On May 19, 1979, singer Frankie Williams shot and killed Eli Thornton, owner of Eli's Mile High Club.
In 1978, Eli was separated from his wife, Alberta Thornton, and started dating Frankie Williams, who had been singing at the club for about 5 years. But their relationship was a rocky one. The night of the shooting, words were exchanged, Frankie pulled a gun and Eli ended up dying on the sidewalk in front of the club. Williams fled but was arrested after a search by police. 2 She was eventually convicted of 2nd degree murder.
But what happened that night?
Seven years later, "Between the Lines" columnist Jack Cheevers wrote: 1
It was a juke-joint romance that exploded in gunfire, a jilted blues singer blasting away at her man, through the haze of an Oakland nightclub.
Seven years ago this month, Frankie Williams drew a revolver from her bosom and killed Eli Thornton, her 300-pound lover and the owner of Eli's Mile High Club, arguably the best blues den west of Chicago.
Some stories are told once and immediately forgotten. Some are told and retold, endlessly relished and embellished. Among Eastbay blues fans, the story of Eli Thornton's murder has been told so often it has passed into the gauzy realm of legend.
And like all worthwhile legends, there are different versions. One has Frankie crashing her Cadillac through the club's front door and gunning down Eli as he cowered behind the bar. Another has Eli's wife, Miss Alberta, shooting him when she discovered his affair with Frankie.
* * *
The murder's setting only adds to its cachet. The club squats in a faceless white building on Martin Luther King Way near 37th Street, in the shadow of a North Oakland freeway. If there's a Southern-style blues roadhouse in heaven, it'll look just like Eli's. Walk inside and drink in the atmosphere:
In one corner is a tiny stage that has held blues greats including James Cotton and Percy Mayfield. At the bar is a huge, Buddha-like wooden bust of Muddy Waters. The walls are plastered with smoke-darkened photos of scores of bluesmen who have jammed there.
Eli's is known around the world, and its not uncommon to see blues aficionados from Germany, France or Japan nodding their heads to the beat of a Jimmy McCracklin or a J.J. Malone.
Whenever a newcomer asks what happened to Eli, he is promptly steered toward two never-fixed bullet boles in the south wall, where a couple of Frankie' shots went wide.
"They're just a reminder to keep myself on my toe," laughs the club's new owner, Louisiana-born guitarist Troyce Key, shooting a grin at his wife. "I don't want any more holes up there."
If they think about it, most clubgoers eventually realize the eerie parallels between the shooting and the old blues ballad, "Frankie and Johnny:"
Johnny saw Frankie a comin',
down the backstairs he did scoot;
Frankie had the little gun out,
let him have it rooty-de-toot;
For be was her man,
but she shot him down.
* * *
But the truth of what happened the night of May 18, 1979 is detailed in three smudged file folders stored behind the pebbled-glass doors of Room 107 in the Alameda County Courthouse, the criminal records section.
In 1978, Frankie was a $20-a-night singer at Eli's, belting out "Stormy Monday Blues" and other songs on weekend nights. The mother of seven children, she lived in an East Oakland housing project.
That year, Eli was separated from Miss Alberta, and she was talking divorce. A month after his separation, Eli took up with Frankie.
Frankie was thrilled to be Eli's woman. He was helping promote her career, printing up flyers and getting little write-ups about her in Japanese blues magazines. There was talk of cutting a record.
Frankie was very much in love, but the relationship was, she later told the jury, a rocky one. Eli beat her, Sometimes badly. Once, he rammed her head against a wall. During an argument in her Cadillac, he kicked Frankie so hard she flew out onto the sidewalk.
* * *
But something shifted in Eli's heart. He decided to leave Frankie and reconcile with Alberta. On the day he was murdered, he was in a fine humor, telling friends of his marriage's rebirth.
Frankie strode into the club about 9:30 that night. Witnesses would say she was angry, getting into a shouting match with a woman at the bar. Somebody heard her mutter to Eli, "I'm gon kill you."
An argument ensued in a back room and suddenly, Frankie had the gun. She opened up. The woman at the bar caught a slug in the chin. Two bullets found their way into Eli's chest.
Eli lurched out of the bar and collapsed on the sidewalk. A friend ran out and rolled up his coat under his head. Eli gave the man his key ring and told him to make sure the club was locked up. Then he died.
Frankie was convicted of second-degree murder, and now resides at the California Institution for Women at Frontera, in the sun-whitened wastes of Riverside County.
No one can really know what Frankie feels about killing Eli. But maybe her thoughts, like the event itself, parallel the lyrics of that old blues song that Eli's fans always seem to remember:
Frankie went to Johnnys coffin,
she looked down on his face.
She said, "Oh, Lawd,
have mercy on me,
I wish I could take his place.
He was my man,
and I done him wrong,
Frankie Williams never denied shooting Eli, but said she acted in self-defense. In her first trial, the jury deadlocked over the murder charge because of considerable evidence that Thornton had abused her. The attorney in her second trial made little reference to the abuse, but Williams turned down a plea bargain because she didn't think a jury would convict her. She was convicted and sentenced to 17 years to life.
The parole board granted her release nine years later in 1991, stating "We find that the prisoner committed the crime as a result of the stress in her life." But the parole review unit reversed the decision, stating she "would pose an unreasonable risk to society," despite numerous psychological evaluations declaring her fit for parole.
Finally in 2010, at age 74, she was released. 3
Links and References
- Legend of Frankie and Eli by Jack Cheevers Oakland Tribune May 26, 1986
- Singer arrested in fatal shooting Oakland Tribune May 18, 1979
- After decades in prison, woman freed Oakland Tribune July 15, 2010 (p2)
- Oakland singer who killed club owner granted parole on 12th try Oakland Tribune February 4, 2010
- Frankie Williams adjusts to life after nearly 30 years in prison Oakland Tribune February 26, 2011
- Oakland: Aging ex-felons face daunting prospects upon release from prison Oakland Tribune July 5, 2013