A few months into the pandemic last year, Billy Franze announced his retirement from Dr. Mambo's Combo, the weekly all-star jam session he co-helmed at Bunker's in Minneapolis for 32 years. After a few more months stuck at home, though, the guitarist wanted back in.
"Playing music was too much in his blood for him to remain a homebody," Combo drummer Michael Bland said.
Sadly, Franze never got to return to the stage. He died suddenly Tuesday at his home in Eagan at age 72, likely the result of a massive stroke or heart attack, his family said.
His wife of 17 years, Lisa Franze, said that playing guitar remained his passion even offstage, and he was still doing it at home up until the end.
"I always said the guitar was his wife and I was his mistress."
A fixture in the Twin Cities music scene for more than four decades, Franze regularly jammed with Prince and toured with Jonny Lang. But it was his eager, workman approach to performing and his omnipresence in local venues that friends and fans remembered as news of his death spread through the community.
The Mambo's Combo Facebook page posted the news about "The Reverend" — Franze's nickname in the group — with a note saying, "In a word, he was MAGIC. There really are no words to describe the hole that is left here on this earth with his unexpected departure."
Combo singer Julius Collins added in his own post about Franze: "He loved music, and it was that pure joy that taught me the value in appreciating every opportunity to hear notes ring out."
Talking to the Star Tribune for the 30th anniversary of Mambo's Combo in 2017, Franze was less interested in bragging about the many times he dueled with Prince on guitar at the band's shows. He was more proud of how many Combo members had gone on to play with the purple megastar.
"He stole half the band for his own band, so that tells you something," Franze said.
Understated personally but not musically, Franze played on Prince-affiliated albums by the likes of Rosie Gaines and the Steeles. He was also part of the band that backed Mavis Staples when she toured as Prince's opening act in 1990.
"Billy might be the only musician I know who Prince never said a cross word to or about," said Bland, who was Prince's drummer in the early '90s.
One of Bland's favorite Franze stories from the Combo gigs: Prince walked up from his regular booth at Bunker's, wrote a note on a napkin and laid it at the guitarist's feet as he finished a particularly fiery Jimi Hendrix mash-up of "Voodoo Chile" and "The Star Spangled Banner."
"Quit it. You're white," the note read.
"That was Prince's way of praising him," Bland said.
Franze backed the teenage Lang — another Bunker's regular — in the studio on his breakout 1997 hit "Lie to Me." Then in 2000, he was enlisted to tour with Lang when his bassist, Doug Nelson, died in a traffic accident. That short-notice, high-demand gig lasted about three years.
Another guitar wiz mentored by Franze, "Late Show With Stephen Colbert" regular Cory Wong said Wednesday he was "absolutely gutted" by the news.
"Beyond his ability to make a lasting impact from the stage, he was equally or even more compelling backstage," said Wong. "He encouraged younger musicians to chase their unique sound, and to strive for excellence in what they do."
In addition to the Combo, Franze was also well-known for Organ Night at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul, another well-loved weekly gig that lasted from the mid-'90s to 2011. Through the 1970s and '80s, he played with a wide range of popular bar bands, including Danny's Reasons, the Mystics, Doug Maynard and Mick Sterling. He also performed in finer establishments with Patty Peterson and the Steeles.
Franze got a taste of rock 'n' roll stardom while still a teenager living in Fort Wayne, Ind.
His band the Olivers landed a national hit in 1969 with "I Saw What You Did," featuring Billy on vocals. After a contract dispute because Franze was underage (17), the band's ties to RCA Records were severed. The members relocated to the Twin Cities for more recording but eventually split. However, their songs were unearthed four decades later by a German label and became collectors' items.
"If I'd have known that people were going to be so interested in that album, I would have finished it," Franze joked in 2012.
In the end, though, Lisa Franze believes her husband's proudest achievement was Mambo's Combo — "just that they kept it going for so long, had so much fun doing it and influenced so many musicians."
The Combo was set to perform June 13 at the Hook & Ladder in Minneapolis, an outdoor show that is being turned into a tribute to Franze. A private memorial service and other musical fêtes are also being planned.
In addition to his wife, the guitarist was survived by their son Christian, 17, and three other children, LaVeta, Rehn and Kahara, plus four granddaughters and 11 grandkids.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658