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VOL. 42 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 2, 2018

Banker/singer Howard a hit in business, on stage

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The Valentines: James Moon, Frank Howard, Paul Easley and Charles Meyers at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2014.

-- Photo By Donn Jones Photography

Frank Howard sits in a chair while a woman he thinks is Vietnamese works on his feet.

I had tracked him down – and he is a dear friend, I should admit – to talk about his pending retirement from his 35 years of work for various banks around town. He began that career as a repo man and worked his way up to senior vice president at First American. He’s finishing up his stellar financial career at Pinnacle, where he’s an associate in the collections department.

“I got bunions she takes care of,” he says of the woman who is working with his feet on this Saturday night of the phone call.

“And I got corns that are about big enough for picking,” he says with the booming laughter that seems to accompany him wherever he goes.

Figures he’d better get them taken care of while he can, says this gentle soul who, by the way, insists he never had any confrontations with the folks he terms “my clients” during the repo-man days that got him in the door of the banking world all those years ago.

“I didn’t go out there with an attitude,” he says, noting that he tried to be respectful of the folks whose cars, houses, furniture, etc. he was taking back, because they hadn’t kept up their payments. “If someone came out and told me to get off their property, I didn’t argue about it. I just told them ‘We can do this now, or I can come back with a warrant.’

“I’d be going out on all of these narrow roads in parts of Tennessee where they’d never seen a black man before,” he points out. In addition to all the paperwork explaining the repos, he also carried with him a trunk filled with compassion that he distributed by helping people figure out how they could keep their stuff.

If people were attempting to catch up on their payments, he says, he’d give them plenty of breathing room. “The bank doesn’t make money from repossessing,” says this man who possesses uncommon understanding of the foibles of the human condition.

After all, he experienced hard times in his life, as well.

“I always had to work,” he recalls. “Daddy didn’t believe in anything but overalls and hobnail shoes.”

Frank wanted more and began his working life as a manager of a men’s shirt store. That and succeeding jobs enabled him to buy the fashionable clothes he so obviously relishes to this day.

His dad, by the way, worked himself up from janitor to loading dock foreman at at Genesco, Frank brags.

Frank sees what he does as helping people … those who want to be helped.

Some start off beyond the “getting help” stage: “If I know for certain that somebody is not going to pay us … I mean, how can you start off with the first payment late? The first payment,” he repeats, almost incredulously, as I spend a Tuesday afternoon with him in his tidy office.

“At all of the banks where I’ve worked, this is the best,” he says, looking around his Pinnacle office that’s decorated with an elf on a shelf (a leftover Christmas decoration) and a stuffed “Mister Peabody” (the genius dog /Nobel laureate/inventor on the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” TV show).

There’s even a wind-up, miniature, cymbal-banging monkey near the three large computer screens on which Frank is taking care of business.

“Pinnacle Bank is one-of a kind, a different place to work. Once you get in here, it’s hard to give it up,” he says.

Both his desk and credenza are covered with folders, reports on his clients, folks he truly is trying to help.

One of his drawers is opened, displaying hundreds of files filled with reports.

“I believe every client deserves my attention,” Frank says, noting that most of his day is spent on the telephone, helping folks resolve their cash-flow and bank-repayment issues, formulating plans.

“Did you see this sign?” he says, pointing to a piece of white paper tacked to the credenza bulletin board, before reading it aloud: “Ignorance can be educated, crazy can be medicated, but there is no cure for stupid.” He leans back in his chair and booms with laughter. “That’s true.”

Education – studying on his own time to better himself – helped him climb the corporate ladder.

Frank Howard may be looking toward retirement, but he’s not slowing down anytime soon.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

He grew out of the repo-man trade and worked his way up by doing his homework, reading and working charts, listening to his seniors, absorbing all he could about collections work in banks, like Pinnacle.

He doesn’t go out into the field for Pinnacle, but rather uses his gregarious phone faculties to “help the people” figure it out.

“I like what I do,” he acknowledges. “There has been times that people call me that’s angry, but you resolve it.

“I’ve had people say ‘thank you so much’ (for working with them to finalize a payment schedule). I like dealing with people, helping them.”

