FrancoFrançois Luambo Luanzo Makiadi was born in the rural village of Sona Bata in the western Bas Zaire region of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then the colony of Belgian Congo). When he was still a baby, his parents moved to the capital city of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). His father, Joseph Emongo, was a railroad worker while his mother baked homemade bread to sell at a local market. At age seven he built a rudimentary guitar that he played to attract customers to his mother's stall. His talent was recognized by guitarist Paul Ebengo Dewayon who taught François how to play. In 1950, the twelve year old made his professional debut as a member of Dewayon's band, Watam, impressing audiences with his skills on a guitar almost as big as himself. Three years later, François recorded his first single Bolingo na ngai na Beatrice (My love for Beatrice) after he had become part of the house band for Loningisa Studio. The band leader, Henri Bowane, shortened his given name to "Franco", a tag that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Under Bowane's tutorage Franco became a lead guitarist skilled at the Congolese guitar display style called sebene, and also began writing songs for Loningisa artists and singing some himself. By now he had embraced the Cuban rumba and other styles of African music mixed with Latin influences.

In 1955, although he was being given plenty of studio work, Franco formed a band with Jean Serge Essous that debuted in the OK Bar in Leopoldville. The following year the band was renamed OK Jazz (later TPOK Jazz) in honor of the place it had begun. Within a year of its founding, OK Jazz, now with singer Vicky Longomba, was challenging Grand Kalle's African Jazz as the biggest group in Congolese music, and it continues to be the standard by which modern Congolese musicians are judged. In 1958, Essous left OK Jazz, as 19 year-old Franco went on to become the main songwriter of a constantly metamorphosizing group that ballooned from six original members to about 30 in the 1980s. Franco claims that OK Jazz produced over 150 albums during the 30 years of its existence, though 84 have been conclusively documented, and the band dominated the Congolese music scene. In 1958, Franco was jailed for a motoring offense, but by now he had become a star in Léopoldville and crowds of fans enthusiastically greeted the release of their rebel anti-hero. This was a time when confidence was growing and Congo was moving towards the independence that would come in 1960. As the violence and instability then accompanying the transition to independence spread Leopoldville grew with migrants from the countryside and its nightlife continued to thrive. In 1960 Longomba left OK Jazz, leaving Franco as undisputed leader, of an enlarged band.

The continued violence in the country convinced Franco to move OK Jazz to Belgium to continue recording. When the situation stabilized under the rule of dictatorial President Mobutu Sese Seko, who named the new country 'Zaire', Franco was supportive and returned to play the Festival of African Arts in Kinshasa in 1966. OK Jazz in return gained government support as part of Mobutu's attempt to create an authentically Zairean culture. Nevertheless, Franco did not shy from political subjects in his songs, or from venturing from his accustomed 'praise' tradition of music to the 'preaching' tradition, leading to several arrests when he displeased the authorities. These brushes with the law only increased his popularity with his fans.