Michael Franks has been cited as an idol by fellow troubadour Jason Mraz, whose wispy singing and sly wordplay owe a major debt to La Jolla native Franks.
Artists as varied as Jack Johnson, Macy Gray and John Mayer have also been influenced by Franks. He has released 20 albums of new music since 1973, plus 1998's "The Best of Michael Franks: A Backward Glance" and 1988's "Indispensable: The Best of Michael Franks."
His songs have been recorded by Diana Krall ("Popsicle Toes"), Lyle Lovett ("White Boy Lost in the Blues"), Ringo Starr ("Monkey See — Monkey Do"), Carmen McRae ("Underneath the Apple Tree"), and many more — and sampled by everyone from Faith Evans ("Never Say Die") and Ginuwine ("Mr. Blue") to Gym Class Heroes and Snoop Dogg ("St. Elmo's Fire" in both instances.)
More recently, the University High School graduate was surprised to hear one of his songs sampled when he belatedly watched a 2014 episode of the TV series "Fargo."
"It was some Swedish group, which had never asked for my permission or paid me," recalled Franks, who will return here this weekend to perform at downtown's San Diego Smooth Jazz Festival. "It has an almost disco-like groove and a little phrase of mine. It's my voice, but I didn't even recognize it!"
Were he to suddenly zoom back in time to 1970, Franks might have made a similar observation if anyone told him he'd soon begin a recording and performing career now nearing the half-century mark.
A self-taught musician, Franks got his start as a teen playing in the San Diego band Nassau Three. He then earned a bachelor's degree in English literature from UCLA and a master's in comparative literature from the University of Oregon.
Franks put plans to complete his doctorate on hold, after being hired to teach the UCLA Extension courses "The Apocalyptic Vision in Contemporary Song" and "The Electric Minstrels." His main source of income at the time, he wryly notes now, was working as a house painter.
But neither academia nor painting were to be his destiny, as Franks explained in a 1985 San Diego Union interview, saying: "At that point in time, there were very few jobs for PhDs; you could pull into any gas station and find a PhD pumping gas."
A bluesy debut
One of his UCLA students was an aspiring album producer. Faster than you could say "Eggplant" or "Popsicle Toes" — to cite the titles of two of Franks' best-known songs — he found himself working on an album with blues greats Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
"Before I graduated from University High in 1962, I used to sneak into a club near SDSU to see Sonny and Brownie perform whenever I could," Franks recalled. "So it was a real thrill to be in the studio working with them."
Make that a qualified thrill, since Terry and McGhee's contempt for one another was already the stuff of legend by the time Franks collaborated with them.
"They were so mean to each other! This (recording date) was way after their hatred had started," he recalled of harmonica master Terry, who was blind, and singer and guitarist McGhee, who walked with a pronounced limp after contracting polio as a child.
"Neither of them could drive. I had a little VW and would take them to the studio. And, if I could stay for the whole (recording) session, I'd take them back afterwards. They were staying in a horrible hotel in deepest, darkest Hollywood, and just the car rides alone were so phenomenal, because the stories they told were so amazing.
"They once made a record for a bottle of whiskey, and once for a tank of gas. They tried to buy gas, and were told: 'We don't sell "black" gas.'
"I wrote 'White Boy Lost in the Blues' for them, and they totally got right into the sentiment of it. When Lyle Lovett did it, well, it works either way."
Two 1974 film soundtracks by Franks followed, "Zandy's Bride" and "Cockfighter," along with a self-titled, gone-in-an-instant 1973 album for Brute Records that was re-released in 1983 as "Previously Unavailable."
"The Art of Tea," the first of Franks' 12 albums for Warner Bros., came out in 1976. It propelled him into the limelight, thanks to his appealing mix of sly, urbane lyrics, breathy vocals and sophisticated songwriting that deftly drew from jazz, pop, bossa-nova, funk and more.
His carefully honed lyrics placed Franks alongside Mose Allison and David Frishberg as a songwriter who deftly employed his wit with memorable results.
Consider "Popsicle Toes," which includes such map-bending double entendres as:
You've got the nicest North America / This sailor ever saw / I'd like to feel your warm Brazil / And touch your Panama / But your Tierra del Fuegos / Are nearly always froze / We gotta see-saw until we unthaw / Those popsicle toes.
