Listen at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, for an hourlong special dedicated to Delta Frank, our legendary blues host. Listen on 89.1 FM or stream at WGLT.org.
WGLT Hall of Famer and longtime blues host Gilbert Frank Black died Sunday of COVID-19-related complications. He was 79. Black served as a blues music host from 1985 until he retired in 2013.
To many, Black was known as “Delta Frank, the Blues Doctor.”
The nickname stuck because of Black’s knowledge and deep love of blues music, his infectious enthusiasm both on and off air, and his passionate, down home southern-style showmanship.
Frank was a tireless ambassador for the blues in central Illinois -- and had a visceral connection to his listeners. When the spirit moved him, which was often, Frank would turn on his microphone in the middle of a song and sing or hum along to that song. He might even talk back to the song -- or tell it to "get along" as if he were riding the song like a horse.
Listeners loved his emotional and at times irreverent personality. They would call him to request songs, to swap stories, or to pour their heart out to him. At area events -- especially blues festivals -- he was a rock star. His voice was instantly recognized, and every listener felt they knew him.
Bloomington’s Deb Mehlberg and her harmonica-wielding husband Steve have been an integral part of the Bloomington-Normal blues scene since the early 1990s. She was both a festival promoter and board member of the Blues Blowtorch Society.
“He draws you in because he’s so personable and he’s honest,” said Mehlberg. “And you believe everything he says because you know he’s lived it, he’s been there, he’s done that.”
Black’s tenure at WGLT began in 1985. The story goes, his sister-in-law Jan Turner encouraged him to approach WGLT after hearing Frank play blues records, every weekend, all night long at family gatherings. Then WGLT Program Director Tim Emmons gave him a chance. He hired Frank to host a new show called the “Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.” It was a series of one-hour recorded shows featuring Frank’s immense 45 rpm collection.
“I literally remember giving my younger daughter a bath a couple months after we got to town,” said retired WGLT General Manager Bruce Bergethon. “And I was listening to that show and thinking, ‘This guy is something.’”
He said the most intuitive programming decision he ever made was in 1989, when he convinced Frank to take his recorded show “live” on the air.
“All the passion and enthusiasm that went into collecting and the knowledge that he had came together,” said Bergethon. “I think when we fund-raised that show back in April of 1989, we were just astonished at how many people gave money and positive feedback. I mean, in public radio when you raise money on a show, that means something is happening.”
It was those live shows in the late 1980s and early 90s where Black’s personality really broke through and the legend began. That personality also helped ignite a vibrant central Illinois blues scene. He introduced listeners to new music names like Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo, various styles of blues, and obscure blues record labels like Vee Jay, Modern, and Excello.
Black was the membership director of the Bloomington-based Blues Blowtorch Society and a must-have emcee for any blues concert or festival.
And he introduced central Illinois to a blues vernacular. He didn’t invent this phrase “have mercy” or the admonishment “if you don’t like the blues, you’ve got a hole in your soul,” but he made them his own. Those and other phrases became ubiquitous among central Illinois blues fans and on his radio show.
And he truly believed what he was saying. Frank loved blues music. And he wanted YOU to love blues music. He called himself “the blues doctor,” but he was as much a preacher as he was a doctor. If you didn’t like the blues or were unsure about making a commitment, he would figuratively reach through the radio, grab your lapel and demand that you LOVE blues music as much as he did.
Frank’s life was difficult at times. Though he claimed Lickskillit, Alabama, as his hometown, he mostly grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Huntsville, Alabama. He occasionally talked about the time he and his sister lived temporarily in foster care. He also talked about living out of his car while working road construction after he moved to Decatur, Illinois, in the 1970s. He admitted to doing what he called "bad things" with other nasty people at that time.
He said his life turned around when he met his beloved wife Marilyn, who he called "a saint" until the day he died. The two married in 1975 after meeting at a Parents Without Partners meeting in Decatur 10 months prior.
Marilyn said he made an immediate impression on her.
“I was fascinated with the voice,” said Marilyn in a 2014 interview. “And he was a little sick (at the time) so it was a little hoarse, but it was still that deep and raspy and that southern stuff.”
Frank was equally smitten.
“She was a knockout and still is today,” Frank laughed in that same conversation.
Despite his history pre-Marilyn, his stories -- and to be fair, some of them became "tall" over the years -- tended to celebrate his love of the south. He told people how much he loved frog giggin’, often recalling the time he and a friend went out for frogs but his friend stuck himself in the foot with the sharp lines.
He also loved talking about southern food, including cornbread, collard greens and grits. He frequently admonished northerners for having basements, because nobody in the south had basements and thus no water problems to deal with.
He talked about living in the same general vicinity as Dolly Parton’s family, matter of fact he said his father sold Christmas trees around the holidays …
“And one of his customers was Dolly Parton's Uncle,” said Black in the 2014 interview.
He also loved regaling people about the first time he heard the blues. A 2004 WGLT promotional announcement has Frank’s light bulb moment of hearing Lightnin’ Slim Hicks' “Just Made 21” on the radio and heading to downtown Knoxville on the KTL the next morning to buy the record.
Later Frank remembered helping a bookstore owner clean up and was rewarded with a ton of old records the owner didn’t want. Yes, they were blues records. And yes, that was the beginning of what became a jaw-dropping library of rare 45 rpm records, most rated excellent to mint condition. He sold those records to collectors around the world, but mostly enjoyed playing them at family gatherings. Marilyn said he would play them all night, and for whoever would stop in to visit him and Marilyn at their home in Clinton.
In the early days, those blues 45s were mostly what he would play on WGLT. Bergethon remembers Frank would lug two suitcases bursting with 45s to the station every weekend to play them on the radio. And even in the later days when he was mostly playing CDs, Frank would occasionally slip in one of his 45s, and make the announcement, "Folks you ain't gonna hear that anywhere else but right here because this comes from my personal record collection."
That blues library is now gone. He sold it a couple years ago to a collector from somewhere out west. And now Frank is gone. The mouth of the south roars no more. No more will you hear the man who claimed Lickskillit, Alabama as his hometown.
By the way, you know there is no Lickskillit, Alabama, right? For the lucky few, he would give you a wink and an embarrassed smile, then uncharacteristically lower his voice to say, “You know … there is no Lickskillit. It’s … just a “thing.”
Frank’s came out of retirement for a final hurrah. He agreed to play his 50 favorite blues songs of all time during WGLTs 50th anniversary celebration in May 2016. And for four hours, he once again whopped and hollered and played blues music like he did in the old days. And the listeners … oh man … they reacted. Every phone caller seemed stunned and thrilled to hear him once again. There were some tears, story-swapping, and lots of love from both Frank and his listeners.
One of the final calls that day came from Tammy Simpson, who read a short poem as a thanks for all the years he comforted her playing blues records and telling her that blues will cure her ills.
Hey Frank, you are a really good doctor
You got me through a lot
At times that I would be down and out
And then when I knew
That I was going to hear your good old blues caring voice
I was good to go
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
You know that saying “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore?”
RIP “Delta” Frank Black, the Blues Doctor.
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