A Leninist and a Lennonist

January 20, 2015

Joel Geier recalls how the life of his lifelong friend and comrade Frank Fried was intertwined with the radical social and labor movements of the past.

MY DEAR, close friend and comrade Frank Fried has died. Frank's amazing life was legendary. He was a large figure in important political battles, fulfilling his life's mission as a fighter for working-class emancipation and the liberation of the oppressed.

What's more, his career ran "from Lenin to Lennon," as he humorously put it. He was a musical Houdini, reinventing popular venues and performances as the leading show promoter of his generation. He used his position as a "show biz red" to aid the civil rights, antiwar and socialist movements. His legions of friendships with unsung movement activists from all parts of the left extended to Martin Luther King, Ed Sadlowski, Daniel Singer and a Who's Who of musical greats.

Frank's radicalism began early when the death of his father threw his middle-class family back into the working class during the depression of the 1930s. His next radical step was joining the University of Chicago Young People's Socialist League when he was 16.

There he came into conflict with the local leaders of the Socialist Party (SP): Gertrude Himmelfarb and her husband Irving Kristol, who would be future founders of neo-conservatism. They told Frank he was "too Bolshie" for the SP. He took their advice and at 17 joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He never looked back, remaining for the duration of his life a revolutionary socialist, a Marxist, a defender of the Russian Revolution and workers democracy, and an anti-Stalinist, unwilling and unable to bend to any betrayal, to apologize for any tyranny or any crime. It was this that made his Trotskyism a proud badge to wear for life.

Frank Fried
Frank Fried

When Frank was demobilized from the Navy in 1947, he became a full-time activist in the defense campaign for James Hickman, the Black steelworker who shot and killed the slumlord responsible for the apartment fire that killed four of Hickman's children. The work of the Hickman Defense Committee--and Frank's role in it as a rank-and-file foot soldier--are retold in Joe Allen's superb book People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago, published by Haymarket Books.

In Frank's eyes, it was the best thing the SWP did in his years of membership--a broad-based political campaign that won freedom for Hickman, justified by the conditions that brought on the murder. It is inconceivable that what the Hickman Defense Committee accomplished could occur in today's supposed "post-racial" criminal "justice" system. The Hickman case opened Frank's eyes to the conditions of ghetto life in segregated Chicago and left him a lifelong fighter for Black liberation.

FRANK WAS later "industrialized"--sent to work in a core industry to build revolutionary workplace organization--by the SWP as a steelworker in Pittsburgh. His experience in basic industry created a lifetime commitment to all militant labor struggles and rank-and-file working class activity. Frank drew on this when he played an exceptional role in the Steelworkers Fightback Movement in 1976-77, tirelessly campaigning and building support for Ed Sadlowski's campaign for president of the United Steelworkers of America. The two would become lifelong friends.

During the course of that campaign, Frank became friendly with the International Socialist (IS) members who worked in the steel industry and played a part in the Steelworkers Fightback movement, the last insurgency of the rank-and-file movements of the 1960s and '70s. The seriousness, dedication and talent of our comrades as rank-and-file organizers impressed him. He started to attend IS meetings. When I spoke on the Portuguese Revolution, he attended, and that began what was to be our long and deep friendship.

Sadlowski's running mate, Marv Weinstock, was a comrade of Frank's from the American Socialist group (often referred to by radicals as the Cochranties, after their leader Bert Cochran), which was expelled from the SWP in 1953. They attempted to retain the legacy of Leon Trotsky while collaborating with other leftists, overcoming sectarian divisions. American Socialist, the group's magazine, was an organizational publication, but one that also tried to discuss and publish other socialist views. American Socialist served as one of the inspirations for our own International Socialist Review, of which Frank was a great fan.

For some years, Frank was the Chicago organizer of the American Socialist group, and his skillful and effective work made it probably the liveliest and most successful of the American Socialist branches.

During a layoff from U.S. Steel in 1956, Frank made the transition from steelworker to music promoter. He organized a benefit concert for the movement and in the process discovered the talents that set him on his new career path as an organizer of show business events. He followed in the footsteps of the greatest American impresario Sol Hurok, who began his career organizing benefits for the Socialist Party.

Frank successfully merged a career as a promoter with managing benefits concerts and other events for the movement. For the next 25 years, he was the principal presenter of folk and popular music in Chicago.

