FRANKIE AVALON

The quintessential teen idol of the music world may very well be Frankie Avalon. This trumpet-playing prodigy wasn't the first (depending on how far back you want to go, we could be talking about Elvis Presley, or Frank Sinatra in the '40s, or Rudy Vallee in the '30s, or...); Ricky Nelson and Paul Anka came along at about the same time, though legions of fans will make the case that Ricky was a more "serious" rock artist and Paul's forte was songwriting, while Frankie embodied something closer to the original concept of an American Idol. One thing setting this late '50s generation of adolescent-girl-magnets apart from their predecessors is that they were actual teenagers. Avalon had more than just his image going for him; a talented musician and singer, he also followed Elvis and Ricky into the acting arena, evenutally adding "top-grossing box office movie star" to his list of distinctions.

South Philadelphia provided the backdrop for Francis Thomas Avallone's trumpeting childhood. Father Nicholas Avallone taught him so well that he began winning local contests and in 1952, at age 13, he appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show, which had recently been picked up by CBS-TV as a weekly variety series. In 1953 he signed with RCA Victor and had two instrumental singles on the company's "X" label starting with the Italian standard "Trumpet Sorrento" (also known as "Come Back to Sorrento" or, later, "Surrender"), which hit the Cash Box sales chart in March 1954. The label billed him as "Eleven Year Old Frankie Avalon," though he was actually 14. "Trumpet Tarantella" followed. After a couple of years Frankie, still playing his horn, joined Rocco and his Saints, a local band with drummer Bobby Rydell and lead singer Andy Martin. Philly producer Bob Marcucci caught the act and was initially impressed with Martin's stage presence.

Then Frankie stepped out from behind his trumpet and sang one or two songs and Marcucci was sold. He signed the entire band to Chancellor, the new label he'd formed with partner Peter DeAngelis, who produced "Cupid," credited to the band with Frankie as lead singer and backed by the instrumental "Jivin' With the Saints," an early '57 single that was the label's fourth release. Then an appearance in Jamboree (a rock and roll movie with many stars of the day including Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Knox, Charlie Gracie, The Four Coins, Carl Perkins and others) gave Frankie screen time performing "Teacher's Pet" with Rocco and his Saints, though it was issued as a solo Avalon disc. These first efforts didn't sell particularly well, so bandmate Andy Martin (the group's original lead singer, after all) got his shot with a solid two-sider, "Sweetie Pie" and "Record Hop" (the latter was in Jamboree), but it also failed to pick up much radio play.

So how were they going to spark people's interest? The answer came by accident when Frankie began fooling around in the studio with the latest Marcucci-DeAngelis tune, "Dede Dinah," singing it in a nasally voice. They had him do several takes, pinching his nose or just acting silly...and one of those was the version released, a top ten hit in February 1958. Frankie was a star...while many parents and over-30 "oldsters" found themselves yearning for the days when music acts simply sang into megaphones, like normal people. The uptempo follow-up, "You Excite Me," eschewed any nose nonsense and stalled mid-chart. They had him do the nasal thing once more with "Ginger Bread" (backing vocals were by The Four Dates, another Chancellor act) and on close listen I'd say Frankie was trying hard not to laugh; at the end of summer it became his second top ten hit. Okay, enough already. A new discovery, Fabian, had joined the Chancellor roster and his vocal limitations were a bit more obvious. No need for Frankie to fake bad singing anymore...right?

His first hit ballad, "I'll Wait For You," received a traditional delivery by Avalon and though he hadn't quite mastered the romantic approach, it reached the top 20 near year's end (B side "What Little Girl," penned by Frankie with Sal Ponti, gave fans of the singer's frivolous side what they craved). All in all, a solid year on the charts! Then the major breakthrough came without warning. "Venus," the first of the young star's hits not written by Marcucci and DeAngelis, came from first-time's-a-charm songwriter Ed Marshall, whose plea to the goddess of love was straighforward: '...if you will, please send a little girl for me to thrill...' The song spent five weeks at number one in March and April '59 and made Frankie Avalon a household name (assuming he hadn't been close to that level already) while the arrangement came to typify the "teen" style.

Awards were not among the benefits of Avalon's successful career, but a compliment from one of his peers came when Connie Francis, the top-selling female vocalist of the time, had a top ten hit in the spring ot '59 with "Frankie" (written by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield), an adoring tribute ('...my darling, I'll never let you see me cry!') - how embarrassing for Frankie (though certainly not as bad as having all those young girls trying to tear his clothes off)! He followed "Venus" with a soft, sweet two-sider, "Bobby Sox to Stockings" and "A Boy Without a Girl," separate top ten entries, and "Just Ask Your Heart," making a strong showing in a year dominated by multiple-hit male solo stars (Domino, Lloyd Price, Bobby Darin, Brook Benton, Andy Williams, Jackie Wilson) including the tied-up-in-Germany Presley (scoring hits stateside anyway) and teen idols Anka, Nelson and fellow Philly boys Fabian and Rydell.

