Rest in Peace: Royce Franklin, Texas Guitar Legend
Yesterday, the fiddle world said goodbye to a legend in the Texas fiddle scene, but more poignantly, the world lost a giant of a man. Every fiddler knows that, no matter how good you are with the fiddle, you aren’t complete without a powerful rhythm section, and every Texas fiddler knows that you don’t have a powerful rhythm section without a ‘Franklin or two’ backing you up. That’s where Royce Franklin came in. Melvin Royce Franklin, the son of legendary fiddle player Major Franklin, was a powerhouse on rhythm guitar who came by his musical ability honestly. Royce passed peacefully in his sleep Monday, November 14, 2016. Joey McKenzie, a World Champion Fiddler, renowned archtop rhythm guitar slinger, and member of The Western Flyers, gave the following eulogy about his friend, mentor, and hero:
I am honored to say a few words today about our friend Royce Franklin—but Royce is a man who can’t be summed up with only words.
When we talk about great people—the kind of people who really make a difference to folks they come in contact with—Royce Franklin was certainly that kind of a man. When we talk about that rare person who always puts family and friends first—even above themselves—Royce Franklin immediately comes to mind. And, of course, when folks talk about truly great Texas rhythm guitar players—in my eyes—there are only a few—and Royce Franklin is most certainly deserving of the highest legendary status.
I first met Royce in 1985, when I was hired by Cliff Fryer to be a judge at the Texas State Championship Fiddlers Frolics in Hallettsville. At that time, I was 22 years old and still living in my home state of Oregon, so I loaded up my old Cadillac and headed out for Texas. After 3 long days of driving and probably 3,000 gallons of gas, I finally made it to Hallettsville. The first jam session I came across was unbelievable! On one hand, you had Terry Morris, Jimmie Don Bates, Louis and Larry Franklin, Wes Westmoreland, Carl Hopkins, Texas Shorty, and a couple others trading off on fiddles. On the other hand, you had Royce and Ray Franklin, Bobby Christman, Steve Williams, Rex Gillentine, Anthony Mature, Jerry Thomasson, and a couple others trading off on guitar. Besides the enormity of listening to some of my favorite musicians of all-time—I was completely amazed, mesmerized, astounded, and blown away when listening to Royce and Ray Franklin’s guitar playing. They were a dream team before there ever was a dream team. They were a dynamic duo with perfect timing, perfect groove, creative and original chord progressions, criss-crossing bass lines and a rock steady driving beat, and on top of all that, they were absolutely two of the most fun people in the world—there was definitely never a dull moment around the Franklin Brothers!
Two years later, I moved to Texas; that began a 30-year friendship with Royce. In those days, there were about 90 fiddle contests and lots of great jam sessions every year, and that meant lots of time to hang out and play music with Royce. As a young, dumb, but very enthusiastic guitar player, Royce taught me the importance of actually playing with the other musicians—not fighting musically with the other musicians. He always said “guitar players should listen to the fiddler and follow what they do, not just plow over ’em”.
He showed me that it wasn’t about how much you play, it’s about the craftsmanship and taste you bring to the fiddle tunes, and trying to help the fiddle player sound and play their best. That’s exactly what Royce did—he made everybody sound better than they were, no matter who they were. In guitar contests over the years, Royce was a man to be reckoned with—he won multiple Texas State Championships and well over a hundred other first place wins. If there was a Mount Rushmore for breakdown guitar players, Royce Franklin would probably be on it two or three times! Being the son of Major Franklin—a Babe Ruth of Texas breakdown fiddling—and the cousin of the legendary Texas fiddle great Louis Franklin, Royce and Delmer Ray were born into Texas fiddle royalty and definitely learned it right. Their guitar playing and musical influence directly shaped the sound of Texas-style fiddling. And a lot of people don’t know it, but Royce was also an excellent upright bass player and fantastic piano player! Our good friend Betty Solomon—the greatest piano player in Texas fiddle music history—credits Royce for showing her a few tricks back when she was first learning how to play.
In addition to all the music we played together at fiddle contests and jam sessions, Sherry and I became very close with the Franklin family, the way many of y’all did. When we got married 24 years ago, Royce and Loyce threw a wedding party and jam session for us that is one of our fondest memories. They always welcomed us with open arms and made us feel like we were a part of their family, which meant an awful lot to us, since Sherry and I don’t have blood relatives here in Texas. In our eyes—and I’m sure in the eyes of all you people here today—Loyce Franklin is, hands down, the finest, classiest, coolest, toughest, and kindest woman on this Earth. Can I get an amen to that? She has been a dedicated wife to Royce for 68 years; a loving mother to Karyn, Bettye, David and Paul; a proud grandmother and great-grandmother; and the best friend anyone could ever hope for.
I can not put into words how much Royce has meant to me and how much I’m gonna miss him. Whether I’m playing a tune with my friends for fun, or playing music professionally to earn my living, Royce’s influence is always right there with me. This room is filled with great musicians who I know all feel the same way. And I think all us musicians and non-musicians can agree; our lives are all richer having known Royce Franklin.
We can only imagine the jam going on inside those pearly gates.