Percy Franks and Jess Williams

It has been great fun to recall old memories of the first 1974 Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia. This month I remember two gentlemen from the original ragtime era.

Percy Franks 1893-1976

Percy Franks

Billed as “The Last of the Ragtime Kids,” Percy Franks came to the festival from his home in Kansas City. He began as a young performer working with Fred Allen, Fred Astaire, Sophie Tucker, and Blossom Seeley on the Pantages Vaudeville Circuit. Percy played the steam calliope and his primary duties included performing in the street parades to drum up an audience for the shows. The circuit began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and included many of Alexander Pantages’ 84 theaters across the continent.

Percy worked for the P. Lorillard Co. as a salesman for 39 years. Then, in retirement he returned to entertainment. On his retirement he moved to his home in Kansas City and returned to performing doing primarily charity work. He toured the midwest with his show, “Fun at the Piano.” One of his popular numbers was to play “Yankee Doodle” on a piano with one hand and “Dixie” on another piano with the other hand.

Through the 1960s he played an annual gig at the Broadmoor International Center in Colorado Springs. He also made regular appearances in Joplin, Missouri, at Mickey Mantle’s Holiday Inn. Percy always performed in period costume and played in Sedalia with an old straw hat, vest, and arm garters.

Percy participated in the first piano competition receiving honorable mention and was a popular performer at the Maple Leaf Club site during the 1974 festival.

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Jess Williams 1893-1977

Jess Williams was another popular performer from the original ragtime era. He and Eubie Blake had something significant in common in that they had both met Scott Joplin in person. Jess enjoyed recalling his meeting back in 1909 when Joplin was in town to promote his latest compositions at a Lincoln, Nebraska, music store. The composer joined some Lincoln Musicians Union members in a jam session next door in a pool hall where the group had been gathered when they heard Joplin was nearby.

Jess also related that Joplin played “The Entertainer” for them but explained the composer had originally called it “Goin’ Home.” What Williams played was quite a bit different from the by then familiar published composition.

Peter Lundberg remembers Williams recalling that Joplin “was a pleasant and open personality.” When asked whether Joplin used left hand tenths, (apparently a point of discussion at the festival) Jess replied that he did.

Jess enjoyed a long side career as a pianist and claimed to have a repertoire of “a week’s worth of ragtime in memory.” He personally composed over 20 songs in the 1920s and accompanied silent movies at several theaters in Lincoln back then.


As a Mason, Jess was a familiar figure around Lincoln and rarely missed a parade playing a vintage steam calliope. An editorial in the Lincoln paper on his death celebrated the hundreds of times the old calliope player entertained audiences “with a flair.” Just before his death he was invited to play at a music festival at the Smithsonian Institution.

Jess Williams playing at the Maple Leaf Club site in 1974 (SJIRF photo)

Like Percy Franks, Jess was a popular performer at the Maple Leaf Club site during the 1974 Sedalia festival and at other venues around downtown.

These two colorful gentlemen added a lot to the first Sedalia festival. Recalling them reminds me that the audiences at these events often have talented members with great stories to tell.

Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected].

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