HIGGS: Meet the DeFrancesco family of musicians

Norma Higgs

This story will tell the tale of a family devoted to music over three generations. The family had early origins in Niagara Falls as Joseph DeFrancesco, aka the grandfather, was a jazz musician who played the saxophone and clarinet and performed with various swing bands. Joseph and his wife Jennie resided at 328 13th St., Apt. 1 during the early 1950s. He worked at the Department of Public Works for Niagara Falls.

His son John DeFrancesco began playing trumpet when he was 6 and did not start playing the organ until his wife bought him one for his 23rd birthday. He was known as “Papa John” and practiced faithfully for a few months until he was ready to perform in clubs. He moved to Philadelphia in 1967 and soon became a part of the local jazz scene. He ultimately received the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s living legend Award in 2013. He raised two sons, Joseph aka Joey DeFrancesco and Johnny, born Jan. 18, 1965 who became an America blues guitarist.

Johnny grew up outside of Philadelphia and when he was 10 years old his father “Papa John” suggested he use his savings to buy a guitar — he’s been playing and singing ever since. By age 14 he was already performing in local clubs with his father. He began listening to a variety of blues artists and then created his own style. He became fascinated with the blues which became the foundation for his success in years to come. By age 18, he achieved recognition on the Philadelphia scene for his blues vocals and guitar playing.

His music was inspired by many artists such as B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Albert Collins and classic blues legend T-Bone Walker. All this inspired Johnny to create his own niche in the music world. He moved to San Francisco for several years and continued to play the blues and made a name for himself there appearing with other “greats” such as Duke Jethro, Johnny Lee Hooker and others. Moving on to Phoenix he brought a whole new band of ‘smokin blues’ back to the East Coast and exploded onto the scene. He returned to Philadelphia and formed a group, the Johnny DeFrancesco Power Trio. He once worked with Duke Jethro, John Lee Hooker, Luther Tucker, Johnny Heartsman and Ike Turner.

In 1997 he joined the faculty of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts as an assistant professor and toured throughout the U. S. in June of 1997.

He received an endorsement from the Fender Musical Instruments Company and Guild Guitars and appeared in ads for them in Guitar Player Magazine, the Fender Frontline and the inaugural issue of the Guild Gallery. His niece JoAnne wrote to me saying he currently resides in Arizona with his wife Laurene.

While Johnny was advancing in his career, “Papa” John returned to a more active playing career in the 1990s, recording two sets for Muse, “Doodlin’ and Comin’ Home”, both of which featured his other son Joey on the trumpet and who was gaining a national reputation of his own. (More on him later). “Papa John” was known for playing the organ in an “infectious hard bop style.

He later signed first to Highnote and then its sister imprint Savant, where he issued a string of fine recordings including “Hip Cake Walk” in 2001, “Jumpin’ in 2003 and “Walking Uptown in 2004 and “Desert Heat” on 2006.

After a five year hiatus, “Papa John” returned with “A Philadelphia Story “ in a classic trio setting his son John Jr. on guitar and drummer Glenn Ferracone and a guest appearance from the other son, Joey and tenor Joe Fortunato.

All this is featured in an article “Artist Biography” by Scott Yanow. Let’s take a break for now and feature the other brother Joey next time. Stay tuned.

Contact Norma Higgs by email at niahigg@aol.com.