Thursday, September 30, 2010

Former Pop Star Has Junction City Roots

The e-mail garnered my attention. “This is Frankie Valens, the former pop singer.”

Frankie Valens. Didn’t he die in a plane crash? No, that was Richie Valens, who died in a snowy Iowa field in 1959 with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Frankie Valens is a Kansas preacher’s kid who became a modest pop sensation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, covering tunes such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

The confusion comes because Bernard Franklin Piper adopted Valens’ stage surname some years after that plane crash. He admired his music and needed a stage name, according to a Wichita newspaper interview a decade ago. Folks used to confuse him with other Frankies, such as Frankie Avalon and Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons. Frankie Valens faded from the music scene in the early 1970s in part due to a bitter dispute with his agent. He went back to work as an accountant, according to his Web site. But a decade or so ago he began performing again. His concerts are a combination of spiritual and secular songs performed with his wife, Phylis, as his partner.

Both Frankie and Phylis developed back problems from lugging around heavy musical equipment, so they “retired” from performing in 2008. They still perform if asked but don’t seek bookings. Sierra Scott, who produces “It’s All Good” for Kansas public television stations, is about to film a piece on Frankie and Phylis. Listening to links on the Web site (, it’s clear that, even in his late 60s, Frankie still has a set of well-tuned pipes. His wife, a concert pianist, accompanies him when they perform. They use prerecorded tracks for the rest of the instrumentation.

In a phone interview, Frankie recalled the years he lived in Junction City, where his academic career can be described as uneven. He missed so much of first grade due to illness that he was held back and repeated. By then his parents had moved to Kansas City, where his father was foreman of a lumberyard. Then, in eleventh grade, Bernard Piper returned his family to Junction City so he could attend a bible college in Manhattan. Frankie, as he was always called, attended the last two years at Junction City High School. But academic disaster struck. The principal had warned that passing the final exam was necessary to graduate, no matter how good one’s grades.

“Five seniors flunked (the exam), and I was one of them,” he said. The principal came to his house on Tenth Street to retrieve his cap and gown. Frankie repeated the 12th grade in Kansas City in order to graduate.

While here, he dated a girl whose mom worked at the Plaza Truck Stop on the east side of town, a business owned by his aunt and uncle. “I was pretty stuck up back then,” he admits, more interested in spending his money on records and clothes. “I became the best-dressed kid in high school.”

Valens attended college in New York City, studying accounting, which is where he was discovered and joined a New Jersey group called Eminent Domain. That launched his career, though he was never comfortable with much of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

“I never did drink, smoke or do drugs,” a philosophy that accounts for his work in recent years with anti-drug programs and churches, in his concerts and in the ministry he and Phylis operate.

The reason he e-mailed is that Frankie is working on an autobiography and hit a brick wall, trying to find out the first name of his great-grandmother. She died somewhere in this area in the early 1890s. I agreed to help and soon headed across the street to the Geary County Historical Society to enlist the help of the good folks there.

Frankie’s great-grandmother’s last name was Nickell. Her daughter married Charles F. Day in 1909. Day helped build the municipal pool here, according to Frankie. I found their wedding announcement in three different Junction City newspapers, including the one you’re now reading, back in the good old days when even small towns like this had three or four papers. Of course, the editors were starving to death, but at least there was plenty to read.

Hazel Nickell Day, Frankie’s grandmother, is buried in Highland Cemetery. She died in 1971 at age 80. But her mother’s name, and where she died, remains a mystery. It’s nearly certain she didn’t die here, because the crack volunteers helping me look in the basement of the historical society building have indexed obituaries from that time period, know all the places to look for the information. They spent a couple of hours helping, to no avail.

As it turns out, Frankie has kin still in town, including a cousin who works here at the paper. Another cousin lives in Wamego, about 40 miles east of here; his wife is editor of the weekly Smoke Signal there, of which I’m publisher as one of my other hats. They’re all intrigued by the story and interested in trying to solve the mystery of the first name of the mysterious Mrs. Nickell.

There are a few more rabbit trails to follow. I haven’t given up yet.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, October 2, 2010

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