Frank Brunson of Buffalo, a Top 40 hitmaker with one of the most dynamic voices to come out of Buffalo, died Saturday in Veterans Affairs Medical Center after a long illness. He was 78.
Mr. Brunson, inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2002, made the Billboard charts 10 times during the 1970s and into 1980 with his band People's Choice. The band specialized in a brand of funk that was huge in the discos, and its biggest hit was "Do It Any Way You Wanna," which went to No. 11 on the Billboard pop singles chart and No. 1 on the R&B charts. It was a gold record.
But Mr. Brunson's legacy went way beyond the hits. He started his career as a pop and R&B singer in the 1950s, cutting singles on Gee Records.
Bob Skurzewski, who is nearing completion of a book on the early years of Buffalo rock 'n' roll, interviewed Brunson several times and became a close friend. He said Mr. Brunson told him that he walked away from the Gee deal because Gee was distributed by RCA and RCA was putting too much energy into pushing another new performer -- Elvis Presley.
Mr. Brunson also was a good friend of the legendary Jackie Wilson. Wilson, Mr. Brunson related, had him open a show, and when he walked off into the wings to huge audience reaction, Wilson asked him what he was doing.
Mr. Brunson told Wilson that he was finished with his set.
"They don't think you're done," said Wilson, sending him back onto the stage.
"Frank was always amazed that a star like Jackie Wilson would do that for him," said Skurzewski. "Frank was talented . . . that little guy, that big voice."
The stature gave him the nickname "Little Frankie Brunson" early in his career. The voice earned him the name "Big Daddy" when he recorded for Wilson's label -- a deal he walked away from after he released "Big Daddy's Blues" and all of the songs he wrote had other people's credits on them.
Mr. Brunson was born in Buffalo, the son of the Rev. John A. and Sarah Brunson. He began singing at his father's churches in Dunkirk and Silver Springs.
After he developed heart problems in the mid-1980s, he returned to Buffalo in 1990 and wound up back in church, becoming the family man he hadn't been able to be while on the road. For most of the 1990s, he was the rock that anchored most of the music groups at St. John Baptist, one of the city's largest churches.
"It seemed to make the service; the whole service culminated at his solo," said Gregory Treadwell, who was music coordinator for the groups Mr. Brunson worked with -- the Radio Choir, Men's Choir, United Mass Choir, St. John United Voices Choir and Frank Brunson & the Hitmen.
The latter group was formed specifically to perform with Mr. Brunson in the Tralf. He continued singing even after he had to use a wheelchair after suffering a stroke in 2002, Treadwell said.
"He couldn't sing as long as he wanted to, but it was a joy just to hear him sing," said Treadwell. "Just seeing his face could cheer people up."
In addition to performing, Mr. Brunson also worked with two programs affiliated with St. John Baptist -- Project Gift, a program for special education students, and Project Promise -- and helped form a youth choir. He took the students to perform at hospitals and for shut-ins, Treadwell said. The choir is still going today.
Mr. Brunson was a Navy veteran of the Korean War.
Survivors include his wife of 15 years, the former Shirley Seals; three sons, Mark Brunson, Eddie J. Champion and Nathan D. Hemphilll; and four daughters, Marian Hailstock, Diane Girtman, Monique Williams and Sherida Alston.
A funeral will be held at noon Thursday in St. John Baptist, 184 Goodell St.
-- Elmer Ploetz
To listen to a song by Frank Brunson, go to buffalonews.com/webextras.