Frankie and I go way back. Once upon a time, I taped Muscle Beach Party off TV. It was on in the middle of the night on CITY-TV’s (Toronto) Not So Great Movies. Imtellinya, I watched that movie dozens of times and it is still today one of my Top 23 movies. Because of this film – and so much more – Frankie Avalon has always been tops in my book
Francis Thomas Avallone was born September 18, 1940 in Philadelphia. Now, don’t get me started on the Keystone State. I’ve talked before about the ridiculous amount of artists and prominent people that hail from Pennsylvania and the boy who would become Frankie Avalon is one of them. As an adolescent, Frank was friends with both Bobby Rydell (born Ridarelli) and Fabian Forte who were from the same neighbourhood. Their association would last the rest of their lives. Frankie Avalon was something of a trumpet prodigy in his youth and his dream had been to start a big band akin to his hero’s, Harry James. Indeed, Avalon released two instrumental singles featuring his trumpet playing; “Trumpet Sorrento” b/w “The Book” and “Trumpet Tarantella” b/w “Dormi Dormi” were released on the glamourously-titled record label X Records in 1954, when Frank was just 14 years old.
When impresarios Bob Marcucci and Peter DeAngelis came to South Philly to scout for rock ‘n’ roll singers, they asked Frankie – whom they had known for years – if he knew any vocalists. He suggested they come down to hear the singer in the band he was in but when they heard him they were unimpressed. During the show, Frank put down his trumpet and sang a couple songs and the two men flipped. They approached Frankie afterwards but he shrugged them off saying he had no desire to be a singer. Marcucci and DeAngelis, though, were persuasive.
Three years later, Frankie and his trumpet appeared in an obscure rock ‘n’ roll film called Jamboree, a 1957 movie that also featured Dick Clark, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. Avalon’s two handlers then took him into the studio to record a song that they had written called “DeDe Dinah”, a goofy little number. The day of the recording, Frankie had a head cold and it was Marcucci who suggested that Frank go ahead and record the song holding his nose. DeAngelis and Avalon were both against the idea but because Frank was in poor voice that day anyway he went ahead with the novel idea. Because of or in spite of the nasal sound, “DeDe Dinah” – arranged by guitarist Al Caiola – leapt up the pop charts peaking at #7 and #8 on the R&B charts. Frankie Avalon had mixed feelings. It was great to have a Top Ten hit but he not only was not convinced that he wanted to be a singer but he felt sure he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a singer of a gimmicky, trite song like “DeDe Dinah”.
With “Ginger Bread” (1958), Frankie found himself in a similar spot, singing a lightweight song in a nasal style that did not showcase his actual voice – and ending up with a hit. “Ginger Bread” – actually a fun tune – was another Top Ten song. “I’ll Wait for You” from the same year is a refreshing change. The ballad with a straight vocal charted only slightly lower hitting #15. And then early in 1959, at a time when harder rock ‘n’ roll was giving way to the teen idol sound, Frankie Avalon struck gold.
“Venus”, another lovely ballad, featured ethereal female voices and a pitch-perfect vocal from Frank. The song was a smash hit, spending 5 weeks as the #1 song in the country and it became Frankie Avalon’s signature tune. It established him as the premier romantic ballad singer for the younger set. Other Top Ten songs from Frankie’s big year of 1959 included the excellent “Bobby Sox to Stockings”, “A Boy Without a Girl” and the buoyant “Just Ask Your Heart”. This lead to his second and last #1 song released that winter, “Why”. Another gentle ballad, “Why” was a Marcucci/DeAngelis original that was both the last #1 song of the 1950’s and the first #1 song of the 1960’s.
“Venus” certainly has a quality to it but I suppose you could argue that the songs that were hits for Frankie Avalon were definitely aimed at young people and subsequently were easily accessible; the songs were perhaps not in the league of those sung by Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Frankie Laine and others. But that was of course by design. Frankie Avalon may be lumped in the “teen idol” category but I would argue that his voice – along with that of James Darren – was a fine one and given the right material Frankie put in some excellent vocal performances.
Keep in mind that here at SoulRide we don’t look down our nose at songs like “Ginger Bread”. Such songs are great fun and are perfect examples of this wonderful era. “Bobby Sox to Stockings” is absolutely charming in lyric and in composition and “Just Ask Your Heart” is a great malt shop melody. But let’s turn our attention to a real relic, an album of Frank’s that may not be hard to find but one that is not commonly referred to or talked about. Frankie Avalon’s Christmas Album from 1962 was something of a revelation for me. I find I’m constantly surprised by the type of Christmas music some artists record and I was similarly surprised by Frank’s refined record. Some of the best Christmas music is solemn and meant to be enjoyed by the fire and Frankie’s record fits this bill. Every track is gentle and features sumptuous orchestrations and Avalon’s excellent singing. The four original songs are a particularly impressive addition to his canon. It certainly shines when compared to the Christmas music of some of his contemporaries. Paul Anka’s Christmas record is a fractured, ridiculous affair with arrangements that render it almost unlistenable. Bobby Darin’s may be classy but it is loaded with spirituals, hymns and Latin which make the record something of a challenge to enjoy.
