How queer that the woman who beat the duration of Peggy Lee's record-setting run by months at the Basin Street East night club in Manhattan in the early 1960s never came close to Lee's fame or recognition. For 45 years Frances Faye was the most in-demand cabaret singer in venues worldwide. She recorded over a dozen albums on various labels. She appeared on television rarely, but in plum gigs such as 1960's "Playboy Penthouse" and more. Perhaps it was the fact that the talented pianist and singer also embraced humor; risque humor. The patter between her songs could be best described as a raunchy(!), gay version of comic Lenny Bruce. Indeed, it was perhaps her rough-hewn, outspoken personality that tucked her into obscurity.

A SPECIAL WORD OF THANKS: A gentleman by the name of Tyler Alpern (http://www.tyleralpern.com/francesfaye.html) has dedicated countless hours to keeping the memory of the great Ms. Faye alive. Were it not for his delightfully comprehensive and richly illustrated website, this article would be a paragraph or two long.
 

Youthful Beginnings

Frances Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 4, 1912. She grew up in Brooklyn's Brownsville section, on Stone Avenue. (An example of her humor, she said in 1975, "I was born on Stone Avenue ... and I've been stoned ever since..." Her father was an electrician and her mother a homemaker. The family was reformed Jewish. Her extended family lived nearby and they saw each other on a nearly daily basis.

Faye had two brothers, Benny and Marty (Marty also took the surname "Faye" and was a Chicago disc jockey and television personality.) Her younger sister Mitzi died in her early twenties. Her mother, Rebecca, like Frances, was known to be very funny, and a woman who was born too early. One of Frances's second cousins was famed actor and comic Danny Kaye.

Frances didn't start taking piano lessons, but quickly became deft at picking out the tunes of the day on the piano in her family's living room. At the tender age of fifteen she got her start in show business, being asked to sit in for a sick friend at a banquet, accompanying a singer. She wasn't that pretty, and she was plump. However, her piano technique was remarkable. She started out at $120 a week. Within two months she was earning $200 a week in a Chicago night club. Now remember, these are1927 dollars we're talking about!

Well on her way to stardom, she was still in her teens when she made the transition from accompanist to singer, accompanying herself. Her looks weren't that great but she could wow an audience and have them eating from her palm with her piano pyrotechnics and sensational way with a song lyric. She was still in her teens and was traveling about, first to Detroit and then to the speakeasies of New York. Later on, she was hired by prestigious New York venues such as the Cotton Club and Le Martinique. She garnered much press publicity after playing The Famous Door club and her star was shining ever brighter.

In her youth she was the darling of mobsters such as Capone, "Legs" Diamond, Leo Lepke and others. They couldn't get enough of her singing, frenetic piano playing, and witty patter between songs. Faye was quoted as saying at that time "There was so much money around...you could get a new Cadillac for only $1,200 and all the jewelry you wanted, practically for nothing."

By 1932 she was playing the famous Paramount theater in New York with none other than Bing Crosby. She toured the country for the Loew's theater chain, she worked cruise ships and the famous Chez Paree in Chicago. Suffice it to say she was one of the hardest-working women in show business.

By 1935, she was a fixture on New York's famous 52nd street, playing all the great clubs. She would earn over $500 a week (an exorbitant sum at that time) and more. In her spare time, after hours, she'd go up to Harlem and catch acts there, even jamming with the performers at times.

Faye packed clubs and theaters wherever she went, despite the fact that club owners admitted that her piano playing was more like "pounding" and her voice was unremarkable. However, she captivated her listeners, as well as critics such as Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell. In 1936, Bing Crosby brought Faye to the Decca record label, and she cut her first record. By 1938, she spent three months at the Paradise Club in London.

Throughout the 1930s, Frances Faye's life was like a soap opera, filled with wild and wooly antics and some more serious misadventures. This excitement was to follow Faye for most of her life.
 

Stardom

By the 1940s her sense of style prevailed and she dieted, one source saying she'd gone from a size 20 to a size 12. She spent lavishly on her new wardrobe.

She dutifully performed in USO shows during the war. Also during this time, she'd suffer her first career setback. She was cast in Artists and Models, a revue on Broadway featuring Jane Froman and Jackie Gleason. The extravagantly-funded show was panned by critics and closed after 27 performances.

By the late '40s, she would venture into new musical territory, beginning to adopt the Latin sound that characterized her later work. Once again, she was ahead of her time; the Latin craze hit the U.S. in the 1950s. Her recordings sold well, however. Notably, one of her recordings included the song "Drunk with Love." The somewhat ribald tune had been written and performed by gay performer Bruz Fletcher in 1940. (Fletcher committed suicide at age 35 in 1941; the police had started breaking up performances by openly gay performers.)
 

