The Tragic True Story Behind Jackson Frank's Song Marlene

Musicians will sometimes use personal tragedies as a muse to inspire their lyrics. Who could ever forget the heartbreaking reason why Eric Clapton wrote his 1991 hit, "Tears in Heaven," a song he used to heal from the death of his young son, Conor (per BBC). Or the song Smokey Robinson wrote for his wife Claudette, who suffered a series of miscarriages when she was touring with his band in the early 1960s. "More Love" was penned to let her know that the singer still felt alive because he always knew that she would be there, a love song with lyrics that are sure to bring many to tears. 

One song that was written almost 60 years ago never received the radio play of Clapton or Robinson but still pulls at the heartstrings nonetheless. The lines "You know the fire it burned her life out / Left me little more / I am a crippled singer / And it evens up the score" reveal a great emotional tragedy from the songwriter's past that has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Those haunting lyrics, taken from the song "Marlene," were the beginnings of what could have been a great career in music for one of the industry's most tragic and nearly forgotten figures. Jackson Frank recorded the track in 1965, chronicling a tragic event from his childhood that would forever change the course of his life. 

A school fire took the lives of 15 of Frank's classmates

The tragic tale begins early one spring morning in March 1954. Eleven-year-old Jackson Frank was with the rest of his classmates that morning, singing in their elementary school music class at the Cleveland Hill School in the Buffalo, New York suburb of Cheektowaga (per WKBW 7 News). The classroom was located in a wood-framed annex off the side of the main building, with a furnace separating the original building and the addition. At just past 11 a.m., that furnace exploded and engulfed the annex with a wall of flames that began consuming everything in its path (via The Buffalo News). Newspapers at the time suggested an old, faulty boiler was probably to blame for the explosion. As the flames raged inside the classroom, children were frantically trying to escape. Locked windows made an easy departure impossible, however. Panicked students were forced to break the glass and jump out to safety, many of them cutting themselves on the shards of glass they were forced to jump over or climb by.

The fire left substantial casualties in its wake. Ten of the students never made it out of the classroom, their bodies consumed by the conflagration. Five more students that were able to escape the fire later died in a local hospital (via The Buffalo News). Frank was one of the lucky ones, though he was definitely a physical casualty of the incident — the future musician suffered severe burns on half of his body. But the scars the fire left on his body would be nothing compared to the ones left emotionally.

Paul Simon produced an album for Frank

One of the students who died in the fire was a young girl named Marlene Dupont (per WKBW 7 News). The media outlet reports that Dupont was Frank's "6th-grade sweetheart," whose death would forever change his life and serve as the influence for the song he is most known for, "Marlene."

When Frank was recovering from the fire, a teacher gave him an acoustic guitar. Frank learned to play and later became a musician whose lone album served as an influence on many players in the folk music scene of the 1960s. With the money he was given as part of an insurance settlement from the fire, Frank traveled to England in the mid-1960s. While living there, he became acquainted with Paul Simon. Simon was impressed by Frank's talent and agreed to produce his debut album. "Jackson C. Frank" was released in 1965 and became a favorite among fans of the genre. 

Frank's star fell quickly. When he returned to the United States, he found himself broke after blowing most of the settlement money when he was overseas. The death of his child, a marriage that failed, and a series of physical and mental health issues haunted Frank until he died in 1999. But though his time in music was short-lived, he made a significant mark on the industry. Frank was posthumously inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2015.