Making a Scene Presents an Interview with a Pro
Michael Frank President of Earwig Music Company!
Earwig Music Company, Inc. was founded in October 1978 in Chicago by Michael Frank as a record label and artist management company. The label grew out of Michael’s love of the blues and his desire to help blues musicians further their careers. Michael took the leap from being a superfan to a label owner gradually, after meeting blues guitarists Honeyboy Edwards and Jim Brewer in the fall of 1972 at a blues club in Chicago. Michael started playing harmonica with Honeyboy in 1973, and helping him and Jim get gigs. Michael became the manager of both musicians, on a handshake agreement and continued in that capacity until the end of Honeyboy’s and Jim’s careers.
In the mid-1970s Michael also formed the Honeyboy Edwards Blues Band, which lasted through 1987, to get club and festival gigs. Michael and Honeyboy continued to tour worldwide until Honeyboy’s death in 2011 at the age of 96. During the 39 years of their relationship, Michael guided Honeyboy’s career, culminating in Honeyboy receiving numerous awards and honors, including the National Endowment For the Arts Heritage Fellowship Award, a Grammy Award for Traditional Blues Album, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Michael was also a co-author of Honeyboy’s oral history The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing, a classic of Blues literature. For his efforts, Michael was honored by the Blues Foundation with a Keeping The Blues Alive Award (KBA) in Artist Management.
After encouragement from Bob Koester, the owner of Delmark Records and the Jazz Record Mart, Michael started the Earwig Music label in 1978, by recording the Mississippi Delta trio of Frank Frost, Sam Carr and Big Jack Johnson, known as the Jelly Roll Kings. Their Earwig recording Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down has been acknowledged as the quintessential electric juke joint band album. The label was off to an auspicious start, as the album garnered lots of favorable reviews and revitalized the group’s career, by taking them on their first of many festival trips to Europe, the weekend of their Earwig LP release in 1979.
The label then went on to record those artists closest to home—Honeyboy Edwards and his contemporaries, on a classic Chicago blues album Old Friends, and Jim Brewer’s Tough Luck, a masterful study in acoustic Mississippi blues guitar. The label is known for its many outstanding historical recordings by noteworthy elder musicians from Chicago and Mississippi, such as the Jelly Roll Kings, Sunnyland Slim, Homesick James, Little Brother Montgomery, Honeyboy Edwards, Louisiana Red, Dennis Binder and others, and for bringing new talent to the international scene, including Johnny Drummer, Liz Mandeville, Rob Stone, Chris James and Patrick Rynn, Travis Haddix and others. Through it all, the label has focused on strong songwriting as a requirement to be released on Earwig.
The label’s mission was and is to make and release new and reissue recordings by African American blues and jazz musicians and artists working in the African American and folk musical traditions, to facilitate career opportunities for the musicians, while whenever possible recording material not previously recorded by the artists. Also part of Earwig Music’s mission is to introduce blues fans to a wider range of blues artists than they would otherwise hear, by taking them to clubs in the African American community and by producing special shows.
Over the years the label has broadened its ethnic and stylistic reach to include independent artists of any ethnicity who write and perform their own material rooted in African American and folk traditions. The label has also continued its mission to help bolster the careers of musicians and other types of artists, through assistance in production, promotion, marketing and distribution.
The label has released fifty-five blues albums, some of which are reissues of the artists’ self-produced and self-distributed albums. A few are productions by outside producers. Michael Frank, label CEO, produced the majority of Earwig releases, as well as other sessions not released. He also produced the last recordings of Louis Myers, Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, and Willie Johnson —fabled guitarist from the early Howlin’ Wolf Band.
The label has released nine albums by nationally renowned folk storytellers Jackie Torrence, Alice McGill, Bobby Norfolk and Laura Simms. These folktellers’ Earwig recordings won American Library Association, Parents’ Choice, and NAIRD Awards. Earwig also released two jazz albums by Pittsburgh’s Carl Arter (piano) and Tiny Irvin (female vocalist), and one traditional Southern Black gospel album by the Gospel Trumpets of North Carolina. In 2011 Earwig released its first world music album, On The World Beat, by Chicago area band Jutta & the Hi-Dukes.
Since the death of Honeyboy Edwards in August 2011, the label has focused on artist development, by releasing new albums by artists who have been performing for many years but are unknown to the general populace. The label also plans to issue some historically important archived recordings not previously available.