Coming Out

Frances Faye by this time had acquired a huge gay following. They, as well as her straight fans knew what she was saying to them when she sang "Drunk with Love." Between the song and her ribald patter, everyone but the authorities got the message that Frances was announcing her sexuality to the world. Brave and determined, this did little to harm her career at that time.

Her constant work paid for her flamboyant lifestyle; a pink Cadillac, a red Packard and a white grand piano in her living room. By this time, she resided in Manhattan. However, she still had connections to the old neighborhood; relatives would take a cab to her apartment to bring her her favorite meal, her mother's potted chicken with matzo balls.

Despite common knowledge of Faye's sexuality, she nonetheless married twice. Both husbands were exceptionally handsome, yet both marriages ended in divorce after two years.

I don't talk about my husbands. Let's just say that I think a husband has to be the boss and he can't really be the boss when he's making less in a year than his wife's making in a week.

— Frances Faye

In the late '40s Faye took some time off from her busy schedule. She quickly got bored, complaining that she couldn't even play golf because of arthritis pains.

1949 saw her performing in the new medium of television and making records. She rarely toured, choosing rather to stay put at home (she had three) in Florida, California or Las Vegas.
 

Frances and the Fifties

When you're pretty, it doesn't matter how you wear your hair...

— Frances Faye

By 1950 Faye got rid of the "big hair," black dresses and flowers that were her trademark in the '40s. She changed to a "parakeet" style crew-cut. One source for this article remarked "Frances appears so butch in the photographs of her singing with straight Mel Torme that her mere presence gives him an effeminate swish."

1953 saw her recording for Capitol records. One disc, with "I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" and the b-side "She Looks" stood the chance of being banned by some radio censors because of the wry double entendre. In fact, a demo album recorded at the time had her singing snippets of some of her songs. The standout was when she stops "The Man I Love" by saying, "...the man, the man, the man?! What am I saying that for?" Nonetheless, despite the "square" conformist culture of the decade, the outrageous Faye would be more successful than ever before.

She left Capitol and signed on with a well-known jazz label, Bethlehem Records. Bethlehem gave their talent complete artistic and creative freedom. Faye attracted musicians of note such as Maynard Ferguson, Milt Barnhart, Frank Rosolino and Herbie Mann. In another milestone, on her Bethlehem album "Relaxin'," she sang "My Baby Just Cares For Me," adjusting the lyrics so that it clearly stated that the object of her affection was a woman.

She began a musical partnership with Jack Costanzo, also known as "Mr. Bongo." Costanzo's rhythms added an additional zip to her already Latin-heavy repertoire. The excitement they created was memorable, and sold out rooms in Las Vegas, California and Miami. Faye was earning $4,000 a week. Costanzo later commented that she was so generous and kind, 35 per cent of their act was focused on him. He also noted that her wild and outrageous lifestyle may be stifling her career.
 

Frances Faye: "Gay, Gay Gay!"

More and more references to homosexuality were popping up in her live act. Despite the times, she still remained a huge draw at major venues. When she played San Francisco, she was absolutely out-of-the-closet, however. She sold out every show each time she appeared in that city.

In 1955 she was arrested in Hollywood for possession of marijuana. The charges were eventually dropped against her (although a man who was among those in her apartment was convicted). She worked the marijuana bit into her act, taking her outrageousness to another level. Faye rarely drank and never smoked (cigarettes) but advocated marijuana use. She did a take-off of the song from Fiddler on the Roof, "If I Were A Rich Man," that went "If I had a kilo, dadadadada..."

By 1957, nearly every Faye show included overt references to homosexuality. She sold out big venues all over the country, nonetheless. Greats like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Martha Raye and others came to see her shows.
 

Happiness is a Gal Called Teri

By the late '50s, she met a very good-looking young woman of 22, Teri Shepherd. The two became lifelong companions and Teri eventually managed Faye's career. Shepherd, in an interview, recalled that they were so good together even Faye's conservative mother said "Teri is the best son-in-law I ever had." Shepherd claimed that "Fran was one big girl, and I was the husband..." Shepherd also resented the hateful things said, particularly by straight men, out of Faye's earshot but well within Shepherd's range.

In 1958, she broke her hip at the Riviera, where she'd been booked for months. Her recovery was long and painful. Finally, she was in London and found a doctor who performed a third surgery. The pain was cured. However, even during her recovery, she performed. She'd be seated before the show and the curtain would come up on her, and down on her, seated at the piano.

A shrewd businesswoman, she learned from her friend Lilly Pons that there was money to be made in real estate investing. She took a course in real estate and then acquired properties from Los Angeles to Australia! She spent a lot of money on her family and friends, as well as on herself. Each new performing season she had a private couturier make a completely new wardrobe for her.

