Frank Owens, Broadway Musician And Former Musical Director For IT'S SHOWTIME AT THE APOLLO, Passes Away

A pianist for nearly seven decades, Owens backed talent on Broadway stages, recording studios and TV sets - backing artists from Lena Horne to The Washington Ballet.

By: Sep. 18, 2023
Frank Owens, Broadway Musician And Former Musical Director For IT'S SHOWTIME AT THE APOLLO, Passes Away

The world of music lost another light with the sudden passing of renowned pianist Frank Owens, whose gifted artistic stylings graced the realms of jazz, classical, and pop music for some seven decades - backing artists ranging from Lena Horne and Ruth Brown to Johnny Mathis and John Denver to members of The Washington Ballet. He was 90.

In his career, Owens lent his talents to live stages, recording sessions, television productions, and intimate sets in venues worldwide.

His Broadway credits include performing in 1978's Ain't Misbehavin' and the run of Sophisticated Ladies that began in 1981, and not only took over the Great White Way, but also the Kennedy Center and Moscow. Owens also served as dance music arranger, musical director, and musical supervisor for the 1986 Maurice Hines production Uptown . . . It's Hot! Owens co-developed and served as musical director for 1983's off-Broadway revue, Shades of Harlem, as well as produced the corresponding double album. In 1999, he produced, directed, and performed in Elegant Ellington, a tribute production dedicated to Duke Ellington.

Among his many television credits, Owens served as lead pianist for the 1983 PBS special, Eubie Blake - A Century of Music and served as musical director for the inaugural - and morning - David Letterman Show in 1980. While Owens spent the better part of his career as a behind-the-scenes creator and player, legions came to know him as the suave impresario who led the house band for the televised series, "It's Showtime at the Apollo," a role he held for seven years. As the program's musical director, he aided the amateurs seeking fame and fortune weekly on the vaunted stage - and cued the music whenever the audience's legendary boos signaled those performances were not up to par. It was a beloved position, as "Amateur Night at the Apollo" helped launch careers ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to D'Angelo to Jazmine Sullivan to H.E.R.

His virtuosity endeared him to the likes of Chubby Checker, Melba Moore, Johnny Nash, Connie Francis, Petula Clark, and many others who insisted on his presence in their productions and for whom he served as musical director. His collaboration with Freda Payne dates back decades, and he contributed to an array of other radio and club favorites. For instance, Owens received a gold record for the Tony Orlando and Dawn hit, "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" for having developed its rhythm concept. Through the years, he also recorded and released his own albums, featuring original compositions.

In recent years, Owens lent his talents to National Tap Dance week celebrations and had served as resident pianist in locales such as New York's trend Mortimer's restaurant and the Carlyle Hotel. He hosted open mics at Cobi's Place in New York and had served as musical director for actor/singer/voice-over artist Keith David.

Owens, who split time between his native New York and Washington, D.C., died from injuries sustained in a traffic collision in the nation's capital on Sept. 15.

He is survived by his longtime partner, dancer and choreographer Mickey Davidson; his daughters, Laura and Bobbi Owens; his son, Dennis Owens; three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren; and a host of musicians and artists whom he mentored and encouraged throughout his storied career.

Plans for a celebration of life are pending.



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