When we think of 1960s music legends, names like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon come to mind. But we’re all forgetting someone. Jackson C Frank should’ve joined the hall of fame, but ended up broken and homeless. There are sad stories—and then there’s his life. It was many things, but it was never fair.
On March 2, 1943, Jackson Carey Jones came into the world as the only child of Marilyn Rochefort Jones and pilot Jack Jones. Marilyn later remarried a man Elmer Frank. He was an army officer, chemist, and the man whose last name Jackson took. He had a normal childhood—until a sudden yet immense tragedy changed the course of his life forever.
On March 31, 1954, an 11-year-old Jackson sat in music class with his friends and girlfriend Marlene. When everyone heard a loud noise, they dismissed it. After all, noise was no big deal in a school… right? But seconds later, they made a disturbing discovery. Suddenly, towering flames surrounded the shocked students and teachers—and they were in an area of the school constructed entirely out of wood.
They realized the windows, thanks to the inferno, were the only way out. Students desperately tried to open the windows—only to find that they wouldn’t open. They lost even more time smashing the glass, only to find it was difficult and dangerous to squeeze through. The icing on this catastrophic cake? They were only on the first floor. It gets even worse.
Even after Jackson squeezed through a broken window filled with shards of glass to safety, his ordeal wasn’t over. His girlfriend Marlene, friends, and many classmates were still trapped in the burning building. Not to mention, he was on fire. Literally. Classmates frantically dumped snow on his body to put the flames out. His nightmare didn’t end there.
The Cleveland Hill Elementary School Fire became legendary in quiet Cheektowaga in the worst possible way. 15 students perished in the fire, including Jackson’s friends and girlfriend. The casualties didn’t include the surviving students and staff who would be forever scarred—physically and mentally—from the mystery blaze.
Only two students made it out without any burns…and Jackson wasn’t one of them.
Jackson C Frank wasn’t just burned, he was seriously burned: over 50% of his body. To make matters worse, these burns also ravaged his parathyroid glands and their calcium regulation. Basically, it doomed Jackson to a seven-month hospital stay and lifelong joint problems. This didn’t even include another lifelong (and life-ruining) injury that everyone missed—or didn’t care about.
Most survivors received high-quality medical care for their physical injuries. But what about their psychological scars from surviving a horrific fire, sustaining serious wounds, and watching classmates perish? Crickets. The adults in Jackson’s life basically told them to get over it.
That was easier said than done, especially for Jackson, who would never be the same.
Does anyone remember that the fire occurred during music class? Well, Jackson wouldn’t be forgetting that anytime soon (or ever). Music had been his favorite subject. Now, it triggered flashbacks to the worst day of his life. But one of Jackson’s well-meaning teachers didn’t know that and brought an insensitive gift. It was a gift that became his salvation, calling, and trigger all at once.
Jackson survived a fire, losses, and injuries—only to be stuck in a hospital for nearly a year. His teacher Charlie Castelli felt terrible about it. Charlie gifted Jackson a guitar to keep him busy. It was a risky gift, but it paid off. Jackson fell in love with music even more and devoted himself to becoming as good as his hero Elvis. Speaking of Elvis…
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The King of Rock and Roll generously held an event for survivors at Graceland. Going was a no-brainer for our now 13-year-old Elvis superfan. Touring the icon’s estate was already amazing, and it got even better: Jackson met Elvis and even took a photo with him. Things were finally picking up for Jackson, and little did he know, something even bigger was heading his way.
21-year-old Jackson’s future looked bright but boring. He studied at Gettysburg College and considered a career in journalism. But then, in an instant, everything changed. He received a check with a nearly unbelievable sum on it: $110,000 (nearly $1 million today). This was the insurance company’s payback for his trauma.
And just like that, Jackson’s life changed forever again. Suddenly, finishing college and finding a 9-5 didn’t matter anymore. He went wild.
Go big or go home: Jackson “tried to spend as much money as fast as possible”. He traveled all over North America, but his biggest vice was the fast and the furious. You see, Jackson was a huge car guy: the faster, shinier, and pricier, the better. After buying car after car straight from the showrooms at home, he still wasn’t satisfied. Jackson heard he’d get the most bang for his buck in England. So the 22-year-old sailed across the pond, where he didn’t just buy a fancy car. He met his destiny.