Sure, he spends a lot of his time sitting in a comfortable desk chair in tidy and modern Pinnacle Financial offices tucked inside a non-descript building you near-furtively enter from a parking lot in the Railroad Gulch. Attired in what’s called “smart casual” – a soft pull-over sweater and neatly pressed trousers – he also wears a Bluetooth phone receiver as if it’s just part of his wardrobe.

“Days are long gone when we dressed up for work,” he says, reflecting back on his decades as a banker and bank executive and his fashion-consciousness. “The whole world’s gone casual now.”

I bring up the conversation we’d had Saturday night while the woman (“I think she’s Vietnamese,” he says, adding he doesn’t know her name), was working his bunions so his feet would stop hurting. Yes, he is an office guy who sits most of the day talking with clients on the phone. How is that work slowed by bunions?

It’s the other part of his life that has him on his feet.

For example, the morning after we spoke during his foot treatment, he dressed up and went to church. That always means a lot of time on his feet as a part of the gospel choir and male chorus at Patterson Memorial United Methodist Church at 316 Whitsett Road in Flat Rock – another of Nashville’s historic, now-gentrifying, neighborhoods – just off Nolensville Road.

Frank Howard and The Commanders, Frank Howard’s group, is seen on the cover of Night Train to Nashville. Howard is in front.

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“Pastor John Corry, Pastor Kennard Murray, Pastor Tamira Lewis and Pastor Robert Jordan, their ministry has kept my spiritual life on point because of their teachings,” says this man who loves to sing about God, Jesus and salvation. (FYI, he had difficulty remembering the reverends’ first names: “I always just called them ‘Pastor,’” Franks says, with a self-deprecating laugh.)

And then there are the days and nights he has been spending on his feet as a performer, one of Nashville’s best-known rhythm & blues singers, a notoriety spread by the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, which used Frank’s memories and memorabilia – not to mention his incredibly versatile baritone – in the ground-breaking “Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970” exhibit a decade-and-a-half ago.

That exhibit paid homage to what could be called “music from the other side of the tracks” – mostly on Jefferson Street in Nashville – where Frank and Charlie Fite and Herschel Carter performed as Frank Howard & The Commanders.

That group not only lit up the Club Stealaway, the Del Morocco and other Jefferson Street hot spots and dance clubs, it also – often in package shows with their comrades – filled up barrooms, showrooms and saloons, the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit,” all over the South “back in the day” (as Frank says).

Heck, they even were a harmonic fixture on “Night Train” and “The!!!! Beat” R&B variety shows taped in Nashville and Dallas, respectively.

If you look at the ancient videos, you’ll see on one of them a gentle guitarist named Jimi Hendrix – a washout Fort Campbell paratrooper who became experienced by working with the various bands or with his pal, Billy Cox, the bassist with whom he shared an apartment above a beauty school on Jefferson.

That building as well as blocks of clubs and neighborhood houses succumbed to progress when Interstate 40 dealt a near-death blow to the R&B scene.

Recording Artists Frank Howard and Jimmy Church during Music City Roots: Night Train To Nashville 10th Anniversary in 2015 at Liberty Hall at The Factory in Franklin.

-- Photo By Rick Diamond/Getty Images For The Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum

That Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit mentioned earlier included Grammy-winning CDs, archival compilations of the music of Jefferson Street that included “Just Like Him,” a chart hit for Frank, Charlie and Herschel as well as music from Bobby “Sunny” Hebb (who also became my beloved friend), Johnny Jones, Earl Gaines, Roscoe Shelton, The Jimmy Church Band, Marion James, so many more.

That exhibit – Frank’s image was the model for the logo, and a performance shot of him appeared on the first of the two volumes of CDs lovingly curated by Hall of Fame staff members and R&B enthusiasts Michael Gray and Dan Cooper – revitalized interest in our city’s R&B scene.

It also lured from the shadows the performers, many of whom had parked their soulful music a quarter-century before for “straight jobs” at car lots, barber shops, liquor stores and, as I’ve noted, banks.

Heck, the last time I saw Johnny Jones, who ranks as one America’s greatest – and, unfortunately overlooked – guitarists, he was working in a quick-shop down near the location of the old Club Baron.

