Frankie & Johnny

I was surprised when my research on this old song revealed that it was probably based on one of several actual murders. Of course, opinions differ as to which one. Or maybe it ended up with elements from more than one.

The first candidate murder, and the one I tend to favor as the primary inspiration for this song, took place on October 15, 1899 in St. Louis, MO when 22-year-old Frankie Baker (1876-1952) shot her 17-year-old lover Allen (also known as Albert) Britt after he returned from a dance hall, where he had won a prize in a slow dance contest partnered with a woman named Nelly Bly (also known as Alice Pryor). Britt died of his wound in the hospital four days later. At her trial, Baker claimed that Britt attacked her with a knife and she acted in self-defense. She was acquitted and lived more than another half century. Some versions of this song are called “Frankie and Albert”.

Shortly after the Britt murder in 1899, St. Louis balladeer Bill Dooley wrote a song called “Frankie Killed Allen” about the Baker/Britt case. The first published music to “Frankie & Johnny” was copyright in 1904 by Hughie Cannon.

Another possible inspiration for this song might be the murder of Charles Silver in Burke County, NC by his wife Frances “Frankie” Stewart Silver. Unlike Frankie Baker, Mrs. Frankie Silver was convicted and executed.

Another candidate was the 1908 song by Frank and Bert Leighton called “Bill You Done Me Wrong”. It was republished in 1912 as “Frankie and Johnny” with lyrics much like modern folk interpretations.

There are dozens of verses that tell slightly different versions of the story. I chose the ones I felt best flowed to tell the story, spiced up the lyrics here and there (I described Frankie’s gun as “her pearl-handled pistol”), and added a Johnny Kee original final verse. All others claim, “You know this story has no moral.” I strongly disagree and gave it my personal touch.

Listen to a 1 minute preview of this track here: