Born March 20, 1909, in Washington, Ga., Edwards left home at 14 after a disagreement with his father, bound for St. Augustine, Florida. He bought a guitar and began learning to play, receiving encouragement from guitarist Tampa Red. Later, Edwards took up harmonica, drawing inspiration from John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and others.
He traveled extensively in the 1930s by bus and train, often "hoboing" while learning his trade as a street musician. He moved to Atlanta in 1936, and ties with Mississippi bluesman Tommy McClennan led to his first recording session in 1941. He recorded again in 1949, but didn't cut a full-length release -- Done Some Travelin' on the Trix label -- until 1972. Edwards supported himself as a carpenter, painter and plumber. Aside from a two-year period when a house fire left him without a guitar, he always played music.
Fittingly, the last months of his life -- in fact, the last hours -- were spent playing the music that he loved. Just two hours before he died, Edwards completed a recording session in Hillsborough, N.C., near Durham, for the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation. He was returning home, riding with blues supporters Larry Garrett and Lamar Jones, when he suffered a heart attack in Greenville. He died in an ambulance en route to the hospital.
The session featured seven songs, including new original material. "He played the best I've ever heard him play," says Tim Duffy, Music Maker's founder. "He was blossoming. It was like ancient music from Africa."
Two days before his death, Edwards was honored locally at his annual Northside Tavern birthday bash. Organized by Danny "Mudcat" Dudeck, the party featured performances by Cora Mae Bryant, Eddie Tigner, Carlos Capote, Ross Pead, Donnie McCormick and others. Edwards played for roughly an hour, supported by guitarist Jim Ransone, bassist Dave Roth and drummer Evan Frayer.
"He was [playing] strong -- the strongest I've ever seen him," says Dudeck. "Ever since I've known him, he's just gotten better and better. But he was on fire that night."
Cora Mae Bryant, daughter of late Piedmont blues musician Curley Weaver, remembers Edwards performing with her father and uncle around Conyers and Covington in the 1940s and '50s. "We called him Mr. Cleanhead," Bryant recalls fondly, referring to Edwards' lack of hair. "We loved Mr. Frank's music. They would play barbecues and fish frys -- play at people's houses."
When not performing, Edwards was a regular at Blind Willie's, the Northside Tavern and other area venues.
"Frank was the last of the Atlanta street singers," says Eric King, owner of Blind Willie's and organizer of the Atlanta History Center series, which featured Edwards in February. "He's been as much a part of the scene as Blind Willie [McTell] or anyone else was 30 years previous to that. He was the godfather of blues in Atlanta."
Edwards was "like a father to me," says Beverly "Guitar" Watkins. "I could go up to him and tell him a little something that wasn't going [right] in my life, and he'd listen and give me some ideas."
Adds Dudeck: "He went out at the top of his game, with brand new songs, with fire, with a big party. He knew he was loved."
Sources report that Edwards' family needs assistance with funeral expenses. Look for benefit details in future issues. For more info on Edwards, visit www.mrfrankedwards.com.
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