I know you have beliefs which are very dear to you—some are imposed,some were given at birth.There are some books which are precious to you,traditions as well. I hope that maybe all of these things are appreciated by all of the trees, the birds and by all of the planets.
Don Francks intro at George’s Spaghetti House 1983
Entertainment ikon Jackie Gleason phrased it well when he commented on Don’s 1963 album, “There’s nobody quite like Don Francks.”
Uncle Donny as I called him passed on to the next phase of galactic resurrection Sunday morning.He surely was one of the most versatile and gifted entertainers ever seen on a Canadian stage. A decade ago I wrote Verve records and told them that indeed there was nobody like Don as a jazz singer but like the peerage of tin ears who turned down our nomination for him as a recipient of the Order of Canada in 2009 they took a pass.
This was part of my covering letter. His great fiend and pianist for 35 years Steve Hunter’s letter will also see the light of day in this space.
As a singer Francks started out in vaudeville at age ten and evolved into a superb interpreter of popular songs which culminated in his co-starring with Fred Astaire in the legend’s last singing and dancing role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow (1968).
Today at age 77 Don Francks is without a doubt Canada’s greatest living male jazz singer still performing in clubs in the Toronto area. His musical career is long and distinguished and it is but a part of his entertainment curriculum vitae.
In 1962 Francks formed a jazz trio with Ian Henstridge and the extraordinary guitarist Lenny Breau, appearing in nightclubs in Toronto and New York (eg, at the Village Vanguard, where they made the aforementioned LP Jackie Gleason Says No One in This World Is Like Don Francks, Kapp KRS-4501, in 1963). Remaining in New York, he recorded Lost… and Alone (1965, Kapp KS-3417) and appeared on Broadway in the largest flop in Broadway history Kelly (1965). Gaining excellent reviews himself, Francks went on to work off Broadway in a program of theatre songs by Leonard Bernstein. All this prepared Don for his superb vocal work in the Toronto version of The Fantasticks. Since that time Franks has never stopped singing, His encyclopedic knowlwdge of the history of jazz music, his impeccable choice of material with its intricate thematic arrangements stamp him as an original. Musicians vie to play behind this jazz master.
After eighteen episodes of Jericho a TV series which had the misfortune to run beside Batman in 1966 and after Finian’s Rainbow, Don Francks with wife Lilly, retreated to the Red Pheasant reserve in Saskatchewan.The war in Vietnam and the consumer culture had become too much for the sensitive artist. It was here over several years on the reserve that he deepened his love for the natural world. It was here that he was given the name Iron Buffalo.
After this hiatus, Don and Lilly now with two children in tow returned to Toronto where he resumed his acting career. In the interim he had deeply internalized the deep ecological sensibilty of native peoples.
In 1979 he was among the first to join Greenpeace in alerting the world to environmental degradation.His jazz singing and nigtclub performances would never be the same.The dominant thread in this multi-talented troubador was his radical concern for the planet.His vocation was to proclaim the oneness of creation as a fellow “earthling.” He had found his “faith. His pulpit was the performing arts. It was his way to illuminate the questions of the late twentieth century. As a performer he simply refused to pursue a “career” while he perceived the planet to be burning down. He become an eloquent pursuer of social justice. As a singer, jazz and commitment to the planet were fused.
“All I have tried to do”, he said in an interview he did with me for (Nov 3, 1991) for the Catholic New Times in 1991 “was to get to something beyond argument-a glass of water, a leaf growing in the wind.get back to basics, universal truths.All of the world’s children should be able to meet and say: No pollution.Clean it up.Salvation for the animals and all living things.Have no more war—that’s another pollution. And no hunger.”
Uncle Donny at my 70th birthday
On Don Franck’s singing alone he is worthy of the highest accolades. His acting career which is included here is equally stellar and ongoing to this day. Forget the two consecutive ACTRA Awards (Drying Up the Streets,1980 and The Phoenix Team, 1981). These are but the tip of the iceberg.
Noah’s Great Rainbow (March 2009) a ground breaking, new Canadian play workshopped at the Jewish Cultural Centre examined the effects of genocide on different generations, races and cultures. Playing an old Holocaust survivor (Noah) Francks engages a young Rwandan nurse’s aide who suffered under the Rwandan genocide of 1994. School audiences were transfixed.
A list of his acting career follows. Canadian film director Don Shebib also submitted a letter.