It wasn’t too long after that his body was found by an exterminator ridding the apartments of roaches, termites and their lovely cousins.

Dying alone is sad for anyone, but Johnny’s case was a heartbreaker, as he took his tremendous talent and exuberant showmanship with him. A guy who out-played Hendrix in a legendary guitar duel and from whom the future rock superstar learned many tricks and licks, Johnny did take his own shot at national stardom before coming home to virtual anonymity.

Frank, Charlie and Herschel – The Commanders – found day jobs, pretty much burying memories of neon-lit glory on black Nashville’s “downtown” avenue: Jefferson Street.

Charlie Fite, left, Frank Howard  and Herschel Carter comprise Frank Howard & The Commanders, seen here at Club Stealaway in the mid-1960s.

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Because of the Hall of Fame exhibit, Frank Howard & The Commanders reunited onstage, their voices perhaps deeper than back in the 1960s, but Herschel still could do the flying splits – Frank and Charlie declined – that the group used to do in unison when they were young and lithe.

Charlie died a couple years ago – “It was like losing my brother. Me and Charlie were best friends all our lives,” Frank recounts.

And for a time, Herschel was having personal difficulties, which minimized The Commanders’ participation in the R&B rebirth.

But Frank’s lead and baritone voice was called into duty by The Valentines – James Moon, Charles Myers and Paul Easley – another veteran R&B group that lost one of its leaders due to age.

FYI, a now-healthy and born again Herschel is trying out for a spot in that group.

“They – and our fans – are the reason I continue to sing,” Frank says, his love for the other Valentines lighting his eyes. (Easley has retired from performing, although he does climb onto a stool and join his old band-mates on special occasions.)

They don’t tour like they did back in the day, and they limit themselves to “a couple of gigs a month,” but joy decorates Frank’s face on-stage when he rocks in unison, Temptations style, with the rest of the group, dressed in matching costumes. “We have eight or 10 sets” of variously colored and cut “uniforms” (as Frank calls them.)

It’s been a long day – they all are – for this banker who began his career in finance as a repo man and worked his way up to bank senior vice president. There is a company meeting scheduled for that evening.

“They are going to be talking about bonuses,” he offers.

The banking career is coming to an end, as “senior citizen” Frank has “decided it’s time to retire.” He just doesn’t know quite when yet.

By the way, while he doesn’t want to disclose his advanced age, he still maneuvers, mentally and physically, like a much younger man.

“I’m think it’s time,” acknowledges Frank, when asked why he made the decision to leave his beloved banking career.

He does a roll-call of folks who helped him in his finance-biz success. “This interview with you would not be complete without mentioning the people who were my mentors and helped me in my banking career.”

He lists Commerce Union’s Billy Stephens and Pat Harrison, “who gave me my start in banking and were great mentors to me.”

First American’s Hugh Queener was generous with the time he gave to help the young bank associate: “He taught me how to develop meaningful reports.”

“Pinnacles’ Terry Turner and Rob McCabe were mentors, and they gave me a job back into the banking industry in 2010.

“And I can’t forget Pinnacle’s David Copeland, who respects my knowledge of collections and recovery and lets me do my thing: ‘Thanks David.’

“I thank all these men for giving me a shot. Good people helped me learn the banking industry,” he explains.

There was a gap in his banking career. From 2003-2005, Frank managed two “tote-the-note lots for big-time Middle Tennessee car dealer R.C. Alexander, “who taught me about the used-car business.”

“I returned the favor by substantially lowering his past-due delinquency on accounts,” Frank says. “I brought my expertise on collecting on the loans to the car business. It was give-and-take.”

Then, before Turner and McCabe talked him into getting back into banking, he worked in a title-loan business.

“All these people were instrumental in the success I’ve had,” he says.

Banking days are numbered, “but I’m going to keep singing until I can’t any more. If The Valentines ever break up, I’ll go out and do it as a solo.

“I’ll never stop singing. I’ve always loved to be out there in front of an audience, making them happy.”

But singing’s not all he’s going to do in retirement: “I’m not the kind to just sit and die. I’m starting up a little company of my own.”

Yep. He’s going to return to his roots as a tenderhearted repo man.

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