as the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan, though, worked vigorously to encourage young fans to discover the musical roots of the blues. Anyone interested in such an introduction could do no better than the "His Best" series of Chess Records reissues, particularly the recordings of Muddy Waters (go for the 1947-55 set), Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. Or, if your pockets are a bit deeper, box sets are available for each artist. You'll also want to consider The Best of B.B. King, Vol. 1, a Flair/Virgin collection of his greatest 1950s recordings. Any intro collection also should include Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues Singers (on Columbia) or the two-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings.
Robert Palmer's tome Deep Blues should be the first book in any blues library. Also recommended are Feel Like Going Home by Peter Guralnick and Mystery Train (with an incredible chapter on Robert Johnson) by Greil Marcus. Recommended blues fiction: Guralnick's Nighthawk Blues and the Alan Greenberg screenplay Love in Vain: The Life and Legend of Robert Johnson.
Merry Christmas, baby!
Talkin' Blues is a monthly column on blues and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. Please e-mail or send your blues news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.