Fran Smith Jr. has been part of the Jersey Shore music scene since the mid-70s. He was a member of the Shakes, a popular Stone Pony house band that was once looked upon as the next big thing to come out of the Jersey Shore by record executives. After leaving that band he joined Johnny’s Dance Band, a legendary band in the Philadelphia/Trenton area that had a record deal with RCA Records. Eventually Fran returned to the Jersey Shore and back to Asbury Park where he was part of the famous Stone Pony house band, Cats on a Smooth Surface.
He’s probably best remembered as a member of the Hooters, a band that enjoyed its best success in the 80s but remains extremely popular outside the United States today. He’s traveled around the world with the Hooters and has toured and released his own records under the name Rory Kunkle. I interviewed Fran via email to see what he’s been up to recently and what he has planned for the future.
When were you in the Shakes?
I was in the Shakes from 1975-1977.
Lee Mrowicki from the Pony said that the Shakes was the band everybody thought would be the next to break.
Yeah, Lee was right, everyone thought that the Shakes were going to be the next big thing to break out of the Asbury scene. We did get an exceptional amount of press at this time. Bruce and the boys were always up on stage with us. The times were great and the fans were pumped. Many major record companies were pursuing us; however, it was my first taste of huge disappointment when the band started to go south.
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What was it like playing the Stone Pony at that time?
To say the least, it really was a magical time at the Pony. There were many rock stars coming in to catch Bruce and we were lucky enough to ride in the wake of his growing success.
Any particular memories from your days in the Shakes?
I remember playing at the Capitol Theatre and Bruce walked in with the E-Street Band. We had just finished our show and the Jukes were on. I was on the phone calling a bar I used to play at to wish a happy new year to a friend. Bruce walked by and grabbed the phone and commented about how he liked the Shakes, then people on the other side of the phone heard Springsteen was on the phone and lined up to wish him a happy new year.
Needless to say, it was a pay phone and my dime was quickly running out. Bruce reached in his pocket and took out some money and asked me to run up to the ticket box for more change. I think I made three trips...
Why did you leave the Shakes?
The band started to spin out of control. Huge egos ultimately were the demise. I was afraid it would be a mistake to leave, but I was getting very frustrated staying in the band. I was a writer and I felt I had no where to go in this situation.
How did you get involved with Johnny’s Dance Band?
A band from Philadelphia called Johnny’s Dance Band had a record deal with RCA Records and, in the middle of a whiffle ball game in my parents’ backyard, Nan Mancini called and asked me to join the band. I went on to write the title track for our next album It’s A Man’s World. I had made the right decision to leave.
How did you get involved with Cats on a Smooth Surface?
If my memory serves me right, Bobby Bandiera and Glen Burtnick came to my home in Clementon, New Jersey, knocked on the door and asked me pretty much what I was doing and would I be interested in joining.
Do you miss anything about those days?
Without a doubt, I don’t think I have laughed that much since... I miss the people that used to come see the band also.
What are your thoughts on the Stone Pony?
The Stone Pony really was a second home to me. I had an apartment down the street and the cook and I split the rent.
Tell me about your former bandmates in Cats:
Bobby Bandiera -- great musician, cool fellow, made me laugh a lot.
Glen Burtnick -- a wonderful songwriter... my Beatle soul mate.
Ray Andersen -- Ray gets my most spiritual maturity award, great musician too!
Isn’t it funny that you wound up playing to huge crowds with the Hooters just like Ray Andersen did with Meatloaf and Glen Burtnick did with Styx and Bobby Bandiera did with with Southside Johnny. Did you ever imagine that everyone would all find such success?
Well, it didn’t surprise me. It was great to see everyone get their due!
How did you get involved with the Hooters?
Well, it’s a pretty funny story. It was Thanksgiving week and my sister called me and told me she had a dream I was in the Hooters. I pretty much laughed it off. A few days later, Glen Burtnick called and invited me as his guest at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. He was opening for the Hooters on Thanksgiving night. I took my daughter along, and after the show she asked if she could get her Hooters t-shirt signed by the band. I sort of chickened out and said, “I didn’t think so.” Glen heard this and said, “Come on, let’s go talk to them.”
We went into the Hooters meet and greet room, which was packed with other fans. As I was in line, the drummer Dave said, “Fran, I can’t believe you are here. We were trying to get your number. Andy King just informed us he is leaving the band!”
The Hooters had an incredible run for a few years. With hit records and worldwide tours, what were some of the highlights for you since joining that band?
Well, actually lucky for us, except for the US, the rest of the world still sees us as a viable music source. Highlights include playing “The Wall” with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. When the wall finally came down in Berlin, Germany we played the largest concert in the history of Europe.
Besides being blessed with so many great highlights, meeting some Beatles while doing a show with them in London’s “Tops of the Pops” was mind-blowing. And the Hooters did not break up. We will tour this summer in Europe and continue to play.
In addition to the Hooters, you’re also doing a solo thing as well. Tell me about the Rory Kunkle.
Rory Kunkle is my alter ego, just a little more twisted. If you ever want to hear a cool CD, pick up For No Apparent Reason. That’s me singing, playing bass, sitar, piano and writing all the songs.
What are your plans for the future?
New CD, I just wrote 30 new songs. Just getting ready to record, can’t wait.
From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace
(the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists
. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station Asbury Music
. He can be contacted at email@example.com