Armed with a guitar, a small fortune, and expensive tastes, Jackson’s shopping spree didn’t go as planned. This time, it was a good surprise. Jackson discovered London’s vibrant music scene. It was love at first sound. He went to music clubs and found his hobby turned into his calling. Jackson began playing and making music seriously. Destiny, meet Jackson.
Something haunted him, and it wasn’t just the ghosts of a horrible past. Jackson couldn’t get a particular melody out of his head, so he grabbed his guitar and journal. The earworm turned into “Blues Run The Game,” his most legendary song. It’s a sad biographical song. He sang about having too much money, too many drinks, too many travels—but “the blues are all the same”. While it was a deeply personal song, it still resonated with people. And for his friends and fellow musicians, it explains a lot about his quirks.
Jackson made a lasting impression on people, thanks to not only his musical genius but his bizarre fashion. His taste in cars may have been luxurious, but the same cannot be said for his sartorial choices. One day, you’d see him wear normal blue jeans. The next day, it was a business suit. On other days, he’d opt for a costume-y pinstriped suit and bowler hat. Jackson was weird, but people loved it.
Despite Jackson’s quirks, people couldn’t help but like him. In fact, “everyone liked him” and thought he “really, really was a great guy”. This was a massive compliment considering the Brits expected him to be a stereotypically loud American. Despite his automotive and sartorial choices, they instead met a hardworking, modest, and quiet young man. Naturally, it didn’t take long for Jackson to find love.
Sandy Denny was a nurse by day, and an emerging folk singer by night. Jackson fell in love with her music. Then he fell in love with her. Jackson recognized potential when saw it. He convinced her to make a huge commitment. But it wasn’t to him. Instead, it was to her music.
Jackson convinced Sandy to quit her day job. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off. Her career and legacy surpassed even his, and lasted much longer than their relationship.
Jackson made a huge demand while recording his debut album. Some may have seen it as major diva behavior, but it was actually extreme shyness. Jackson refused to record without screens blocking people from looking at him. “I can’t play. You’re looking at me”. Was this the strangest recording session ever? Guitarist Al Stewart thought it was.
Even after being given the green light to start, producers stood in complete silence as Jackson hyped himself up. But once he got there, his voice and guitar blew everyone away.
Jackson released his first—and only—album Jackson C Frank. It was nothing like today’s overproduced and manufactured albums. Jackson C Frank was a ten-song, two-sided album. It opened with “Blues Run The Game”. Except for one, Jackson wrote every single song alone. Jackson and producer Paul Simon even recorded the entire album in one day. His talent was undeniable, and Jackson—and his record label—hoped everyone would see that too.
Everyone recognized Jackson’s talent and loved his debut album—well, fellow musicians and folk superfans did. After just one debut album, Jackson received even more praise and respect than Paul Simon. So why does everyone know Paul’s name and not Jackson’s? Well, money talks…and Jackson found that out the hard way.
Jackson had the voice, guitar skills, songwriting talent, and industry respect—he had almost everything. Almost. But Jackson was still missing the biggest piece, even though he’d done everything right. Jackson made a brilliant album. He played shows. He promoted the album across the United Kingdom.
Still, the album was a commercial disaster. Sadly, Jackson’s first album ended up being his only album. His already precarious mental health took a turn for the worse.
What goes up must come down: in less than two years, Jackson’s career was over before it really began. It wasn’t just the album sales (or lack thereof), he suffered from serious writer’s block—and that was the least of his problems. Jackson’s mental health issues didn't help either; it declined to the point where he checked into a hospital.
To make matters worse, Jackson found himself lacking in another critical area.
At first, the $110,000 check seemed limitless—but Jackson found out the hard way it definitely wasn’t. Within a few years, Jackson had blown through the entire windfall. Every single cent. He’d spent it all on traveling, cars, hotels, and the life of sin he sang about. Basically, he couldn’t catch a break.
Broke, depressed, and discouraged, Jackson went home. When he returned two years later, his London friends barely recognized him.
