Originally titled "Frankie and Albert," this traditional murder ballad was inspired by the real-life crime of passion committed by Frankie Baker in 1899. Frankie discovered her lover, Albert Britt, had been with another woman and took revenge by shooting him at a boardinghouse in St. Louis, Missouri. She would be acquitted under plea of self-defense.
The origins of the song as we know it today are a bit murky. That same year, local singer Bill Dooley composed a song sensationalizing the case, and it became a popular mainstay in local saloons before its official publication as "Frankie and Johnny" in 1904. The song was not credited to Dooley, however, but to ragtime composer/lyricist Hughie Cannon.
Frank and Bert Leighton's 1908 version, which was published as "Frankie and Johnny" in 1912, brought us the familiar opening:
Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts
They had a quarrel one day
Countless covers over the years have provided many variations of the song. Sometimes the duo are "lovers" instead of "sweethearts." Johnny's mistress can be Alice Pry or Nelly Bly. Sometimes, Frankie is cheered by onlookers as she shoots Johnny and is exonerated; other times, she's executed.
Many artists have recorded this, including Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Sam Cooke sang a cleaner version than most, which is the most popular contemporary cover. Here are the charting versions in America:
1959, #57 - Johnny Cash
1961, #20 - Brook Benton
1963, #14 - Sam Cooke
1964, #75 - The Greenwood County Singers
1966, #25 - Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley starred in a 1966 movie called Frankie And Johnny where he performed the song. In 1991, another movie of the same name was released starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, who in one scene banter over the song when they realize they are named Frankie and Johnny. The exchange:
Pfeiffer: Didn't they kill each other?
Pacino: No. She killed him. You got the edge there.
In 1942, the real Frankie Baker filed a defamation suit against Republic Pictures for the 1936 film Frankie and Johnnie, starring Helen Morgan and Chester Morris. Frankie lost the lawsuit and was never able to escape her reputation as a murderer, though she had been acquitted. She said during the (defamation) court proceedings: "I was pointed out as the worst woman in the world and introduced as the Frankie of song, instead of Miss Baker."
Brook Benton's R&B version was included in the 2011 compilation Mad Men: A Musical Companion.
Anika Noni Rose performed this in the 2011 miniseries Bag of Bones, based on the Stephen King novel. Rose played Sara Tidwell in the movie.