Frankie Ford, a flashy and flamboyant New Orleans rock ’n’ roll and
rhythm and blues singer whose 1959 hit “Sea Cruise” made him an
internationally known performer whose career would span more than
60 years, died Monday after a long illness. He was 76.
Despite battling health problems in recent years, Ford continued to
perform his well-known hit and other songs from his repertoire at
local and regional engagements, including his final performances at
the 2013 Gretna Heritage Festival and New Orleans Jazz and
Heritage Festival, an event he played for more than 20 years.
In 1959, Ford’s “Sea Cruise,” written by Huey “Piano” Smith, reached
No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It sold more than 1 million copies, remaining on the charts for 17 weeks and earning Ford, then just 19, a gold record.
Ford always said his role in recording the song was a fluke. It came one year after he recorded his first single for Ace Records. That label’s business partners, Johnny Vincent and Joe Caronna, chose Ford over Smith and Bobby Marchan to record the song, picking the youngster to sing lead vocals over a prerecorded backing track.
“Huey (Smith) sat at the piano and sang parts and taught me the lyrics written on a sheet of looseleaf paper from my high school binder. It now hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland,” Ford told the Ponderosa Stomp Music Festival in an online article.
Over the years, the song was used in movies, TV shows and commercials nationwide. It even earned Ford a bit of Grammy Awards recognition, when polka star Jimmy Sturr invited him to appear on a recording of “Sea Cruise” on Sturr’s “Shake, Rattle and Polka!” CD, which won the 2006 Grammy for best polka album. The song was also covered by everyone from Herman’s Hermits to John Fogerty, the Beach Boys and Don McLean.
“Rolling Stone said it was that perfect marriage between the soundtrack and the voice, but I had no idea what I was doing,” Ford told WWL-TV reporter Bill Capo in a 1996 interview. “I have been in the wrong place at the right time so many times, but that time, I was in the right place!”
Ford scored another hit with his version of “You Talk Too Much.” Other hits included “Alimony,” “Time After Time,” “Whiskey Heaven” and “Roberta,” the song on the flip side of “Sea Cruise,” which later was covered by the Animals.
Ford was born and raised in Gretna, and even though at the height of his career he was on the road more than 200 days a year, he kept a residence in his hometown until his death.
The adopted son of Vincent and Anna Guzzo, Ford’s stage name was said to have been suggested by recording label owner Vincent, who saw the popularity of hot rod cars among teenagers in the 1950s, when young Frankie Guzzo’s career was just beginning.
Ford began his musical career at the age of 5, performing on Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour” on radio and appearing locally at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blue Room and other venues with legends such as Sophie Tucker, Carmen Miranda and Ted Lewis. The child prodigy also appeared on WWL Radio, reviewed movies on another radio station, WTPS, and took dance and tumbling lessons to complement his singing.
He even went on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” show as a teenager, before “Sea Cruise” made him famous. As a teen, Ford had his own band, and he sang with other groups led by a who’s who of 1950s stars: Jerry Lee Lewis, Lloyd Price, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Fats Domino, Ray Charles and more.
After “Sea Cruise” pushed him near the top of the charts in the early 1960s, Ford would continue to rack up performing dates across the country. After a stint in the Army, he returned home in the mid-1960s to find musical styles changing. Ever the showman, Ford then discovered a second career as a solo performer on Bourbon Street, at lounges like the 500 Club and the notorious Lucky Pierre’s, where his banter with the audience (often blue, and frequently over the top) is still remembered.
“From there, I think I played every major venue in the world: Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden — I played them all,” he said.
In the 1970s and ’80s, like other performers from the early days of rock ’n’ roll, he rode a second wave of popularity as a popular touring performer, playing casinos, cruise ships and clubs. He also appeared as himself in the 1978 movie “American Hot Wax,” chronicling the career of disc jockey and rock ’n’ roll pioneer Alan Freed.
Ford returned to Bourbon Street briefly in 1999, appearing at longtime friend Chris Owens’ club.
Though that gig was short-lived, Ford was a familiar star at local festivals, concerts and charity events while keeping a rigorous schedule on the road.
He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
READ: FRANKIE FORD INTERVIEW: FROM THE BEGINNING
By Bunny Matthews in Offbeat Magazine - January 1, 2005
"Online since 1999"
New Orleans Rock ’n’ Roll Legend Frankie Ford,
Famed for ‘Sea Cruise,’ Dies at 76
DOMINIC MASSA| DMASSA@WWLTV.COM Sept. 29, 2015