Sixteen years ago today I got a phone call in the middle of the afternoon from Stewart Francke. After being diagnosed with leukemia a couple months earlier, he eagerly took up residence at the Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit because he wanted to live. He needed a bone marrow transplant and on that day was literally in the middle of it when he called to ask me how I was doing. How I WAS DOING!
I asked him to describe what was happening and he told me it was like a huge strawberry Slurpee being pumped into him from clear bags. This wasn’t how I imagined such an important medical procedure would look. It wasn’t how he imagined it either. But when the Slurpee machine stopped churning, everything changed.
Ten days prior to this procedure we had a huge event at the Fox Theater in Detroit. It was the first of many fundraisers for the Stewart Francke Leukemia Foundation. The foundation that used his name was not for him or about him because he was a lucky guy in an unlucky situation. You see, one of Stewart’s sisters was a perfect match for this transplant.
The strange thing about bone marrow transplants is that Doctors shock you with chemotherapy to within a hush of death in order to give you the new marrow, hoping your body will not reject it and hope instead, you will be healed. Everything went well for Stew for the first several weeks and then it turned bad . . . real bad. Most people don’t know how close we came to losing him around Thanksgiving. I got a call from his wife and sister and I wept and I prayed.
Many people did not know what God would say or do and I think his wife, sister, best friend Billy and myself were the only ones who knew he would not be giving up.
He was weak, thin and his diet consisted of only two things: warm Cream of Wheat or cold Cream of Wheat. It continued to be a tough road back. We had just recorded and released his record, Sunflower Soul Serenade. It was selling well and getting a lot of attention on the national stage and airwaves; something impossible to think of today for an artist not on a major record label. But we did it in the way nobody seemed to notice; which was by hard work.
Stewart had a ton of support from family, friends and fans, but there were still many people who didn’t get it. They’d call me inquiring if he could play a gig, or a party or if he could open at a venue. They thought getting a bone marrow transplant was like getting your oil changed and you’d be back on the road quickly.
After a tough winter for everyone, I got a call in the middle of it from someone who heard about Stewart’s illness and we understood each other. After a long, warm conversation they apologized for asking, but had to ask me if I thought he’d be strong enough to play a couple songs (not a full concert) at an upcoming event called “Creative’s for a Cure, which was to be held in March, just two months away.
This was a high profile event put together by Detroit’s advertising agencies to raise money for cancer and related illnesses. I thanked them for the call and told them I’d get back to them.
When I reached Stewart I knew right away how much he was struggling. He was bald, skinny, housebound, and bedridden and in a lot of pain from mouth sores and various other ugly and painful things, post-transplant. He was also still eating Cream of Wheat.
I was working and was not home until after midnight. He had a habit of calling me at “early-thirty.” When we connected I asked him about the gig and his response was a whispered: “Hell yes, I’ll play it. Tell ‘em I’ll be ready,” and then he hung up.
He’s never hung up on me since.
The winter was depressing. I was working a job I hated from 4- Midnight, but from 9AM-3 PM, I was doing the best I could to “work the record.” Meanwhile, Stewart was still eating cream of wheat. There were other complications that ebbed and flowed; each one scary in its own right. If getting well again wasn’t enough motivation for him, returning to the stage was. He began playing his guitar or piano every day.
When the curtain eventually rose at the State Theater in Detroit, his voice filled the room. I sat alone and wept.
The people were there to raise money, awareness and/ or find hope for someone they loved who might be suffering from some form of cancer. When the applause died down after the first of his three songs, Stewart uttered the most profound words of the night: “I want to thank you for what you are doing,” he said. “And I want you to know that I am living proof this works.”
We understood how Stewart knew the difference between being alive and living.
In the sacred brotherhood of friendship, Stewart and I had already exchanged blood through our veins. How he had willed his way back to the stage again so quickly is something I‘ve never understood. But he assured me that Rock and Roll held a trans-formative power. It has the ability to not just send you; but it change your circumstances.
And I thought to myself shit, I’ve known that for ten years.
Unfortunately a lot of momentum was lost in his career during his time of illness because rock and roll is a fickle business. Suddenly he was known as Stewart Francke, cancer survivor. But this was a badge he was proud to wear. As I and others lined up interviews on radio, TV and in the newspapers I found myself reminding the writers that he was a great musician long before he had cancer and that he would continue to be a great musician for a long time to come. What stuck with them; I don't know.
Since his transplant and recovery he has spent thousands of volunteer hours in people’s homes, in other hospitals and of course at Karmanos where he’d talk to people while sitting on the edge of their bed, telling them: “I’ve been where you are and you will make it just like I did.”
Most of them did; some did not.
Stewart has never turned down a request to play a benefit concert, make a visit or talk to someone who found themselves in the same situation where he was when he took ill. And every penny I will ever make in my lifetime says he never will.
The Detroit media who once wrote about his brilliant music and lasting impact on the Detroit music scene has unfortunately ignored his last few records and so have those involved in the Detroit Music Awards. This is a fact that doesn’t bother him nearly as much as it does me. But we’re moving forward and getting ready to release “Midwestern” his sixteenth record. You will love it.
There has never been a songwriter from Michigan as consistently prolific, relevant and who has released as many critically acclaimed and audience approved records in their lifetime as Stewart. And I promise you; that will never change.
Sixteen years. Wow. Where has the time gone?
Please Tra-la-la l-la-la la-la with me and Neil Sedaka. . .even if it’s cheesy. After being infused with his sister’s DNA, these words ring true. . .even though he is not the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.
Happy Birthday Sweet 16 Counselor!