(This interview was originally published September 10, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is David Frank. He is likely best remembered as one half of the '80s duo The System, along with Mic Murphy, who had a smash hit in 1987 with "Don’t Disturb This Groove". He is considered by many to be a founding father of electronic R&B due to his pioneering and revolutionary use of synthesizers and synchronized instruments. He has also contributed as a keyboardist, composer, producer and arranger for a number of other artists’ hit songs. You will find out more about how The System came together, created their biggest hit and many of the other things he’s been involved with over the years as we get on to some selections from my interview with David Frank…
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician? When and how did you get your start in the music industry?
David: I sort of knew since I was 6 or 7 years old but I finally decided for sure when I was 18. I got in a motorcycle accident and broke a bone in my left hand. I took one look at my hand and vowed to do nothing but play and write music for my career. I played in Band since High School, played on my first major label record when I was 26 and had our first hit when I turned 30.
Q:I read that you started as a classical piano player. How and when did you make a move into R&B/Soul music?
David: Although I loved classical music as a kid, when I was 13 or so I started to lose interest because other kids teased me about still taking piano lessons. In desperation my Mom got me started taking jazz and pop-oriented piano lessons. It worked. I became interested in playing rock and rhythmic music.
Q: Please discuss your personal musical influences and who molded and inspired the artist you have become.
David: My personal musical influences were my piano teachers. Among them Sonia Klosek, Artur Medoff and Bruce Sutherland are the names of the teachers I value the most. Later in my teens and 20s, I became obsessed with the likes of Keith Emerson, Yes, James Brown Band, Steve Winwood and producers like Arif Mardin.
Q: Please also discuss how you had the inspiration to create and master the “one-man electric rhythm section” and using the synthesizer to create incredible multi-part bass grooves.
David: I really did that because it was finally possible when the Oberheim DSX DMX OBXA came out. I got the first of each in New York City and decided I would learn every possible thing that could be done with these instruments and do my best to make music never heard before. I knew that it might just be a dream but I tried anyway.
Q: What can you tell us about your former upstairs neighbor, none other than pre-stardom Madonna, and your relationship with her? Back then, could you have expected the superstar that she became?
David: She was actually a very good person, very charismatic and determined to succeed. We had a good rapport. I tried out for her band and she liked the way I played. Yes, she was always destined to be famous. We couldn’t stop talking about her.
Q: Was she really originally slated to sing lead vocals on “It’s Passion” which would go on to be the first single from The System? What caused that to not happen?
David: Yes, but it was not the same melody or lyrics and was called “In Times of Passion” as I remember. She backed out the night before and I called Mic Murphy. He came and wrote a new top line.
Q: So that’s how you ended up forming The System. How did you originally meet Mic Murphy? How and why was the band name The System chosen? When you were starting out, did you expect that you would be together for 7 years and achieve the success you did?
David: I met Mic at a recording session at Media Sound in New York City. He was working with the band [Kleeer] that I was doing keyboard overdubs on. Mic came up with the band name and I liked it. I was hoping it would work, but we were both thankful every step of the way.
Frank and Murphy went into the studio for a marathon session recording their first single in one day then staying up all night mixing it. The following day, Murphy took the master tape to an engineer friend who transferred it to a record and suggested he take it to Jerry Greenburg’s Mirage Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic. The duo had a record deal the next day and within a few weeks “It’s Passion” was getting massive airplay on New York radio. This led to their 1983 debut album, Sweat, which would also include their R&B hit “You Are In My System” (later successfully covered by Robert Palmer). They did a lot of work with other artists and would have another R&B hit with “This Is For You” from their third album in 1985. The System would finally find pop success of their own in 1987.
Q: The System is probably best recognized for your 1987 hit single “Don’t Disturb This Groove.” As most of your songs, you and Murphy are credited as the song’s writers. Please take us back to when the song was written and recorded. What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written?
David: It was a musical track that I did first. I spent the better part of three days working on different ideas and options and I remember wondering whether I was wasting my time. Mic liked it and wrote the lyrics and melody over the track. It needed a link between the verse and chorus so we worked out the “hang a sign up on the door” section. It took a long time to get it right but it was worth it. Our manager and record company didn’t think it should be first single but Mic and I did and we won out on that, thank goodness.
