It was 1957 and on her debut single, Carol Fran asks the title character of her bluesy/swamp pop song, Emmitt Lee, “Don’t you remember me?”
Well, he didn’t.
And it would be his loss as Fran went on writing songs, singing and playing the piano and touring for decades on end, much to the delight of her blues and R&B fans that stretched from Louisiana to Europe and places in-between.
However, on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, for these same fans, as well as musicians, friends and family in Acadiana, they would experience real life loss as Fran died at 87 years old.
“She was a performer,” said zydeco/blues musician Major Handy, who recalled his first impression of Fran when he saw her at After Dark, a restaurant/music venue on Johnston Street, many years ago: “She’s a badass, man.”
The experience got Handy’s attention.
“She inspired me to be a good musician. I was kind of young and coming up,” he said. “But when I heard her play that jazz and play with that band, oh, man, that was bad. That was awesome. Changed my world.”
In 2013, Fran was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts’National Heritage Fellow. She won the Louisiana Governor's Arts Award for Folk Artist of the Year in 2006. In 2008, Lafayette City-Parish Council honored Fran with the Distinguished Citizen Award. She received the Slim Harpo Blues Award for Female Legend of the Year in 2012.
There was more to Fran than her singing, songwriting and piano playing; there was the drive and confidence that she embodied, one she tried to imprint on fellow musicians that is necessary to make it in the world of music.
“She was a loving woman, but she was also very hard,” said John Williams, whose Blue Monday Mission, an early evening of music and food held at Lafayette Rock ’N’ Bowl the second Monday of the month, that provides life care services for aging, retired and elder musicians and artists.
“That’s what she had to do to navigate that world. I can only imagine what she went through,” Williams said. “She didn’t take no mess; she didn’t let people treat her unfair. She didn’t allow it.
“That pretty much sums up her character the way that I knew her,” he said. “She demanded respect.”
Williams said Fran “never classified herself as a blues musician or anything like that. She would say I’m a singer. She didn’t put her self in boxes.
“She was was a musician and it was what she went through in her life is what gave her the spirit of her lyrics. It gave her what she needed to do.”
Williams said Fran encouraged young musicians to find their own way with their own sound.
“Miss Carol would get on them: ‘You don’t play like somebody else,” he said. “You can listen for some kind of inspiration, but you need to find your own voice.”
Becky Schexnayder interviewed Fran for a project on the J.D. Miller Music Recording Studio for the City of Crowley. The interview continued a dozen years through tours, dinner and just hanging out and it birthed the documentary, “Carol Fran: Tous Les Jours C'Pas La Meme (Every Day Is Not The Same)” that was screened earlier this year.
“I was blown away by her story,” Schexnayder said. “We became really, really close. So much that she would introduce me as her daughter. That was really sweet.”
Schexnayder said there were rough times, too, “but she can be really sweet and she really does have a big heart.”
Fran began her career at 15 years old and was in Bourbon Street clubs four years later. She spent three years in Juarez, Mexico, honing her skills and upon returning to the U.S., toured with, among others, Guitar Slim, Joe Tex, Don Conway Orchestra and later with her husband, Clarence Holliman, who died in 2000.
“We lost so much. We lost a lot losing her,” said Schexnayder. “She loved her city, she loved her people, she loved her heritage, she loved performing for people.
“It’s going to be a real loss for Lafayette,” she said.
In the early 1990s, Fran hosted Diva Nights, held at 307 Jazz & Blues in downtown and invited Susie Aycock to join the line-up. As the title of the program indicates, it showcased women.
“At that point, we became good friends because she included me,” Aycock said. “And, of course, I was honored for Carol Fran to do that.”
Fran’s husband and music partner, guitarist Clarence Holliman died in 2000 and then her mother passed the next year. Aycock was there for her.
When Aycock’s husband, Greg Fleniken, was killed in Texas in a bizarre gunfire incident 2010, Fran returned the favor.
“Carol held my hand at my husband’s funeral. I was like family to Carol,” she said. “We considered each other family. There was just a bond there.
“She knew what it was like and what I’d be going through having lost her husband,” said Aycock. “And here it was my turn. I’ll never forget that and she never let go of my hand. I loved her. She was dear.”