Frank Otis Frost, who was born April 15, 1936, in Auvergne (Jackson County), became known as a premier Delta bluesman of the latter 20th century, with his talents sought for albums, movies and in concert around the world.
Frost is remembered as a harmonica player. But he learned singing and some piano early on in church. He also played guitar and later made the keyboard another of his favored instruments.
After graduating high school, he performed with drummer Sam Carr, and he and Carr would remain partners for the next half-century. Carr, the son of slide guitar great Robert Nighthawk of Helena, and Frost also performed as Nighthawks. Meanwhile, Frost was influenced on harmonica by another Helena resident: Sonny Boy Williamson II, also known as Rice Miller.
In the early 1960s, Frost recorded one of only eight albums issued by Sam Phillips’ Phillips International record label. Phillips launched the label in 1957, feeling his Sun Records in Memphis had become too associated with rock ’n’ roll. Before Elvis Presley and Arkansans Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich and the like, Sun had gotten its start in the early 1950s with blues.
“I saw a place for Frank Frost,” Phillips later said, “even though he was the most bluesy thing I had recorded in years.” Phillips died in 2003.
The Phillips International label didn’t last, but Frost continued recording and playing blues, most often with Sam Carr. In the 1970s, guitarist Big Jack Johnson and the pair formed the Jelly Roll Kings, a blues supergroup which would exist for more than three decades. Their 1979 album “Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down” shows the trio in front of the Red Top Lounge in Clarksdale, Miss., where they were the longtime house band. Little Rock native and music journalist Robert Palmer produced the Jelly Roll Kings’ “Off Yonder Wall.” Included on that 1997 album is “Frank Frost Blues,” which, despite the song title, was sung by Johnson.
Frost’s reputation as an authentic Delta blues musician solidified through the 1970s and ’80s even as blues music’s popularity rose and fell. In the mid-1980s, it had spread far enough that he was asked to contribute to the Hollywood movie “Crossroads,” a coming-of-age vehicle for actor Ralph “The Karate Kid” Macchio. Frost appears in the film and on the “Crossroads” movie soundtrack, produced by Ry Cooder, with help from Little Rock native Jim Dickinson.
By this time, Frost — then based out his Helena apartment near Eddie Mae’s Cafe, his girlfriend’s restaurant — was emerging in blues circles as a living legend. Gigs for Frost could mean Japanese television, or in other countries, as often as a Delta juke joint. The popularity of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena — recently renamed the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival — helped raise Frost’s statewide and international profile, as he nearly always headlined.
But by 1999, at age 63, his health had deteriorated. Scheduled to perform at that year’s festival with Carr, the wheelchair-bound Frost just waved to the crowd. Four days later, on Oct. 12, Frost died of congestive heart failure in his apartment.
Frost is buried in Helena’s Magnolia Cemetery — and the Helena street where Frost lived, and died, is now called Frank Frost Street.
• “Frank Frost Blues”
• “Jelly Roll King”
• “Harpin’ On It”
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