She was 48 years old when she was booked again at New York's Basin Street East nightclub. It was this time she broke all of the club's attendance records. She went on for months, her shows attended by celebrities and statesmen. One critic put it this way:

"Hurricane Frances hit 'em hard... It was a ball - a fireball last night in Basin Street East. Frantic Frances Faye shouting her sophisticated songs in her torrid tempo and pounding a poor defenseless piano to a pulp"

— Gene Knight

Among the people the generous singer would help into the business was cabaret entertainer Peter Allen. She also managed to work the names of all those who helped her, from club owners to hairdressers, into the songs or patter in her act.

As she got older, she never returned to New York but toured internationally. She was quite popular in Australia, and spent plenty of time there doing the club circuit to sold-out crowds.
 

Timeless

When I was at Studio One, it was really wild, I was singing with my group, and it was really hot and together. And all the young kids, they loved me. They got up and danced, and whistled and screamed and it was really very gratifying, believe me. It was very heartwarming.

It’s funny how things change, for years, a lot of people thought of me as a dirty performer, that my material was rough. Well, there’s nothing dirty about my act, and there never was. In fact, I can do the whole thing on television now and nobody would bat an eye...See, taste and talent are what count in the final run, those are the things that last.

— Frances Faye

In 1978 a 66-year-old Faye suffered a heart attack. She received a pacemaker and by late in the year she was back on a schedule that would tire a performer half her age. She embraced the disco craze, working some tunes into her act (it was easy; she was always famous for the infectious rhythm of her performances). She returned to Australia in 1979, where she performed live and appeared on television three times.
 

The Frenetic Pace Ends

Faye officially retired in 1981. She suffered a series of strokes in 1984, leaving her virtually speechless. She died on November 8, 1991.

There have been many tributes on stage to Frances Faye, most notably "Drunk With Love," a revue that started out in San Francisco, and has had extended runs in L.A. and New York. A CD is available of the cast recording.

Sadly, only one other of her albums, Caught in the Act, has been remastered to CD.
 

Discography

Singles

DECCA (8/19/36)

No Regrets / You're Not the Kind of a Boy

INTERNATIONAL (1946) #12 F501-F508 Album of 4 records titled FRANCES FAYE

Boogie Woogie Washer Woman / Return to Sorrento

Personality / Drunk with Love & Purple Wine / Well All Right

All That Glitters Is Not Gold / I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me

CAPITOL (early 1950's)

#2224 Night and Day / Tweet Tweet Tweetheart

#2278 She Looks / I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

#2347 My Last Affair / On a Raft in the Middle of an Ocean

#2390 There's a Bell That Rings in My Heart / A Fool in Love

#2472 Sometimes I'm Happy / I Was Wrong About You

#2542 The Dummy Song / Uh-Huh

#2604 Hey, Mister / Sorry Baby

#2842 Summertime / Mad About the Boy

There are many singles taken from the BETHLEHEM, IMPERIAL and REGINA ALBUMS.

"CONTINENTAL AMERICAN" (A&M 1974) Frances sang "Just a Gigolo" in duet with Peter Allen on his album.

Albums

FRANCES FAYE (International 1946) see above.

FRANCES FAYE: NO RESERVATIONS (Capitol c. 1953)

FRANCES FAYE: I'M WILD AGAIN (Bethlehem 1955) Russ Garcia Arr.

RELAXIN' WITH FRANCES FAYE (Bethlehem 1956)

PORGY AND BESS (Bethlehem 3-LP Set - c.1956)

FRANCES FAYE SINGS FOLK SONGS (Bethlehem 1957) Russ Garcia Arr.

FRANCES FAYE SWINGS FATS DOMINO (Imperial 1959)

FRANCIS (SIC) FAYE SINGS THE BLUES (Imperial c.1960)

FRANCES FAYE: CAUGHT IN THE ACT (GNP 1959) w. Jack Costanzo

FRANCES FAYE: CAUGHT IN THE ACT, VOL. 2 (GNP c. 1959)

FRANCES FAYE IN FRENZY (Verve 1961) Russ Garcia Arr.

SWINGING ALL THE WAY WITH FRANCES FAYE (Verve 1962) Marty Paich Arr.

FRANCES FAYE: YOU GOTTA GO! GO! GO! (Regina LP - 1964) Arr./Cond.- Shorty Rogers

BAD, BAD FRANCES FAYE (Bethlehem - 1976) is a reissue of "FRANCES FAYE: I'M WILD AGAIN"

 

SOURCES:

  • All Music Guide: http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll (Accessed 8/13/08)
  • GLBTQ Online Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender subjects: http://www.glbtq.com/arts/faye_f.html (Accessed 8/13/08)
  • Website of Tyler Alpern (Comprehensive Fan Site): http://www.tyleralpern.com/francesfaye.html (Accessed 8/13/08)
  • Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0269662/ (Accessed 8/13/08)

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