When Frankie Shot Johnny

Santi Elijah Holley on the story of Allen Britt and Frankie Baker

While most murder ballads traditionally center on the murder of a woman by a man, a few notable ballads flip the script. The most immediate one that comes to mind is, of course, the classic ballad of the spurned woman, “Henry Lee” (or “Love Henry,” as it’s also known), which Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds included on their album Murder Ballads. Though not referenced on Murder Ballads, one of the most popular and widely adapted ballads in the 20th century is the now archetypical murder ballad, “Frankie and Johnny.”

“Frankie and Johnny” (also recorded as “Frankie and Albert”) has been recorded by more than 250 singers and musicians, including such dissimilar singers as Mississippi John Hurt, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Sammy Davis, Jr, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, and Jack Johnson. It is one of the most covered ballads in pop music and entertainment. It has also inspired Hollywood films and, as recently as 2019, a Broadway play. But, like most ballads, most audiences are unaware that this story was inspired by true events.

On the early morning of October 15, 1899, in St. Louis Missouri, a 17-year-old African American man named Allen “Albert” Britt entered into the apartment he shared with Frankie Baker, a 22- or 23-year-old African American woman. Albert had been out at the dance hall with his other woman, Alice Pryor, and when he returned to the apartment, he and Frankie began to argue and fight. Soon, Frankie pulled a gun out from underneath her pillow and shot Albert once in the abdomen. Albert lurched out of the apartment to his mother’s home. She took him to the hospital, where he died four days later. During the trial on November 13, 1899, Frankie claimed self-defense, stating that Albert had abused her and threatened her with a knife. She was acquitted of murder charges, but this was only the beginning of Frankie’s story.

Almost immediately after the shooting, local musicians began composing and performing ballads inspired by Baker’s deed. Singing ballads or peddling broadsides—cheap, single-side papers distributed by street merchants—was a common practice at the turn of the century, usually recounting the most lurid and sensational news of the day. Over a century before social media, Frankie went viral. Weeks after the shooting, a St. Louis piano player, Bill Dooley, began performing a song he called “Frankie Killed Allen.” In 1904, songwriter Hughie Cannon composed a similar song, under the name, “He Done Me Wrong.” Vaudeville team Frank and Bert Leighton published a tune called “Frankie and Johnny” in 1912, changing Albert’s name. Alice Pryor’s name, too, was changed to Nelly Bly sometime during the ballad’s evolution.

In an attempt to escape her local infamy, Baker moved from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon in 1900 or 1901, where she opened a shoeshine parlor and worked as a chambermaid at a hotel. But her name and notoriety followed her. Not only was the ballad sweeping across the country, but the story was also being adapted for plays and films, including 1933’s She Done Him Wrong, starring Mae West and Cary Grant; and 1936’s Frankie and Johnny. People began to accost Baker on the streets or stood outside her home, gawking at her or seeking autographs. She never earned a cent from the movie studios, and she sued the Paramount and Republic movie studios, alleging they were slandering her, capitalizing off her name, and causing her mental and emotional distress.

“What I want is peace, an opportunity to live like a normal human being,” she told a reporter. “I know that I’m Black but, even so, I have my rights.”

Baker lost both lawsuits, and she was dismissed as mentally unsound. She eventually suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to Oregon’s Multnomah County Poor Farm (now the popular tourist resort and outdoor music venue McMenamins Edgefield), where she died on January 6, 1952, at age 75.

Again, her story didn’t stop here. In 1966, Elvis Presley filmed Frankie and Johnny and sang the theme song. Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer starred in the 1991 film of the same name. The Robert Altman 2006 film, A Prairie Home Companion, stars Lindsay Lohan singing a particularly nauseating rendition of the song.

Similar to the murder ballad “Stagger Lee,” the “Frankie and Johnny/Albert” ballad, though inspired by true events, has been interpreted innumerable ways, adding to or significantly modifying details with each new telling. Ballads—as I relate in my book, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads—by their nature, belong to the people. No one “owns” or reserves the rights to a ballad, because they are made to be shared freely. But Frankie Baker is unique among ballad subjects, as she had to suffer the embarrassment and injustice of watching others—mostly White entertainers—exploit her name without any consideration to the real, living person. So while “Frankie and Johnny/Albert” is popular today as little more than an amusing ballad, its story is a history of the racist and patriarchal systems in the early 20th century that allowed for a Black woman’s act of self-defense to become amusement and profit for White businessmen and entertainers, while at the same time erasing that woman’s existence. We done her wrong, indeed.

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