Craig and I are big fans of the blues as a musical genre. We have traveled to Memphis and Chicago on several occasions to explore the blues roots / culture there, and we have seen many blues performers in concert in the Boston area. In early 2004, our local newspaper ran a story called "Blues Traveler" about an elderly man named Frank Brown who was a retired bus driver for B.B. King and James Brown. Frank was originally from Mobile, AL, where his family still lives. But he had moved up north after retiring due to diabetes-related complications, and was currently a resident in a nursing home about 5 minutes up the highway from our house. It was a very interesting article, and since he had no family up in Massachusetts, we thought it might be fun to set up a visit with him, to get to know him and talk about our mutual interest in the blues. Having had two grandparents in nursing homes for an extended time, I knew how important visitors can be to someone's morale. We went to meet Frank on Valentine's Day 2004, and we were smitten. We would visit him every Sunday for the next 18 months. We had a lot of fun together, going out to eat for his favorite Southern cooking, as well as going to concerts and meeting B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Shemekia Copeland.We celebrated his 80th birthday, and had him over for a family Christmas. We were very close until he passed away in August of 2005, at which point we met his family in Mobile. We are still very close to them today. Frank and his family are true blessings in our lives!
Visiting Frank at the nursing home
Frank with his old friend and former employer B.B. King at the Hampton Casino Ballroom 4/30/04 Frank was always in the loop about when B.B. King was playing in the area. We took him to Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom to see B.B. King on April 30. During the concert, Frank sat there and at times it was hard to tell if he was even paying attention. Then, once an old song started, Frank just looked at Craig and burst into song. His intonation was correct and he even had the little parts right where B.B. stops and says something in the middle of the song. Frank was so sweet and people around us were smiling at him as he sang. One stranger came up to Frank and shook his hand and said that he liked how Frank dressed and he looked good. Frank talked to some of the crew and told them that he wanted to talk to B.B. By this point Frank was very animated, dancing in his seat, shaking his hands around, etc. A bouncer came over and told us to wheel Frank to the side of the stage. We went behind the small barricade and waited near the exterior wall, near the elevator. B.B. did an encore, and we watched it from side-stage. Were we going to actually meet B.B. King? My knees were literally shaking. Then at the end of the show, B.B.'s entourage cleared the exit aisle (we were the only ones allowed to be there, even the backup band was cleared away) and they wheeled B.B. right towards us. One of B.B.'s guys shone the flashlight at Frank so that B.B. could see him. B.B. lit up immediately. In all of the commotion, Frank couldn't tell where to look and even as B.B. grabbed his hand he was looking elsewhere. B.B. said "Frank, Hi Frank! I'm right here. Don't you recognize my voice?" We turned Frank's attention to B.B. and they shook and then held hands. I asked B.B. if I could get a picture of the two of them together. He said "If you like". I took the photo and B.B. talked to Frank for a minute. B.B. called him "Big Brown." Then it was obvious that B.B. had to go; fans were congregating near where we stood, hoping for autographs, and the entourage needed to get B.B. safely downstairs and out to his bus. As they wheeled him away, B.B. looked me right in the eye and said "Thank you." He then looked Craig right in the eye and said the same. B.B. King was thanking us for something? We were the grateful ones...he had made Frank so happy! And it was such an honor for us to get to meet him as well. It was really nice to see that the love and respect that Frank has for his friend and former employer was mutual. They wheeled B.B. onto the elevator and as it was descending he looked at us and waved. We asked Frank about the nickname "Big Brown". He said that B.B. had called him that since their first meeting. Frank was on cloud nine for the rest of the evening!
Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom 8/27/04 Buddy Guy
Frank with old friend Buddy Guy, Hampton Casino Ballroom 8/27/04 On August 27 we drove Frank up to the Casino Ballroom in Hampton, NH once again, this time to see Buddy Guy. Buddy had befriended Frank back in the early years when Frank was driving B.B. When we got to the venue, I spoke to Buddy Guy's road manager and introduced Frank. The road manager went backstage, talked to Buddy Guy, and came back to tell us that we could go backstage before the show. As in right now. (The show was a double bill with Robert Cray, and Buddy Guy was on first). Once again, my knees started to knock. We followed him and a security guy behind the little barricade, past a rack of Buddy's trademark polkadot Stratocaster guitars, and into a little tiny room. There was a purple velour chair, on which Buddy Guy was sitting. We walked in and there was barely room to maneuver the wheelchair. Buddy was stylin'. He was wearing a monochrome striped black suit, white and black wingtips, and a white hat. On one hand he had a large ring that spelled out "Blues" in diamonds. On the other hand was a ring with "BG" in diamonds. "Frank! What you doing in that chair? Ain't you pimping no more? The last time I saw John Lee he was in a chair but on the stage he was dancing around. He said he couldn't be seen in a chair in front of them ladies." He asked Frank how he was, and Frank said fine. He said that he's living in a hospital, and we explained that it was a nursing home. Buddy asked if they treat him well there and he kinda shrugged. Buddy continued "Well, we ain't gotta talk about that." They started talking about a lot of mutual friends who had passed away, and Buddy told Frank to be thankful that he's still around. I asked if I could get a picture and Buddy posed with an arm around Frank. Buddy seemed genuinely happy to see Frank. He introduced Frank to some of his entourage, saying that Frank used to drive around B. when B. was "like this" (holds his hands up to indicate skinny figure). I asked when he started driving B.B. because Frank couldn't remember. Buddy said it must have been around '56 or '57. . Members of his entourage came in and said that we needed to leave so that Buddy could prepare for his set. But Buddy was very generous with his time, and continued talking to Frank, insisting that we could stay longer. Craig and I started to get a bit antsy, knowing that Buddy had to get on stage very soon. Buddy signed a CD for us, and we thanked him and said goodbye, wheeling Frank back out to our seats. A few minutes later, Buddy came on stage and played an awesome set. Partway through the set, he stopped and said "Throughout my life, ladies and gentlemen I've met some very great people who helped me with my career. And the first time I ever met B.B. King" (the audience applauds) "he had a bus driver and his name is Frank and they brought him in in a wheelchair tonight and he said 'I had to come and see you Buddy'." He had the audience give Frank a hand. He asked where Frank was sitting. I stood up and pointed to him, and Frank waved. Everyone around us was waving and cheering. And then, as if that wasn't enough, Buddy Guy then asks for a hand for "the people that brought him here tonight". And there was another big round of applause. "They rolled him in and I said Frank, you know when I met you there was a lot of blues players living that's no longer with us and you still and you still here so let's be thankful, Frank, alright?" He asked for another hand for Frank, which the audience heartily provided. "And I'm gonna do this for Frank anyway." He launched into a great version of "Drivin' Wheel". From that point on, people were coming up to Frank, shaking his hand, patting him on the shoulder. A man that used to live in the same building, some other acquaintances, a girl who worked in the gas station 30 years ago and whom he brought to see B.B.. a guy who "plays bass". (During Robert Cray's set he was onstage and turned out to be Robert Cray's bassist!) Frank was truly touched, and wanted to thank Buddy for such a nice tribute. I told the drummer to pass along his thanks. As we left and crossed the street to the car we heard someone say "There's Frank!" and pointed in our direction. Frank was a rock star that night, and he talked about it frequently for the rest of his life.
Having Frank over for homemade beef stew 9/26/04 We invited Frank to our house for dinner. At the time, Craig's brother Steve and his kids lived upstairs in our house. Frank was a bit concerned and asked if Steve would mind him coming over to the house. Naive as we are, we didn't understand what he was getting at. We asked what he meant, and he said, "Well, sometimes, neighbors have a problem with someone like me…" and he trailed off. Only then did we realize that he was talking about racism. Having always lived in this area, we hadn't even considered this as a concern. It saddened us that his experiences growing up in the South had led to this kind of concern, and we assured him that our family and friends would welcome him with open arms. When he came over that day, he surprised us even more. I was flipping through a coffee table book of photographs of blues musicians. When we got to Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Frank said "I worked for him too!"
Frank with B.B. King on B.B.'s bus, FleetBoston Pavilion, 9/2/04 On September 2, we took Frank to the FleetBoston Pavilion to see B.B. again. This time Frank's contacts at B.B.'s management company had provided us with backstage passes, and we might get the opportunity to visit B.B. on his tour bus! As usual, all of the ushers fell in love with Frank and he always had someone to chat with. The Muddy Waters Blues Band played first, followed by Elvin Bishop. Next was Shemekia Copeland. Frank had known her late father, Johnny Clyde Copeland. Then Dr. John did a set. During one of the intermissions a man walked by, saw Frank, exclaimed "Mr. Brown!" and immediately went to get his mother. It turns out they were old friends of Frank's. They wound up sitting in the empty seats next to us for B.B.'s set. B.B. put on a great show. Frank sang along to "Key to the Highway" and "Rock Me." The show ended at around 11:15 and we headed over to the backstage access area (to the right of the stage).The guy in front of us got on the bus, and I followed, with shaky knees. I climbed the steps and then turned around. Craig and one of B.B.'s entourage were helping Frank out of the wheelchair. and onto the bus. I took Frank's hand and guided him back to where B. was sitting on a leather couch. I said, "This must bring back memories, being on the bus, huh, Frank?" He agreed. At this point we could see B.B. and I said "There he is, Frank!" B. said "Big Brown! How are you?" He asked Frank to sit down and Frank was a little confused and kind of tried to sit on the table. B said "Frank, man, you're grabbing my computer!" and told him to hold out his hand and feel where the seat was. B. shook both of our hands and said "Thanks for being kind to my old friend. We had lots of good times together." Frank took a seat right next to B.B.. Craig sat on the other side of Frank. I was still standing, but B.B. said "Please. Sit down." and I squeezed in. B.B. reached behind him and turned down the volume on the stereo. We said that Frank had a lot of stories about his days on the road and B said "And they're all true!" I asked if I could get a photo of the two of them together and B.B. said sure. He leaned in to Frank and put his arm around him and I got a nice closeup shot of the two of them. It was really great to see B.B. in his own element where he could be himself. Seeing him sitting in his own bus, calmly receiving everyone, being a gracious host and oh so friendly and low key...he was a joy. We were really happy with the way the whole evening turned out. Frank didn't talk much (he doesn't like to interrupt other people) but it seemed like he enjoyed just being there in such close proximity to his good friend. B.B. signed some photos and gave us a couple of B.B. King lapel pins. When we were leaving (with some encouragement from Craig) I asked B.B. if I could have a hug, and he said of course. I gave him a big hug and told him that Frank is our good friend and we love him. B.B. said "He's a good man. He's a good friend of mine. He took good care of me."
