Mambo’s Combo guitarist Billy Franze, who jammed with Prince and Jonny Lang, dies at 72

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Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune
·5 min read
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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 Bunkers in Minneapolis for 32 years. After a few more months stuck at home, though, the guitarist already said he wanted back in.

"Playing music was too much in his blood for him to remain a homebody," Combo drummer Michael Bland said.

Sadly, with gigs finally starting to line up again this summer, Franze never got to return to the stage. He died suddenly at his home in Eagan on Tuesday at age 72, likely the result of a massive stroke or heart attack, his family said.

Billy's wife of 17 years, Lisa Franze, said 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," Lisa said.

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 all-out omnipresence in local venues that many friends and fans were citing as news of his death spread through the community.

On the Mambo's Combo Facebook page, the band posted the news about losing "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 shows and more proud of how many Combo band members went 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 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 also played with Prince's in the early-'90s.

One of the drummer's favorite Franze stories from the Combo gigs was when Prince walked up from his regular booth, 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 Bunkers regular — in the studio on his breakout 1997 hit "Lie to Me." Then in 2000, Franze was enlisted to tour with Lang when his bassist Dale Nelson died in a traffic accident. The short-notice, high-demand gig with Lang that lasted about three years.

Another guitar-wiz mentored by Franze, Grammy-nominated instrumentalist and "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 shows, Franze was also well-known around the Twin Cities from playing with Billy Hollomon and Kenny Horst for B-3 Hammond Organ Night at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul, another well-loved weekly gig that lasted from the mid-'90s to 2011.

Through the '70s and '80s, he played with a wide range of popular bar bands in town, including Danny's Reasons, the Mystics, Doug Maynard, Mick Sterling and many more. He also performed in finer establishments with Patty Peterson and the Steeles over the decades.

Before his long tenure in Twin Cities venues, Franze got a taste of rock 'n' roll stardom while still a teenager living in Fort Wayne, Ind.

His rock band at the time, the Olivers, landed a national hit in 1969 with "I Saw What You Did," featuring Billy on vocals. After a contract dispute because of 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 through it," she said.

Mambo's Combo was set to perform June 13 outside the Hook & Ladder, a show that is now being turned into a tribute to Franze. A private memorial service and other musical fêtes are also being planned.

In addition to Lisa, Billy 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