IN THE late 1950s and early 1960s, Frank was the director of the Chicago folk music scene, then a part of left culture. He managed artists like Martha Schlamme, the Chad Mitchell Trio and others, while arranging concerts for the Weavers, Odetta, the Clancy Brothers, Miriam Makeba and others. Frank's politics played a role in this new arrangement. He specialized in flouting the establishment's blacklist, producing events for performers whose careers had been sabotaged by the anticommunist witch hunts of the McCarthy years.

This started with Josh White and progressed to Pete Seeger, for whom Frank ran successful concerts when Seeger had trouble getting large bookings. Frank also specialized in arranging concerts for Black artists and managed the Gateway Singers, which was one of the first racially integrated groups.

Frank had an extraordinary ability to gauge the pulse of changing popular culture. He was among the first to sense the shift in popular taste from folk to rock music and nimbly used his promoting skills to encourage it.

He was the first to bring the Beatles to Chicago, and he later organized concerts for the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin and the Mothers of Invention. At the same time, his Triangle Productions was the vehicle for performances by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Barbara Streisand and Harry Belafonte, who became a close personal and political friend of Frank's. For a quarter of a century, Frank dominated the popular music scene in Chicago.

He used his connections in the entertainment world to further movement activities. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) asked him to produce "We Shall Overcome," the only record made by the SNCC Freedom Singers. Studs Terkel went to Frank to organize a delegation of artists to go to the 1965 Selma March. King requested and Frank organized a series of benefit concerts for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1968. Frank got Harry Belafonte to put on a benefit for the JOIN (Jobs or Income Group) in Uptown. These are just some highlights of what he was always doing, much of it lost to history.

Frank was not confined to musical production; he was an impresario of popular culture. He managed Madison Square Garden for a time, and for years, he ran the Rosemont Horizon arena as a sports and music venue. Then he headed the Delta Queen Steamboat Company.

FRANK WAS an internationalist, supporting struggles for freedom everywhere. Three struggles were particularly close to him: Poland, South Africa and Palestine.

He became involved with support for the Polish labor movement Solidarnosc, and through that he forged a collaboration and enduring friendship with Daniel Singer. Frank was for many years chairman of the Singer Committee, and he launched the annual Daniel Singer Prize, which is awarded at the Left Forum.

His involvement with South Africa began with his close personal ties to the great South African singer Miriam Makeba, attending her wedding to Stokely Carmichael. From that moment, he established deep ties personally and politically to the struggle against apartheid and for South African liberation. He traveled to South Africa and helped to provide support for the South African socialist magazine Amandla, becoming a member-at-large of its editorial collective.

Frank was an anti-Zionist Jew and a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause, even during the years when that was difficult on the left. His latest political project, which was cut short by his death, was organizing a large meeting for Palestine and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Frank was a totally engaged political person, but he was even more a people person. He collected people. I was one of them.

We first became acquainted in the 1950s in Hyde Park when my roommates were members of the American Socialist group, and they joined the Politics Club at the University of Chicago, of which I was an active member. The Politics Club was dominated by the Shachtmanites, who ran it as a broad-based radical group, presenting speakers from various socialist tendencies. It was where I first heard Harry Braverman and other American Socialist speakers. My Cochranite roommates brought me to Frank's apartment for parties. At one of them, I first heard Odetta sing.

But I wasn't in Chicago for most of the '60s and '70s. I didn't see Frank again until the mid-1970s when he came to hear me speak on the Portuguese Revolution, and when he became close to the IS comrades in Gary who were active in the steelworkers union. In 1981, I returned to Chicago and for some years worked as an interest-rate trader in the capital markets. During my first year, I didn't have enough "capital" to pay rent. I slept at comrades' homes. Frank generously offered to put me up on the couch of his small Chicago apartment.

During the next year, we became roommates, buddies, the closest of friends. Without Frank, I never would have made it. And he advised me to follow his own business career plan: "I drank the water, but only gargled, never swallowed." He remained true to the ideals of his revolutionary youth, of the commitment he made as a teenager to fight for justice, freedom, liberation. His was a life well spent.

Frank is survived by a large and loving family, of whom he was justifiably very proud: his wonderful wife, whose talents matched his, the mystery writer Alice Wilson Fried; his five children Pascale, Isabelle, Bruno, Troy and Teasha; and his nine grandchildren. A memorial service to celebrate Frank's life will be held January24 from 1 to 4 pm at the Grand View Pavilion, 300 Island Drive, Alameda, California. There will also be a memorial in Chicago on a date to be decided.

Further Reading

From the archives