Tillman B. Franks, a figure of near-legendary status in the world of country and popular music locally, nationally and beyond, died Thursday at the Grace Home hospice in Shreveport after a lengthy illness. He was 86.
"Tillman really created the artist management business," said Ken Shepherd, Shreveport music management consultant and father/manager of blues guitar wunderkind Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "He set the standard in the early days for what would later become the way we all do business, protecting artists and developing their careers. In my opinion, he was a creative genius in the way he marketed his artists and in the way he cared about them."
Franks, 86, was a World War II Army Air Forces veteran who served on Saipan, and was a debut performer at the original Louisiana Hayride. He managed the careers of many of the show's alumni, including Johnny Horton, Claude King and Jimmy C. Newman. He played standup bass for the Bailes Brothers on the famed radio program's first broadcast on April 3, 1948.
An Arkansas native who moved to Shreveport at age 2, he grew up in Cedar Grove, attended Byrd High School and learned to play guitar at age 14, inspired by his father and listening to the Grand Ole Opry.
He formed his first band at Byrd, called it the "Rainbow Boys" and performed such standards as "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Wabash Cannonball" and "Walkin' the Floor Over You" at square dances, hootenannies and, he told the Shreveport Journal in 1976, "any place we'd find someone to listen to us."
Franks was a passenger with Johnny Horton in the 1960 crash in which the singer was killed. Franks was badly injured in that accident, and bore a scar on his forehead from that wreck the rest of his life.
Legendary guitarist James Burton, a member of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and former sideman to Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Emmylou Harris, John Denver and Jerry Lee Lewis, knew Franks as far back as the 1950s when both were part of the Louisiana Hayride. He said he lost not only a mentor in business but also a valued and dear family friend.
Broadcaster Tom Pace, who interviewed Franks in April 2005 in what may have been one of the last interviews the manager gave, said country music "has lost a legend. He was kind, he was gentle and his house was filled with his records, vinyl, CDs and pictures."
Pace said Franks was instrumental in developing Elvis Presley's early career, before Col. Tom Parker came in and took over, and that Franks never really got credit for that.
"Early on, Elvis was looking for gigs and Tillman helped with that," Pace said. "But Tillman wasn't always viewed as the star-maker for Elvis that many others were noted to be. That was his biggest frustration."
Pace said Franks' greatest relationship was his association with Johnny Horton, crafting such hits as "North to Alaska" and "Honky Tonk Man," especially when the latter tune became a revival hit in 1990.
"He was thrilled when Dwight Yoakam covered that," Pace recalled. "He said 'Well, there it is, the register is going to ching,' and it became another big hit "" again.
Family members said he was known for his ability to spot, encourage and develop talent in players.
"He would find talented performers and encourage them in ways that other promoters could not," his children penned in a tribute. "He devoted countless hours to helping performers perfect their talents and find just the right song to match their abilities."
Sometimes he would create that music and pass it on. Among the classic tunes he wrote or co-wrote are "Honky Tonk Man," "North to Alaska," "Springtime in Alaska" and "How Far is Heaven."
He was a charter member of the Country Music Association, a member of the Louisiana Hall of Fame, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, is in the Byrd High School Hall of Fame and was invited to perform at the Smithsonian Institution.
Franks is survived by his wife, Virginia. Other survivors include two daughters, two sons, two brothers, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
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