Awesome Men Throughout History: Frankie Smith
There are probably a lot of hip-hop fans in my readership, but I wonder how many of you have heard of Frankie Smith. Despite his current obscurity, Frankie is an important and influential figure in the history of hip-hop, mostly because of his 1981 hit, “Double Dutch Bus,” which held the #1 spot on the US Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart for eight weeks and made it to #30 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Before recording that song, Smith was a songwriter for Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, cranking out material for the likes of the O’Jays and Archie Bell and the Drells. When Philadelphia International went under, Smith got a job with WMOT Records and wrote the song that would become “Double Dutch Bus,” which began as a rant about how pissed off he was that he couldn’t get a job with SEPTA, the organization that runs the Philadelphia public transportation system. The song also references double dutch, a jump rope game that was hugely popular in Philly at the time.
Once the recording engineers convinced Frankie to clean up the song he’d written (the original was pretty blue), he got some neighborhood kids to come in and record their version of pig latin, which adds “-izz” and “-izzle” to words as extra syllables and sounds more like carny than traditional pig latin. Rappers Snoop Dogg and E40 have since popularized that slang so much that it’s part of the national lexicon now, but Frankie Smith recorded it first.
“Double Dutch Bus” kind of sounds like a novelty record now—the beat is really dated and Smith’s gravely voices sounds like a mix between the Junkyard Dog and Tom Carvel—but the sales it generated were very serious, indeed. He made an appearance at the 1982 American Music Awards (host Dick Clark personally invited him) and toured with Rick James (whose single “Give It To Me, Baby” preceded Smith’s on the Billboard Hot Soul chart), the Sugarhill Gang, the Commodores, Kool and the Gang, and Smokey Robinson. As Tom Hanks would say, he was in the high country.
“Double Dutch Bus” has sampled many times since, most notably by Snoop and Missy Elliot, and was re-recorded by Raven-Symone for the College Road Trip soundtrack.
What’s cool about Smith’s story is that, even if he was a one-hit-wonder, he was just a local Philly guy who sort of tripped and fell into a hit song. He didn’t look or sound like a star, and the lyrics to “Double Dutch Bus” reference localisms at every turn, which upends the conventional wisdom that hit songs need to be as broad and generic in scope as possible. Even his voice is charming when you compare it to the constant Autotuning and pitch correction in modern pop music.
For his efforts, and his mentorship of guys like Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, I’m declaring Frankie Smith to be an Awesome Man. And since I’ve mentioned “Double Dutch Bus” in every paragraph thus far, here’s the video in all its early-80s glory. Enjoy!
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.