Gone was the Jackson everyone knew and loved. In his place was someone who was falling apart before their very eyes. His mental health struggles, which started after that fire, had snowballed out of control. It extinguished all of Jackson’s confidence and self-esteem. He was a shell of his former self. And boy, did his music reflect this.
People loved Jackson’s music, but not for long. After returning, he took his music in a disturbing direction. If Jackson sang about the blues before, he screamed about them now. Basically, his new stuff was peak angst. It was a risk, but it didn’t work, and the reviewers were not kind about it.
One even said he belonged on a psychiatrist’s couch. Ouch. Jackson had had enough.
Once again, Jackson returned home a failure. This time, it was for good. But not all was lost! Jackson fell in love with and married Elaine Sedgwick, a British former model and Edie Sedgwick’s cousin. They had a son and daughter together. Jackson may have had writer’s block, a failed career, and no money, but at least he had a family. But like all good things in his life, it wouldn’t last.
Jackson had struggled with his mental health before, but everything paled in comparison to when he experienced his most devastating loss. The Franks lost their young son way too soon thanks to cystic fibrosis, a rare genetic disorder. The life expectancy for CF was already devastatingly short, but they lost their son even sooner than expected. It was too soon. And just like that, his already precarious mental health crumbled and took everything else with him.
There’s only so much a relationship can take before it snaps completely. After Jackson’s mental health deterioration, financial woes, and the loss of their son, the Franks' marriage reached the point of no return. Jackson’s wife took Edie, their daughter, and they went their separate ways. But Jackson took it too far.
By 1970, Jackson’s old friends had no idea where he was. He was missing, and chilling rumors spread in his absence. They came up with wild theories about what happened to him: traveling the world, secret relationships with exotic women, new identities, or even fatal accidents.
When friends finally heard back from him, they realized the truth was even more devastating.
Eventually, Jackson attempted to reach out. Some friends received a letter out of the blue. It was an oddly typed letter that clearly came from a broken typewriter. He sent it from Simmonds Court in Woodstock. Once a friend looked up the address, he realized it was a mental institution. Reality can be stranger—and sadder—than fiction.
The same friend just happened to be visiting Woodstock around the same time. He attempted to track Jackson down, only to discover his former friend was the town’s local weirdo. Jackson was odd, even by Woodstock standards. Basically, he wandered around town staring at traffic lights. Ultimately, they never met in person. Like most of Jackson’s friends, they fell out of touch. Meanwhile, Jackson fell apart—but then built himself back up.
It was 1977, and Jackson hadn’t felt this good in a long time. He felt like a new man. This obviously called for a new album. Music executives didn’t exactly share his optimism. Record label after record label handed him nothing but rejection and doubt. No one believed his music would sell. He could’ve kept pushing, writing, and promoting his music. But he didn’t..
What later happened with his first album didn’t help.
Jackson’s debut album remained a masterpiece that deserved to be heard by more people. But despite several attempts, it remained an underrated jewel. A fan—who happened to be a music journalist—revisited Jackson C. Frank, and raved about it. In 1978, it was even re-released. But it barely made a splash. At best, Jackson gained a few new fans. This, along with the rejections, was too much.
Jackson’s poor physical and mental health led to hospitalizations. It was the beginning of the end.
In the early 1980s, Jackson found some stability by moving back home with his parents. Sadly, it didn’t last. In 1984, his mom had open heart surgery. When Marilyn got home, she made a devastating discovery. Her troubled son was nowhere to be found.
Jackson left her with nothing but worries and questions with no answers. After a while, she assumed that he’d died. Once again, the truth was stranger and sadder.
Turns out, Jackson was alive, but not well. He had desperately journeyed to New York City. There, Jackson was a man on a mission: he wanted to find Paul Simon, his former producer—hoping he could resurrect his career. Tragically, Jackson found nothing but misery and suffering in the Big Apple.
Instead of Paul, Jackson found himself homeless. It gets even worse. He caught the attention of city authorities—and not in a good way. Jackson’s mental illness alarmed them and they forcibly institutionalized him. Every few months, the city had no choice but to release him.
An extended stay in a mental institution was never going to be a good time, and Jackson’s circumstances made it so much worse. He described them as overcrowded with people, "All of them crazy. You can imagine what that's like for an artist, to be around crazy people for that length of time, locked up and, if you're crippled, how hard and painful it is to be locked up”. Life on the streets wasn’t much better.
