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