Frankie May is a lot of things to a lot of people.
Crystal Bowersox calls him "my right-hand man, but he stands on my left."
As a bass player, he's a living, breathing metronome and perpetual keeper of time. To the cadre of talented young Toledo musicians he plays with, he's a mentor and behind-the-scenes leader. To the general public, or at least the ones who discovered him with Bowersox on American Idol a couple of years ago, he's that muscular bald dude who always plays with her.
But talk to May if you're not a close friend, or just observe him at a gig, and he reveals very little. He's friendly and polite, but there's a quiet intensity and privacy that bubbles under the surface. If he has a goofy side, he doesn't show it in public.
"He's got a lot going on upstairs," said Ben Barefoot, a Toledo singer/songwriter who plays with May regularly. "We're really good friends. He's been there a lot for me and I've been there for him when things haven't been easy. I call him at 2 o'clock in the morning just to talk and he lets me do that."
"Frankie's a freak of nature and I mean that in the best possible way," Bowersox said. "He's stoic. You know I've known Frankie for a long time and he's always been kind of a shy guy, a gentleman, always polite."
At the Village Idiot in Maumee on a recent Monday night, May, Barefoot, and a couple of other local musicians, Evan Bates and Nate Woodward, milled around as they prepared to play in a weekly jam session organized by the bass player.
The Monday night gigs at the Idiot were a staple for Bowersox before Idol propelled her onto the national stage. The bar is friendly and mellow, with about 20 people hanging out, drinking, and laughing.
The music for the first set on this night was shambling but fun, a mix of oddball Dylan covers -- the wordy, epic "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" and a howling blues version of the obscure "Meet Me in the Morning" -- and other songs. It's a long way from the festival stages or the revered Ryman Auditorium in Nashville where May played with Bowersox last year, but it's still rock and roll.
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When he plays he's as grounded as the music he pounds out of his big Peavey six-string bass. Occasionally he takes off on melodic flights and it's as if Stanley Clarke suddenly joined a rock/folk band. Anyone who has watched him play with Bowersox -- check them out on Youtube playing "Barbed Wire Halo" -- knows that May is capable of taking fairly straight-forward songs into a more rarefied atmosphere without ever losing track of where he's going.
At a table in the Idiot, Jeremy Lindsay, of the Chicago band JT and the Clouds, watched with Larry Meyer, a Toledo attorney and drummer for Old State Line, and Allison Russell of the Canadian folk band Po' Girl. Lindsay's a veteran musician who played in Toledo with The Rivermen back in the '90s, and when he found out who the bass player was, he pointed out another of Frankie May's identities:
"Oh, that's Bobby's kid?"
Frankie May grew up in East Toledo, the son of long-time Toledo musician Bobby May and Terri Oke. The couple are divorced now, but when Frankie was a little boy they took him to shows that their band, Georgia Peaches, was playing.
"Sometimes if they couldn't find a sitter I'd wind up at the gig and they'd hand me a bunch of quarters to play video games. I have vivid memories of playing Centipede at O'Malley's," Frankie May said as he sipped a cup of hot tea in a downtown restaurant the day after the Village Idiot jam.
He listened to them practice at home in the basement, playing classic rock and top 40 songs, but his interests as he grew older leaned more toward computer programming and network administration. When he was about 18, though, he heard someone playing bass -- "a real modern sound... real bright with that slapping tone" -- and he started pestering his dad to help him buy one.
"It was more of a felt thing at concerts. You can feel [the bass] almost more than you can hear it. I really enjoyed that and started to listen to bass lines in recordings that I never heard before. And besides," he said, laughing, "my dad needed a bass player."
'Play for the song'
May, 30, learned music theory with the help of instructional books his father gave him and took a few lessons in stand-up bass from a local player. But mostly he just watched and played. He said local musician Junior Springs, who played with Josh Boyd's band, was an important influence. So were Jaco Pastorius, whose work with Joni Mitchell would provide a template for May and Bowersox, Victor Wooten, John Entwistle, and the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh.
Over time he developed a versatile style that allows him to fit in with folky singer/songwriters like Bowersox or Barefoot, guitar shredders like Toledo's Chris Shutters, with whom May frequently plays, or big, noisy rock bands.
"I try to adapt to what the situation calls for. If I play with a songwriter who's not a soloist, I'll be more of an accompanist rather than lay back," he said. "My dad always said to play for the song, not yourself."
When he was 18, May met a 14-year-old kid at Papa's Tavern in East Toledo who was already writing songs. Her parents were friends with his parents and she was the perfect ally for learning music together.
So he and Crystal Bowersox got to work.
At the time she was into what May described as "'90s chick rock" but they found common ground. "We kind of learned together. That's when I started learning how to do what I do with her and she was honing her skills," he said.
Over the years they developed a rapport where May uses the bass as almost a lead guitar while Bowersox handles rhythm and, of course, sings. The partnership allows both of them to stretch out as musicians.
"He makes up for what I lack in every possible way," Bowersox said in a phone interview from her home in Portland, Ore. "He plays his six-string bass like a guitar, but he does it tastefully.
"I've told him before that I think my music is so simple that it limits his talent and he always come back and says, 'Man, I love playing with you because your songs let me do what I do.'"
For his part, May said Bowersox leaves room in her songs where he can express himself.
"We work off of each other, for sure. I haven't been able to be as free with anybody else as I am with her. There's a trust about the rhythm and it's easy for me to go off on some weird syncopated things."
Staying in the groove
Bowersox and Barefoot both said that much like his father has done for a couple of generations of musicians, Frankie May is willing to serve as a mentor for younger players in Toledo.
"I think he fills that role for a lot of people, even Crystal. I think he does it for people he really respects. He gives people really good criticism," Barefoot said. "Bobby's kind of done the same thing, too. They have that personality that really kind of pushes you along and helps you get better. It's really cool."
"Mentor's a good word for it," Bowersox said. "He's turned me on to so many things, bands I never would've heard of, bands I never understood that he's explained to me, polyrhythms and that kind of thing."
May tours with Bowersox and is a core part of her band. He continues to play around Toledo with various people, including Barefoot and Shutters, and will head out in the summer to tour with Bowersox.
He recently flew to Seattle for a show with her that included Kenny Aronoff playing drums. Aronoff's a highly sought session drummer best known for his years in John Mellencamp's band and he most recently has worked with John Fogerty, Brad Paisley, and Miranda Lambert, among others.
Because she is most likely May's biggest fan, Bowersox contacted Aronoff and asked him what he thought of May's playing, which provides the last word on her long-time friend:
"Frankie May played bass and he was fantastic," Aronoff wrote. "He played in the groove, good feel, super tasty, and glued the band together the way a great bass player does. Kid's got it all."
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.