But then 1959 wasn't quite over yet. "Why" (instant answer: '...because I love you!'), a Marcucci-DeAngelis tune following several hits by various writers, reached number one the final week of the year. Philadelphia's leading teen star had topped all the abovementioned hitmakers with five top tens (two of them number ones) in the '59 calendar year. How could he possibly top this? Not with more top tens (because he never had another!), but by hobnobbing with icons of the silver screen as his acting career suddenly took off. Ricky Nelson had nabbed a starring role in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo months earlier and westerns were still big in 1960; Frankie started with a role in Guns of the Timberland starring Alan Ladd, then joined Bravo star John Wayne in blockbuster (and budget-buster) The Alamo (also directed by "The Duke"). 45s continued getting transistor exposure and sold well, too; "Don't Throw Away All Those Teardrops," "Where Are You" and "Togetherness" all made the top 40.

Among a handful of chart entries, there was only one other top 40 hit ("Where Are You" in the spring of '62) and sales chart listings stopped cold that summer. Meanwhile, popular films like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the apocalyptic Ray Milland thriller Panic in Year Zero kept Frankie's face familiar to moviegoers. While appearances in films (and several TV drama shows) were piling up, he heeded the words of his greatest hit ('Venus, make her fair...a lovely girl with sunlight in her hair...I'll give her all the love I have to give as long as we both shall live...') and married former blonde beauty pageant competitor Kathryn "Kay" Diebel in 1963. Around that time, there was a widespread belief he was in an on-again, off-again relationship with singer and former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello...at least among those who have difficulty differentiating between entertainment and real life.

American International Pictures jumped on the bandwagon established with Sandra Dee's starmaking turn in Gidget back in '59. The popular beach movie trend had worked through its first phase as surf music started its rise in popularity, spanning Dick Dale's rocking guitar instrumentals and The Beach Boys' harmonies with many great bands and recordings in between. The August 1963 theatrical release of Beach Party, starring Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone but focusing mainly on the youthful sandy-shore adventures of Frankie and Annette (with songs by Dale and his Del-Tones), caused a sensation. Frankie's 45 of the "Beach Party" theme was his last on Chancellor, but there was little to no pain involved in leaving the label that had made him a star. Movie stardom was sweet; just the names "Frankie and Annette," when said together, represent one of the definitive phrases in 1960s pop culture.

Beach Party

Top-billed on all the sequels, Avalon and Funicello frolicked through two shoreline-set comedies during 1964, Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach. Then Annette was paired with Martian teenager Tommy Kirk in Pajama Party while Frankie made a cameo appearance. The two starred together again in 1965's Beach Blanket Bingo, then Frankie and Dwayne Hickman did the buddy thing in Ski Party that year, Annette and Dwayne appeared in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and whoever was missing made at least one cameo per picture. This game of musical chairs continued in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, then F&A headlined once more in the 1966 race car flick Fireball 500. Avalon kept making records into the 1970s, jumping from label to label (United Artists, Reprise, Amos, Metromedia) while juggling a full slate of film roles (Drums of Africa, I'll Take Sweden) and television appearances (Rawhide, Mr. Novak, Burke's Law, Combat!, The Patty Duke Show and comedy-variety series like The Jack Benny Program and The Bing Crosby Show).

In 1976 he returned to the charts with a disco version of "Venus" (it was a trend: Al Martino had scored a hit a couple of months earlier with a disco-style "Volare"). In 1978, Frankie hesitantly took the role of "Teen Angel" in the highly successful film version of the Broadway play Grease starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John; his performance of "Beauty School Dropout" made him an "older idol" of sorts for a new generation of Bizarro-1950s-revival rock and roll fans. This predated the oldies concert revival curve and by the mid-'80s he was touring with Bobby Rydell and Fabian under the banner "The Golden Boys of Bandstand," as shows of this type became increasingly more common.

Parts in films and on television kept coming his way (son Frank Burt Avalon gave acting a try and had small roles in a few films, most notably 1984's The Karate Kid). His marriage to Kay continued going strong and has since passed the half-century mark. The music career had come full circle with additional concert packages pairing him with other '50s and '60s hitmakers. His movie career ran the cycle as well. In 1987, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello played their original characters as parental figures in Back to the Beach, a fun finale to the film series of two decades previous that had connected the names "Frankie" and "Annette" in a way that can't be undone.

- Michael Jack Kirby

NOTABLE SINGLES:




MORE ARTISTS

Ginger Bread Venus Bobby Sox to Stockings Just Ask Your Heart Why Don't Throw Away All Those Teardrops You Are Mine