“Frankie and Johnny” based on an actual murder

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The traditional American popular song, “Frankie and Johnny,” tells of a woman named Frankie who finds that her man, Johnny, was making love to another woman and she shoots him dead.

The song is based on an actual murder case that took place in St. Louis, Mo., in the wee hours of the morning of Oct. 15, 1899. A 22-year-old woman, Frankie Baker, shot her 17-year-old lover, Allen Britt, in the abdomen. He had just returned from a cakewalk at a local dance hall, where he and another woman, Nelly Bly, had won a prize in a slow-dancing contest.

Britt died four days later. When Baker was put on trial, she claimed that Britt had attacked her with a knife and that she acted in self-defense. She was acquitted and lived to be 75, dying in a Portland, Ore., mental institution in 1952.

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The popular St. Louis balladeer Bill Dooley composed “Frankie Killed Allen” shortly after the Baker murder case. The first published version of the music under the title, “Frankie and Johnny,” appeared in 1904. It was credited to, and copyrighted by, Hughie Cannon, the composer of the popular “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.”

Another version of the melody, with words and music credited to Frank and Bert Leighton, appeared in 1908 under the title, “Bill, You Done Me Wrong.” It was republished in 1912 as “Frankie and Johnny” and identified Nellie Bly as the new girl with whom Johnny was dancing.

Over 250 different recordings of the ballad have been made since the early 20th century by stalwart singers like Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Elvis Pressley, Burl Ives, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Stevie Wonder.

As a jazz standard it has been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

The story has been the inspiration for several films and a puppet play. Mae West inserted the ballad into her successful Broadway play, “Diamond Lil,” and she sang it again in her 1933 Paramount film, “She Done Him Wrong.”

A dazzling musical number from the 1956 MGM film, “Meet Me In St. Louis,” featured Cyd Charisse and dancer John Brascia acting out the roles of Frankie and Johnny while Sammy Davis, Jr. sang the song.

It became a favorite ballad in the Dark Corner soon after the 1912 version was introduced.

Frankie and Johnny

Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts,
Oh lordy, how they did love;
They swore to be true to each other,
As true as the stars above,
He was her man, but he done her wrong.
Frankie went down to the corner
Just for a bucket of beer
She said, “Mister bartender,
Has my loving Johnny been here
He is my man, but he’s done me wrong.”
“I ain’t gonna tell you no stories,
I ain’t gonna tell you no lies,
I saw your man about an hour ago
With a girl named Nellie Bly,
He is your man, but he’s done you wrong.”
Frankie went down to the hotel
And found to her great surprise;
There sat her loving Johnny
Making love to Nellie Bly,
He was her man, but he done her wrong.
Frankie threw back her kimono
Pulled out her little forty-four
Root-a-to-toot, three times she shot
Right through that hardwood door,
She shot her man, he was doing her wrong.
Frankie then said to the jury
“What are you gonna do?”
The judge then said to Frankie,
“It’s the ‘lectric chair for you,
He was your man, tho’ he done you wrong.”
This story has no moral,
This story has no end,
This story only goes to show
That there ain’t no good in men,
He was her man, but he done her wrong.