"I don't think I met anybody in the weird non-category I was in," Franks recalled with a chuckle. "Warners had also just signed Al Jarreau and George Benson. They decided they'd start a totally new division for us — 'jazz and progressive music' — and we were the first three."
Franks also benefited greatly from the first-rate instrumental work of most of the members of The Crusaders, former San Diego drum ace John Guerin and the other top players featured on his Warner Bros. debut.
"I had no idea what I was doing, really; it was just totally natural," he said.
"Those tunes that ended up being on 'The Art of Tea' were, of course, tremendously improved by the playing of Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Larry Carlton, John Guerin, and the great players who did overdubs."
Soon, Franks was on the road with a band to promote "The Art of Tea." He found himself opening for artists he held in high esteem, even if it wasn't always the best musical fit.
From Dion to Mary Travers
"I opened up for Mary Travers, who was such a great person who I admired, but that audience was so wrong for my music. I opened up for Dion for a whole tour, and he was one of the nicest people I'd ever met," Franks said.
"I worked with Bonnie Raitt quite a bit and we had a great time. But it was weird, especially the college gigs, because her fans were kind of rowdy. So it was hard, but I loved Bonnie and we recorded together a little bit — she sang on 'Ladies Night' on my (1982) album 'Objects of Desire' — and we did some anti-nuclear events together and a couple of Karen Silkwood benefits."
Franks was a young man when he started his music career. Looking back, he expresses both gratitude for his longevity and a sense of loss for the collaborators who are no longer with us.
"I enjoy making music more than ever," he said. "But it's also hard at this point in time. So many of the people I've worked with — like Joe Sample — it's hard when they move on, because they are really irreplaceable."
As for being a co-headliner at this weekend's San Diego Smooth Jazz Festival — which returns downtown after a 12-year hiatus — Franks has mixed feelings.
"Well, I don't want to seem curmudgeonly, but I don't know if it really does apply to me," he said. "I don't think of the musicians I record with that way, although some of them have really nice careers in smooth jazz.
"My own personal taste is retro. I still enjoy all the masters — (Thelonious) Monk is so incredibly great — and all the usual suspects, like (John) Coltrane. I kind of go backwards in time, then in the present tense. I really liked Allan Holdsworth."
Now 72, Franks and his wife, Claudia, are longtime residents of Woodstock, N.Y. Although he only performs about 10 concerts a year, he has no intention of retiring and is now completing a new album, "The Music in My Head."
"I don't think I'd want to stop. The key to staying alive and vibrant is to continue doing what you do," Franks said.
"I had the good fortune to spend time with (jazz piano legend) Ahmad Jamal last year. He really took a shine to me — I don't know why — and we've corresponded and emailed. He's amazing and looks so vibrant, and he's 87!"
By coincidence, Franks gives a shout-out to Jamal on the song "Now That Summer's Here" on Franks' 2011 album, "Time Together." Meeting and befriending Jamal brings him full circle.
"In high school in San Diego, a friend's father played me Ahmad's 'But Not for Me,' and that was the start of my musical education," Franks said. "What I loved was the transparency of that record. It was easy to disappear into the landscape it created. Except for a Nat 'King' Cole Trio record my parents had, I don't think I ever heard a jazz trio before.
"My friend's father was from New Orleans and was a serious jazz lover. He played me (Jamal's) 'Poinciana' first, so I was hooked right away. A year or two later, Dave Brubeck's 'Time Out' was released. That was another 'St. Paul-falls-off-his-horse' moment for me."
San Diego Smooth Jazz Festival
When: 11:30 a.m. to 7:20 p.m. Saturday; 2 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
With: Brian Culbertson; Michael Franks; EPK: Euge Groove, Peter White, Keiko Matsui; Nick Colionne; The L.A. Collective (Saturday). Boney James; West Coast Jam, with Richard Elliot, Rick Braun & Norman Brown; Gerald Albright; Jonathan Butler; Eric Darius; Curtis Brooks (Sunday)
Where: Embarcadero Marina Park North, 400 Kettner Blvd., downtown (across from Seaport Village)
Tickets: $65 per day for general admission (reserved seats and VIP packages are sold out)
Phone: (562) 424-0013