In 1979, A. Frank Willis was a star in Newfoundland and Labrador. His one-man band had been around for four years. His debut album, Getting Myself Together, had sold 7,000 copies in several months and would go on to sell more than 50,000. His single, “Take Me As I Am,” was the top song of 1978 for VOCM radio in his home province and “Things Were the Same” was number three. In January 1978, Frank’s album was A.R.S. Records’ number two seller, right behind Meatloaf’s international hit record, Bat Out of Hell. By March, Getting Myself Together was number one, ahead of albums by Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap and Charley Pride.
He was voted the province’s Entertainer of the Year, was featured in magazines, and made special radio and TV appearances. Although he didn’t make the cover of Rolling Stone, he did make the cover of the Newfoundland Herald. Frank’s song “Take Me As I Am” held the record for the longest-running single on Newfoundland radio.
A terrific performer, Frank is also a good songwriter. His biggest hit, “Take me As I Am,” is a love song, but most of his songs are novelty songs about life.
“The Savage Cop from Savage Cove” is about a Mountie stationed here from the mainland. Not knowing our customs, when he heard shots fired to celebrate a wedding he started arresting the wedding party. Frank’s more recent, “Great Big Moose,” earned him a Music Industry of Newfoundland and Labrador nomination. And his song “Hello Mom and Dad, I’m Coming Home for Christmas” continues to sell well and get airplay in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Frank has 15 albums to his credit so far.
But all that success didn’t happen overnight.
How Frank Got An A
Bill Willis, the owner-operator of a sawmill in Dover, already had three sons to help him at the mill when Frank was born in 1950. Like his brothers, Frank was gifted with musical talent. Unlike them, he was left-handed and had to learn to play their right-handed guitars. But as with the other bad cards life was to deal him, he played the hand he was given, learned to play right-handed, and still does.
Frank recalls his first paying gig: “When I was seven, standing on a fence singing for a nickel.”
His first appearance at a real public venue was seven years later. He and his three older brothers, calling themselves Frankie and the Twisters, performed at the Salmon River Motel in Indian Bay. Since it was a licensed bar, only Marven, the oldest at 21, was legal to play. Frank, 14, Carson, 15, and Newman, 17, had to get special permission from the provincial Liquor Board to perform in the club.
Months later, however, Frank left the band. A type-A personality prone to hyperactivity and easily bored with school, he dropped out at 15 and left for Toronto, Ontario. Frank worked in factories for about a year before returning to Newfoundland and playing in clubs with his brothers. By then, his younger brother, Laurin, had joined the group that called themselves the Willis Brothers.
In 1969, Frank decided to get his high school diploma. He went to the sign-up office in Gander for the provincial upgrading program in Stephenville. While waiting in line, his cousin Johnny Wells walked by and, upon learning what Frank was signing up for, spontaneously decided to apply, too. He got in line behind Frank and the two talked as they slowly made their way to the lady handing out applications, changing places in line a number of times along the way. When they finally made it, Johnny was ahead and was accepted, while Frank was told the quota was up and he’d have to wait another six months. Just his luck.
Once in Stephenville, Frank joined with other musicians doing gigs to supplement his income while attending school. The province paid for one year of school, but Frank needed to complete three grades, which would take an extra six months. He paid his own way by performing for money.
After getting his diploma, Frank played with a rock band called Purple Haze until he was asked to do a solo at the Holiday Inn in Corner Brook. He has been solo ever since.
Frank can play five instruments simultaneously, although he has to move his mouth from the harmonica to the microphone for the singing parts. He sometimes has conversations with his piano player and base player (his two big toes) on stage. His act is visually funny as well as musically entertaining.
Eventually he returned to living in Toronto and played his way across the country. When we met, I was working as a cop in the Toronto area and Frank was playing to sold-out houses, making more money than four entertainers usually made and having more fun than most people.
I asked him why the “A” in front of his name. He grinned as he explained that he was named after his father, Allan William, who was always known as Bill. He was named Allan Frank, but always known as Frank. At the time Frank was getting radio play, another singer, Frank Mills, also had a couple of hits. A radio DJ told Frank he might be losing money because, at glance, the names were so much alike that disc jockeys might be crediting Frank Mills with Frank Willis’ royalties.
Tales from the Tours
Over the years of our friendship, Frank has told me some of his favourite “road stories,” like this incident from La Scie in the 1970s.
Frank had set up his equipment at the venue and was heading back to his motorhome to change his clothes when a couple passed him on their way up the steps.
He overheard the lady say, “Dat’s ’e.”
The man answered, “Go on?”
No b’y, dat’s ’e,” she said dragging her husband toward Frank. To Frank, she said, “I told me ’usband that t’was you and ’e didn’t know t’was you, but I knew t’was you ’cause I seen you on TV and in the paper.” She told Frank she loved his music and gave him a hug.
As they turned to leave, her husband asked, “Who was dat?”
“You mean you don’t know who dat is? Sure dat’s A. Frank Willis.”
“Well Lard God almighty, why didn’t you tell me dat was ’e,” he said. He turned and shook Frank’s hand, saying, “B’y, the wife knew t’was you, but I didn’t know t’was you ’til she told me t’was you and now dat I knows ‘tis you, I got to tell you, my son, I’m some glad to meet you.”
While in Rigolet, Labrador, for a performance in the 1990s, Frank was walking around the community when an eight-year-old boy, seeing this stranger, asked him if he was the new schoolteacher.
When Frank told him he wasn’t, the boy inquired, “What are you doing here then?”
“I’m an entertainer, and I’m here to do a show tonight at the community hall,” Frank said. “Didn’t you see my poster on the window over at the store?”
“Oh, you’re that singer?”
When Frank confirmed that indeed he was, the little fellow said, “You’re not worth it!”
Not worth what?” Frank asked.
“What you got wrote on your poster, $20.”
“How do you know I’m not worth it?” a curious Frank asked.
“My father got all your tapes, and I listened to them,” the boy replied. “You’re not worth it.”
The Show Goes On
Most people would never agree with the eight-year-old. Most I’ve talked to say A. Frank is well worth the money and prove it by going back to see his great act time after time.
Next year Frank will celebrate his 45th anniversary as an entertainer. He is operating out Edmonton these days and still performs across the country. He no longer plays in bars but at festivals, business conferences and other events. He’s returning the province this summer and will be at the Beach Festival in North West River, Labrador on July 25 and 26, and at the Big Hill Festival in Cox’s Cove on July 31 and August 1. He will also be along with us to highlight the entertainment on our Downhome Cruise in December. For updates and other information about A. Frank, check his website at www.afrankwillis.com. For more on the Downhome Cruise check www.downhomelife.com.