Soul Retrospective: Michael Franks’ Top 10 Best Songs

michael franksFor over 40 years, Michael Franks has appealed to romantics and lovers of intelligent and passionate R&B and jazz. While he seemed like an unlikely R&B jazz idol—with his breathy vocals, playful lyrics and emotional songs, that’s exactly what happened. At his best, through his voice and intellect, Franks gave voice to an interesting male archetype–one that was sensitive though not wimpy, wry yet not “novelty song” humorous. While not a “love man” in the classic sense, Franks certainly is and was libidinous in words and tone–and that’s also part of his appeal. All of those attributes make Franks a very unique artist and here’s ten of the songs that helped to define an interesting and varied career.

“Popsicle Toes,” “Eggplant” (1975)

These tracks are from Franks’s second album and his 1975 Reprise effort The Art of Tea. They are separate songs but are so alike, one is difficult to think of with the other. The effortlessly jazzy “Popsicle Toes” became Franks’s first hit and a song that got in him play on many stations ranging from jazz to R&B playlist. If “Popsicle Toes” was cutesy, “Eggplant” was less so but had lyrics that were more pointed with lyrics filled with metaphors, innuendo and a cleverness that has followed his career and earned him many fans. The band on these two tracks were filled with renowned players like John Guerin, Wilton Felder, Larry Carlton and Joe Sample. In short, Franks was in good hands here and both of these tracks swung.  In many respects, these two songs (and Art of Tea) all but set the template his subsequent work.

“The Lady Wants to Know” (1977)

This track became of an early Michael Franks favorite and is all but a landmark recording in the commercial jazz genre; Franks’ voice and phrasing seemed to have matured during the time between Art of Tea and Sleeping Gypsy. ”The Lady Wants To Know” is a sorrowful and jazzy song, one of those tracks that hits its mark so perfectly, it’s almost too much to listen to. This song was also featured to great effect in John Travolta’s and Lily Tomlin’s 1978 film, Moment to Moment. “The Lady Wants to Know” has gorgeous production values ranging from double-tracking Franks’ voice on some of the choruses and Claus Ogerman’s poignant string arrangement. Franks no doubt continued to make great songs, but “The Lady Wants to Know” had a strange magic that was difficult to duplicate.

“Inside You” (1980) 

If a lot of 1978’s Tiger in the Rain and 1979’s Burchfield Nines were either too arch or glib for some, 1980’s One Bad Habit probably struck a better balance. This was certainly the case with radio favorite “Inside You.” The delicate “Inside You” has Franks’ trademark quiet and conversational tone and is truly one of Franks’ inimitable ballads—never treacly and offering a true emotional honesty. Production wise, “Inside You” is a gem and it’s also buoyed by Clare Fischer’s strong though not overpowering string arrangement.

“On My Way Home To You” (1980)

Franks was one of the few singers who could carve out a bi-coastal recording existence while retaining his musical identity. For the tracks on 1980’s classic One Bad Habit, Franks recorded in LA and New York. Tommy LiPuma and Andre Fischer produced the album. The joyful “On My Way Home To You” is one of the LA tracks. On the surface, the song seems to be a pedestrian ode to romance, but upon more listenings the track seemed to take on a gratifying cinematic sweep albeit with a few strings. Noted arranger Jerry Hey subtle string and horn arrangement keeps the momentum and emotional thrust of the song that is one of Franks’ most poignant and rewarding tracks.

“Love Duet” (1982) 

This joyful and polished track from 1982’s Object of Desire might be a true Franks fan favorite. Franks is joined here by Renee Diggs, better known as the lead singer for the band Starpoint. As duet partners, Franks and Diggs have effortless charm and sway as they all but glide through the verses, the bridge and the insistent though not annoying bridge. “Love Duet” is a gorgeous and sensual song and like the best songs of the type, there’s a bit of sweetness there as well. Franks’ songs often deal with aloneness or solitary contemplation, and “Love Duet” gave a listeners a great  chance to hear him sing with someone.

“Rainy Night in Tokyo” (1983)

In many ways, Franks seemed to be one of the restless artists in music as he often changed producers, music styles and ways to present his voice. The stars seemed to align for 1983’s Passionfruit, and Franks found a great producer in Mounsey. As a producer, Mounsey favored clear production values with strongly arranged and defined synthesizers carrying a lot of the emotional weight instead of used as cluttered instrumentation. The atmospheric production values on “A Rainy Night in Tokyo” helped Franks croon the lyrics in a way he often didn’t do. This track is filled with picturesque lyrics and the faint Asian motifs weaving throughout makes for a uniquely gorgeous song.

“When I Give My Love To You” (1985)

Most of Franks’ 1985 album Skin Dive was a disappointment. Franks’ voice and sensibilities were often lost and minimized in a production filled with synth gadgetry and flat-out bad songs. That can’t be said about this track. “When I Give My Love to You” is a duet with Brenda Russell and is a futuristic ballad. Russell matched Franks quirk for quirk and created a truly odd though believable song. This song is not only the best song from Skin Dive, it’s steadiness all but saved the album and the track became an immediate Franks favorite.

“Innuendo” (1987)

This charming ballad is classic Michael Franks. By 1987, the warm sounds of the West Coast mixed with the New York studio sound had been replaced by more concise synthesizer-based productions. Luckily, Franks adapted to the sound early on and always seemed to imbue a certain humanity to the proceedings. “Innuendo” (featuring great playing from Earl Klugh) is the kind of song that Franks could do on his sleep; but that doesn’t make the song or performance perfunctory, not in the least. “Innuendo” covers the romantic, give and take subject matter Franks does so well and makes so interesting. While the pacing and wordplay is important here, Franks delicate treatment of the bridge and gave the song an extra sense of tenderness within all of the wittiness.

“Leading Me Back to You,” Joe Sample Featuring Michael Franks (1989)

This track earned a lot of radio play for Joe Sample Warner Brothers debut Spellbound. By this point commercial jazz was getting safe and predictable, and “Leading Me Back To You” was immediately loved for its musical heft and a strong and satisfying chorus. For this track, Franks turned in one of his strongest vocals in years and he also added engrossing lyrics to Sample’s always intelligent and involving melodies.

“Soulmate “ (1993)

This is a relatively late entry. Those who thought they’d heard it all from Michael Franks and had grown tired of the sounds of contemporary jazz post 1990 might be pleasantly surprised with this one. The presentation and lyrics are pure great Franks, conversational, instructive and kind.

“Soulmate” has a great early ’90s style to it and it was a decade when many producers were going back to more organic sounds. “Soulmate” also has a subtle steppers rhythm. Eric Benet helps out on the backing vocals.

—Jason Elias

Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist.

2 Comments

  1. Jason Elias says:

    Hey Khah Khemet! I remember Dr. Sax, heh, I like that song.

  2. Khah Khemet says:

    You missed a funky tune he does called, DR SAX.
    CHECK IT OUT.

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