Thanks to begging and scavenging, Jackson survived. Barely. He searched garbage bins, construction sites, and dumpsters just to find things to sell. All he wanted in return was coffee and bread. Basically, Jackson was a mess, who by his own admission, “couldn't make head nor tail of anything”. His life turned out to be a devastating riches-to-rags story.
While in New York, Jackson once again found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jackson was just sitting on a bench and minding his own business. That’s when trouble, in the form of teenagers, found him. They were playing with an air rifle and spotted a live target. The ringleader aimed, pulled the trigger, and ran. The consequences were devastating.
He ended up losing sight in one eye. His health—physical and mental—was now even worse.
Finally, medical professionals began to pay attention to Jackson’s long-term mental health issues. But it was too little, too late. In adulthood, doctors diagnosed Jackson with paranoid schizophrenia and attempted to treat him. But Jackson rejected their diagnosis and treatments.
He insisted that while he lived with mental illness, it was depression and trauma related to the many losses he’d experienced in life.
Eventually, Jackson turned his life around, but it wasn’t thanks to the doctors…or even himself.
Things weren’t looking good for Jackson until an unexpected visit pulled him from rock bottom. In the 1990s, Jim Abbott discovered Jackson’s music and became a huge fan. But he lived in Woodstock, where Jackson’s antics remained notorious. He, assumed, like everyone else, that Jackson had long passed. After learning Jackson was alive, but not well, he arranged a meeting. Jim was shocked by what—or who—he saw.
Jim Abbott admits “It was a shock to see him [Jackson]”. Even Jackson’s family and friends would have struggled to recognize him: "He was very overweight, looked really wrecked, his eyes were all messed up. He had some gizmo that he flipped around his head like an antenna”.
Jackson was the polar opposite of the thin young man on his first album cover. But after the meeting, Jim was determined to help.
Jim accomplished what no doctor, no family member and no city authority managed to do: get Jackson’s life back on track. He started by getting Jackson off the streets. He hunted down past royalties owed to Jackson that supplemented his government checks. But Jim also worked an even bigger miracle: He successfully encouraged Jackson to write and play music again. Not all heroes wear capes, and Jackson’s new fan proved this.
Jackson’s twilight years were bittersweet. He lived alone and struggled with health issue after health issue. But he was in contact with his mom again. He was off the streets. He was even making music again but doubted it would go anywhere. Jackson couldn’t help but feel that the blues still ran the game and his life. He was right.
On March 3, 1999, Jackson died from pneumonia and heart failure in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He was 56 years old. It was premature in more ways than one. You see, it occurred at a really unfortunate time. A new generation began discovering his name and music. This was a long time coming. But it was also too late.
Collector and archivist Geoffrey Weiss bought Jackson’s album on eBay from Jim and asked if he had anything else. Turns out, Jim had ended up with Jackson’s estate. It wasn’t much, just some inexpensive items, but it was priceless to fans. Sadly, it was too painful for Jim to keep. Geoffrey offered to take it all and keep everything intact.
Jackson never became the household name he deserved to be—at least with the general public. On the other hand, fellow artists respected and revered him. Countless artists across generations—from Simon And Garfunkel to John Mayer—covered his music and paid tribute. Hit shows and movies like This Is Us and Joker feature his music. In a way, Jackson is immortal through his musical legacy.
In 2014, Jim wrote and published Jackson C Frank, The Clear, Hard Light of Genius. In his research, he came to a heartbreaking conclusion. He attributed everything—the good and the bad in Jackson’s life—to that fateful day in the music classroom: “He had his brief moment in the sun, but the rest of his life was a real struggle, all because of the fire…We might not have any of his music, if it hadn't been for the fire”.
Jim was the perfect person to write about Jackson, and he proved it. He perfectly told the tragedy of Jackson C Frank, the almost legend: “His scarred body housed a beautiful sound…I found him to be one of the most inherently good people I have ever known. And he made music as beautiful as his soul”. Ultimately, Jackson didn’t just sing about the blues. He lived through the worst of them.
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