“Don’t Disturb This Groove” was rightfully the first single released from their album of the same name. The System would end up with one of the biggest hit songs of 1987 achieving regular radio rotation airplay on both R&B and Top 40 radio stations. The single would reach the top of R&B Singles chart in May and peak at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July. It is certainly one of my favorite songs from that year and it brings a smile to my face each time I hear it. Here is the video for “Don’t Disturb This Groove” by The System…
Q: When you first recorded “Don’t Disturb This Groove” did you have a feeling it was going to be something special?
David: It was always something special. I thought it might be too quirky to succeed, but I was also confident that it was the best we had ever done.
Q: What are your feelings regarding “Don’t Disturb This Groove” today almost 25 years later?
David: It’s still awesome and my most satisfying achievement!
Q: Your list of contributor credits is very impressive. What was your role on the 1984 hit “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan? What can you tell us about your experience working with her on that great cover of a Prince song?
David: I played the bassline, sound effects in the rap section, chord pads and the staccato single note part in the rap section. Reggie Griffin did the main arrangement and he did an awesome job! I worked directly with Chaka more on other songs than on “I Feel For You”.
Khan’s version of “I Feel For You” would reach #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as #1 on both the U.S. R&B and Dance charts. It featured an all-star supporting cast. In addition to keyboard and bass guitar by David Frank, it also featured rapping from the great Melle Mel and harmonica playing by the legendary Stevie Wonder. The repetition of Khan’s name by rapper Melle Mel at the beginning of the song was originally a mistake made by producer Arif Mardin, who then decided to keep it. Also from the same Chaka Khan album, Frank and Mic Murphy wrote the song “This Is My Night” which would reach #1 on the U.S. Dance chart.
Q: What was your role on the 1985 hit “Sussudio” by Phil Collins? What can you tell us about your experience working with the legendary Collins on that song and album?
David: I believe I played and arranged all the instruments besides guitar, horns and drums. It was great. Phil is a wonderful fun guy. Hugh Padgham was brilliant. He suggested that we do two tracks of Minimoog bass which really made the sound what it was!
Q: How about Steve Winwood’s 1986 hit “The Finer Things” and Back in the High Life album? What can you tell us about your experience working with him and on that album?
David: I arranged the horns on “Higher Love”, “Take It as It Comes” and “Freedom Overspill”. Russ Titelman is a great producer and Steve Winwood was one of my primary influences coming up with Traffic, Blind Faith, Spencer Davis, etc. It was a dream come true.
This is just a few examples of how Frank and Murphy were becoming both in demand and accomplished as songwriters, producers and musicians. They were still continuing to create their own music as The System at the same time. In addition to their five studio albums, they also contributed several songs to movie soundtracks including “Rock & Roll Me Again” in Beverly Hills Cop (1984), “Baptize the Beat” in Beat Street (1984) and the title track in Coming to America (1988). That last single, “Coming to America” was actually written by Nile Rodgers and would crack the Billboard Hot 100 as well as reach #23 on the R&B chart. This would be the last hit single by The System to date.
Q: In 1989, you and Murphy decided to disband The System. What caused that decision to be made?
David: We had done five albums together and many more by other artists so it was time for a break. Styles had changed around us and Mic made a solo album.
Q: Do you still maintain a close relationship with Mic Murphy? I know you reunited briefly in 2000, but do you ever expect another reunion of The System to perform together and/or release new music?
David: Yes! We are recording another album now!! I am writing new material all the time both with and without Mic.
Q: You are still very active in the music industry. You seem to be much more into producing and songwriting than performing in recent years. Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since The System.
David: After moving to Los Angeles, I began working with songwriters Steve Kipner and Pam Sheyne. Together we had several big hits including “Genie In a Bottle” by Christina Aguilera [which held the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for an entire month in 1999], “The Hardest Thing” by 98 Degrees [which peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1999] and “He Loves U Not” by Dream [which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2001] among others.
Q: What else is David Frank up to nowadays?
David: Other than working with Mic on the new album, I just recently completed work on my son Griffith’s album called En Fermant Les Yeux. It’s a different style, but I think you may enjoy his voice and the tracks. The album will be available on CDBaby, iTunes and Amazon. You can check him out on YouTube with “Unusual Way” by Griffith Frank.
I am sincerely honored that David took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. You can find out lots more about him at his official DavidFrankMusic.com website. Personally, I am looking forward to hearing the new album that they are working on.
I want to take this opportunity to again thank David Frank for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially through “Don’t Disturb This Groove” and, even more, for going back to the '80s for a little while with us here as well.