After show backstage pass, B.B. King
Lapel pins given to us by B.B. King
Frank's 80th Birthday: 10/2/2004 October 2 was Frank's 80th birthday. We wanted to do something special. He had once admired my Patriots Super Bowl Champion shirt, and had asked why I hadn't bought him one. I told him that we hadn't even met him yet at the time of the last Super Bowl. (He always thought he had known us for much longer than he actually had.) But I had stored it in my head and thought about getting him some sort of Patriots clothing. It dawned on us that not only do the Patriots have a Brown on their team, but he is number 80! So we got Frank a Troy Brown replica jersey for his 80th birthday.
I looked all over for a bakery that would sell sugar-free cakes, but came up empty. So I bought a sugar-free cake and frosting mix at the store and made a chocolate 2 layer cake. We went to visit Frank in the morning on his birthday, as we had a wedding to attend in the afternoon. Craig read Frank the card that we brought: "80 years and a million memories." "And a million miles," Frank replied. He was thrilled by the Patriots jersey, and we also gave him an alarm clock with large digits as he was having a hard time seeing his previous clock. We each had a piece of cake, and though it looked rather amateurish, Frank sang its praises and thought it was delicious.
Celebrating Frank's 80th birthday
Christmas: 12/25/2004 We invited him to Craig's parents' house for Christmas dinner. The whole family really enjoyed meeting him. We enjoyed a nice roast beef dinner which Craig's mom had prepared. It was delicious, and Frank was so appreciative of a home-made meal. (He never enjoyed the food at the nursing home).
Frank was just watching as everyone opened their Christmas presents, and occasionally, when Craig was free to watch, I would pass Frank a present. He was guessing all of the presents but wanted me to open them for him. He correctly guessed several boxes of handkerchiefs. I handed him a T-shirt and he said "What football player is this?" I said it wasn't football but baseball. "Red Sox?" he asked. I said Red Sox World Series Champion with all the players' names on it. He looked at it and smiled. I made him hold it up for a picture. He guessed that the next gift was a dress shirt. It was indeed - a pimpin' purple shirt. He said it was beautiful and he hoped that it would fit. We said that Sherlock Holmes had been on the case and had checked out his size. He said that he was surprised that Sherlock Holmes picked out a shirt like that. I said that Craig had determined the size, but I had picked out the shirt. He said that made more sense. We then gave him Craig's parents' present: fancy sugar-free chocolates. He was happy and asked me to pick one out for him to eat. I said "Do you want milk chocolate or dark chocolate?" He said "I want one like me." I said "sweet dark chocolate, then." Ever the generous spirit, Frank was genuinely saddened by the fact that he had no gifts to give to the family. We assured him that his presence was all the gift any of us needed.
Frank enjoying some bread pudding before we brought him back to the nursing home. Frank was so happy when we brought him back to the nursing home that he was singing in the elevator. He laughed when he got to the nurses' desk. They asked what had gotten into him, and he said "I had some great scotch!' We said "Oh no you didn't! Don't get us in trouble!" and the nurses laughed and said they wouldn't tell anyway.
Shemekia Copeland, Regattabar 2/25/2005 On February 25, we took Frank to see Shemekia Copeland at the RegattaBar. As she sang, she was about four feet directly in front of Frank. We could tell immediately that he was enjoying himself. He kept raising his right hand and he was practically dancing right out of his chair. At one point Shemekia introduced "Love Scene" by quoting a line from the song "Is anyone out there capable of giving me high romance on a foreign train?" Frank raised his hand and she saw him and burst into a smile saying "He wins. That's what I'm talkin' about." It was obvious that he was having a blast. He couldn't sit still. Near the end of the show he asked me if I shad seen her daddy [Johnny Clyde Copeland] perform. I said I had only heard him on records. Frank said that he used to do a little boogie. Shemekia sang "2 A.M." and asked everyone to sing along with the chorus at the end. Frank was singing away. "It's 2 A.M.!" It was so cute. After the show, we bought Frank Shemekia's CD "Wicked" so that she could autograph it for him. Shemekia saw Frank and said, "Well hello. Thanks for coming." He asked if she knew who he was. She said she thought she remembered seeing him before. He said that he knew her dad and that he used to drive B.B's bus. She said that she toured with B.B. in the summer and we said that we had seen her with him. She signed the CD's and I asked if she could pose for a photo with Frank. She put her arm around him and I got a cute photo.