'He just made you feel like he was completely there': An appreciation of guitarist Billy Franze

A man plays a guitar.
Billy Franze blazed through another Dr. Mambo's Combo gig at Bunkers in Minneapolis in 2017.
Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune 2017

Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard once said that listening to Jimi Hendrix play guitar made “my big toe shoot up in my boot.”

Billy Franze’s playing had that effect on me. And the notes he scratched out on his guitar appeared to have the same effect on him. When he really started to ratchet up the intensity of a guitar solo, Franze’s “guitar face” contorted into the visage of someone receiving a root canal without anesthesia — and loving every minute of it.

Franze was not only a talented musician, said bassist Jim Anton, but a top level performer.

“He just made you feel like he was completely there — 100 percent in his body,” said Anton.  “He was consumed by the music.”

Franze died in April at the age of 72.

Anton frequently filled in on bass whenever regular Dr. Mambo’s Combo bassist Doug Nelson was unavailable. Anton first met Franze in 1986 after moving from Boston and developed a friendship with him.

“I remember auditioning for the Doug Maynard Band and Doug Nelson was in the audience and Billy Franze was in the audience,” said Anton. “There were two other really well-established, super potent bass players auditioning for the gig. And Billy and Doug both told Doug Maynard to hire me.”

Anton’s relationship with Nelson, who died in 2000, and Franze also helped him get his pre-pandemic steady gig, touring with Jonny Lang.

Longtime Combo drummer Michael Bland was a teenage prodigy when he first met Franze. Even though he was too young to be playing in the bar, Bland was invited to sit in with a band playing at Whiskey Junction. Franze was filling in for the band’s regular guitar player. After he set up his gear on stage, Franze grabbed a beer.

Two men smiling in a photo.
Michael Bland (left) and Billy Franze.
Courtesy of Michael Bland.

“And so he goes to the bar and has a Heineken and he’s sitting there,” said Bland. “And I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, this 16-year-old kid. I go up and started talking to Billy. And Billy looked at me like ‘I’m not in a mood to talk to anybody!’ ”

Bland said Franze was going through a rough personal patch at the time. But Bland soon discovered that Franze was easy to get along with. Through the years, the two developed a close relationship. Franze’s son Christian Michael Franze is named for Bland.

It appears that no one had a bad thing to say about Franze. That includes Bland’s former boss and bandleader, Prince, “who had a strong opinion about anybody and everybody — I never heard him say one cross word to Billy — to him or about him,” said Bland.

Prince was very familiar with Franze’s guitar playing and his personality. Bland said he liked to watch him play when Franze was a member of Mavis Staples’ band who toured with Prince in 1990.

Prince was known to be hard on musicians who slipped up. But not Franze.

“Even in rehearsal, if Billy was messing up, Prince would never jump all over him,” said Bland. “He’d just say, ‘oh, you’re in Billy world now? I see.’ ”

Before the pandemic, Franze decided to retire so he could spend more time with his loved ones. But the isolation of the pandemic drove Franze to want to play again.

Now, Bland is just coming to terms with what it’s going to be like with the band going on without Franze. Especially going back to the downtown Minneapolis nightclub Bunkers where the band has held regular weekly gigs for more than three decades.

“It kind of hit me a few days ago,” said Bland. “ He’s never going to mark that spot on the stage again.”

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