NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Frankie Ford, a rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues singer whose 1959 hit "Sea Cruise" brought him international fame when he was 19, is dead at the age of 76.
Ford died Monday of natural causes, according to the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, coroner's office.
"He was a great guy. He had the best voice in rock and roll," said Mike Shepherd, a friend of Ford's and head of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, which inducted Ford in 2010.
In addition to "Sea Cruise," Billboard magazine's No. 14 overall and No. 11 in rhythm and blues in 1959, Ford's hits included "Roberta," ''Time after Time" and "You Talk Too Much." His version of "You Talk Too Much" aired while Joe Jones' recordings of the song were tied up in court. Jones' recording eventually reached No. 3, while none of Ford's after "Sea Cruise" made it higher than 72, the mark set by "Seventeen" in 1961.
Shepherd said Ford had been ill for some time, and had been unable to walk since he was hit by a car in Memphis several years ago.
Ford had sung since childhood. His adopted parents, Vincent and Anna Guzzo of Gretna, brought him to New York when he was five to perform on the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour." His stage name was suggested, in a nod to hot rods, by Ace Records owner Johnny Vincent, according to his biography on the hall of fame website.
Shepherd said Ford was called to Cosimo Matassa's New Orleans studio in the late 1950s to cover songs by local black musicians whose records got limited airtime because of racial discrimination. Lenny Capello and Jimmy Clanton, both from Baton Rouge, were brought in at the same time, he said.
"All the music was coming from New Orleans, yet people like Pat Boone were covering people like Little Richard and Fats Domino and getting hits. It was a black-white thing," Shepherd said.
He said all three were auditioned in one day. "The producers understood the point: This is our music, this is Louisiana's music, yet we're letting them take it out of here and making a fortune with — I've got to say it — white guys," Shepherd said.
A different producer took each singer, he said. Capello had a hit with "Cotton Candy," which he previously had recorded with his own band, but this time backed with New Orleans professionals, according to his biography on the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame website. Clanton became a teen idol with "Just a Dream," ''Go Jimmy Go" and, in 1962, "Venus in Blue Jeans."
Ford's last performance was at the 2013 Gretna Heritage Festival.
Shepherd said he last saw Ford a couple of months ago when he visited to get items for the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame museum.
He said Ford, no longer able to walk, told him, "Son, you go up and take whatever you want, because I'm never wearing any of it again."
His choices included a sequined jacket — dark red except for a piano keyboard in cream and black sequins.
He said Ford "put one hand on the sleeve of the jacket ... and he said, 'My mama made this for me.'"