Keith Frank's "Return of the King"
He’s been the leading zydeco bandleader in Southwest Louisiana since the 1990s, but Keith Frank has hardly stayed in the safe zydeco box.
Rather, Frank, as his new album Return of the King’s title indicates, has a different sort of king in mind—king of zydeco notwithstanding.
Previously, Frank’s signature blend of traditional zydeco and contemporary urban sounds spawned a monster 1995 regional album titletrack hit cover of the “Movin’ On Up” theme to TV sitcom classic The Jeffersons, which was topped in 2008 by “Haterz”—a song about the reality of stardom featuring Baton Rouge rap star Lil Boosie (now Boosie Badazz) that remains a line dance favorite. He has since mined a spiritual/inspirational zydeco vein first broached in the titletrack of Loved.Feared. Respected (the 2008 album that featured “Haterz”), while increasing his participation in R&B, hip-hop, and the midtempo “southern soul,” or “swing-out” dance music style that’s so popular in his backyard.
Calling it “gospel zydeco” would be “totally correct,” says Frank.
“I actually started doing this back in 2006,” he adds. “I always wanted to do that, but the right concept never seemed to come to me. As of late, though, I normally do one or two [gospel zydeco songs] on every CD, and a lot of these songs are requested—which I didn’t expect when I started doing them.”
“Believe it or not,” Frank continues, “I don’t think God is unwelcome anywhere—at least anywhere I play!”
“Anywhere” would include not only the regular Southwest Louisiana zydeco roadhouses and dance halls typically toured by Frank, but by the sales and airplay charts as well. He reports that upon its release last month Return of the King reached No. 9 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and No. 31 on the Independent Albums chart--“two spots below Jay-Z!”
But while songs like the titletrack, “Undisputed” and lead cut “Lazarus” are certainly spiritual/inspirational, Return of the King is not confined to one category, what with its cover of Rick James’ 1978 hit “Mary Jane” and “Return of the King”’s use of The Impressions hit “People Get Ready” as its foundation.
“I’m not a smoker but I’m a Rick James fan!” says Frank, sidestepping “Mary Jane”’s thinly disguised marijuana-influenced message. As for James and Curtis Mayfield, who wrote “People Get Ready” for his legendary 1960s Impressions vocal group, he notes that musically, everybody then “had their own lane, so to speak.”
“It was a great time back then, and we all had the same thing in zydeco for a while—but now the lines are getting a bit blurred. I’m not knocking it, but a lot of zydeco stuff is just changing words and redoing stuff from what’s on the radio. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the music can’t grow without there being our own unique stamp on what you hear on the radio, and I feel we’re capable of being more creative.”
He characterizes Return of the King’s 20 tracks (the high number due to accumulating so much material since his last album) as “a more mature approach” to his music from back in the ‘90s, “a little harder-edged and less traditional because what we’re doing now here at home has changed a bit. But I still have one step well-rooted in the future--and one planted strongly in the past!”
And while Frank feels that he’s “able to touch a lot of people” with the gospel zydeco of Return of the King and that “maybe it’s my calling right now,” he still performs now and then with his renowned father Preston Frank, whose Family Zydeco Band he inherited in the ’90s before leading his own Soileau Zydeco Band.
It’s the Soileau Zydeco Band that backs Keith Frank on the new album, which is named for the town of Soileau, 30 miles north of Lafayette, where he was born.