A veteran bassist and songwriter who appeared on the first-ever broadcast of radio's famed Louisiana Hayride, Tillman Franks nevertheless enjoyed his greatest influence on country music as a manager and producer, helming the careers of acts including Webb Pierce, Johnny Horton, and David Houston. Born September 29, 1920, in Stamps, AR, Franks grew up in the Shreveport suburb of Cedar Grove. Inspired by hero Roy Acuff, he learned guitar at 14, and while a student at Byrd High School, he formed his first band, the Rainbow Boys, with classmates Claude King and Buddy Attaway. Eventually the group traveled to Shreveport station KRMD to cut a record, but upon hearing the playback, Franks was so disappointed by his vocal performance that he vowed to quit singing for good. While stationed in the Pacific during World War II, he formed a new incarnation of the Rainbow Boys with a then-unknown banjo player named Pete Seeger. When they failed to recruit a standup bass player, Franks reluctantly abandoned guitar to assume rhythm duties himself, and the bass fiddle remained his primary instrument from that point forward. He also hosted a radio show on military radio, welcoming guests including Gene Autry and his sidekick Ruff Davis. After returning stateside, Franks backed Harmie Smith on his KWKH radio showcase, briefly relocating to Little Rock before coming back to Shreveport in 1948 to back the Bailes Brothers. Franks was a member of the Bailes' band on April 3, 1948, the night the Louisiana Hayride premiered on KWKH. The program would remain an inextricable element of his life for more than a decade.
Franks nevertheless left the Bailes Brothers in mid-1948, relocating to Houston to work under auto dealer Elmer Laird alongside King and Attaway. They also helped Laird write the song "Poison Love," recording a demo they shopped in Nashville after an irate customer stabbed Laird to death. The tragedy also spelled the end of Franks' career as a car salesman, and he again traveled back to Shreveport, this time with the intention of forming a booking agency. The Bailes Brothers signed on as his first clients, and soon his roster included Kitty Wells and Johnny & Jack. Franks also briefly signed an aspiring singer named Hank Williams, booking a gig at the Powhatan, LA, school auditorium and outfitting Williams in the western dress suit that would become his trademark. Franks moonlighted playing bass with the Hayride house band, and also taught guitar lessons. His pupils included Jerry Kennedy, Merle Kilgore, and Tommy Sands. However, his management career did not begin in earnest until late 1951, when he signed with Webb Pierce (also doubling as his bassist). Within a year Pierce terminated the relationship, but not before Franks negotiated a record deal with Decca and guided the singer to his first number one single, the honky tonk classic "Wondering." Franks also managed another Hayride star, Billy Walker, and advised Slim Whitman, with whom he regularly sat in on bass; in early 1953, he signed as manager and bassist with Bill Carlisle & the Carlisles, and by year's end they scored a number one single, "No Help Wanted."
Following brief stints with Jimmy C. Newman and Jimmy & Johnny, Franks in 1955 signed a management deal with Johnny Horton. After negotiating the singer's release from Mercury, he signed a new contract with Columbia, which issued Horton's hit, the Franks-penned "Honky Tonk Man," in the spring of 1956. A series of chart smashes followed, among them "One Woman Man" and "Honky Tonk Mind," and in 1959 Horton scored his first number one with another Franks composition, "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)." Horton enjoyed his greatest success later that year with the crossover blockbuster "The Battle of New Orleans." By now, he was the Louisiana Hayride's biggest draw, and his success was instrumental in installing Franks as head of the Hayride's Artist Service Bureau as well as landing him a position as vice president of the program's new Cajun Publishing arm. Per terms of the agreement, Franks was scheduled to receive a percentage of the Hayride's profits, but he never saw a dime and on April 16, 1960, he resigned from the show, taking Horton with him. Without its biggest star, the program's ratings flat lined, and on August 27 it aired its final regular performance. On November 5, 1960, Horton and Franks were returning from a performance at Austin, TX's Skyline Club when drunken Texas A&M student James Evans Davis veered his vehicle into their lane. Horton, long plagued by fears he would be killed by a drunk driver, was pronounced dead upon arrival at a local hospital, while Franks suffered serious head and internal injuries, bearing a scar across his forehead for the remainder of his life.
After recovering from his injuries, Franks contacted childhood friend and Rainbow Boys alum Claude King, who'd issued a handful of honky tonk singles for labels including Gotham and Specialty, all to little notice. Franks teamed him with Merle Kilgore, now a hit songwriter, and in the summer of 1962, King's "Wolverton Mountain" topped the country charts. For a time, Franks also managed the career of Horton's widow, Billie Jean, and in 1963 his newest act, David Houston, reached number two with "Mountain of Love," the beginning of a 22-year association that included a series of chart-toppers including "Almost Persuaded," "With One Exception," "You Mean the World to Me," and "Have a Little Faith." In the years to follow, Franks also managed Japanese-born fiddler Shoji Tabuchi and Terry Bradshaw, the Shreveport native who quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories before mounting a short-lived career as a country act. In addition, Franks played bass behind singer and former Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, and led his own Tillman Franks Singers. On July 11, 1996, KWKH sponsored Tillman Franks Day, a Shreveport celebration with appearances by King, Kilgore, and Homer Bailes. Three years later, he also played the Louisiana Hayride's 50th anniversary festivities. A charter member of the Country Music Association and member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Franks published his autobiography, I Was There When It Happened, in 2000. After a long illness, he died in hospice on October 26, 2006, aged 86. ~ Jason Ankeny