Frankie’s original record label, Chancellor, folded in 1963 and while recordings seemed not to be where his future lay, Frank was signed by United Artists Records. American-International sure missed the boat when it came to soundtrack albums but United Artists made sure to release a record that coincided with Frank’s appearance in 1964’s Muscle Beach Party, releasing Muscle Beach Party and Other Motion Picture Songs that same year. Side One was geared for the kids and contained re-recordings of the fun songs from the beach party movies. Frankie’s renderings of “Beach Party”, “Don’t Stop Now” and “Running Wild” are essential summer listening. Side Two finds Frank putting his stamp on legendary songs from other films, songs like “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Moon River”. Again, Frank is in excellent voice and the backgrounds are fine settings for his vocals. Actually, this record may sum up Frankie Avalon’s whole career. The first side is “Frankie” singing about “fun-in-the-sun” and doing a great job of it. Lightweight stuff that is infinitely enjoyable to hear. The second side is “Frank” getting the chance to really sing quality songs with mature orchestrations. I often think, particularly in the case of his Christmas record, that in some teenager’s homes in the early Sixties, a kid may have brought home Frankie’s Christmas album only to have his/her parents roll their eyes and scoff. But when the teenager gets a turn at the record player on a cozy Christmas night and that gorgeous record fills the room, the parents have no choice but to nod and accept the fact that “the kid sure can sing”.
I have to mention what is probably my favourite Frankie Avalon song. I suggest you seek out the CD version of the Muscle Beach Party album as it includes as bonus tracks every other side Frank recorded for UA. “Every Girl Should get Married” was a non-charting single from 1964 that is sheer bliss to hear. It embodies everything we retro-types like in an old song. A pure pop vocal, some adorable lyrics, a cool keyboard solo and ridiculously catchy female backup vocals. It’s a delight. “Be doo bee down dooby dooby dooby…”
With the dawn of the new decade, however, Frankie Avalon’s impressive but brief chart run came to a halt. Between 1960 and 1962, Frank enjoyed four more Top 40 hits but his successful singing career was essentially over. Between 1963 and 1970, Frankie released 13 singles and not one of them charted. But it was during these years that Frankie Avalon could be seen regularly on theatre and drive-in screens across the country.
Frankie appeared notably early on in his film career in John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960). Wayne had seen Frank in a previous western, Guns of the Timberland, and liked what he saw. Frankie’s character in the Wayne film – the fictional Smitty – is one of the only main characters to survive the events of the movie. Later that same year, Frankie began a long relationship with American-International Pictures. He appeared with Ray Milland in the AIP movie Panic in Year Zero! and later with Tab Hunter in Operation Bikini. He cemented his place in popular culture with the 1963 film from AIP, Beach Party. The first beach film from American-International carried on the new sub-genre started by Gidget (1959) and co-starred Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone. Cast as Frank’s girlfriend was former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and the two would go on to become the quintessential beach couple in several more films for AIP. Frankie would also appear in I’ll Take Sweden (1963) with Bob Hope and Tuesday Weld before heading back to American-International for a few more lightweight films that became staples of drive-in theatres. Fireball 500 (1968) is a pretty cool stock car movie that deals with moonshine-running in the tradition of Bob Mitchum’s Thunder Road (1958). The usual AIP team of actors and crew is on hand and Frank co-stars with his old buddy, Fabian, and his new buddy, Annette, and pretty Julie Parrish also appears.
After spending the Seventies in relative obscurity, Frankie amazingly scored a #1 hit on the Adult Contemporary charts with a disco version of “Venus” (#46 Pop). Then, in 1978, he cemented his place in the hearts of many with his role as Teen Angel in Grease. In the film, set in the Fifties, he sings “Beauty School Dropout”, becoming visible to a new generation. Ten years later, Avalon teamed again with Annette Funicello to reprise their “beach party” personas in the charming and actually quite funny Back to the Beach (1987). This fun movie hearkens back to the old AIP films with the added update of a married Frankie and Annette dealing with their children and Frank’s old reputation as the “Big Kahuna”. Lori Laughlin plays the couple’s daughter. Again, like the old films, many people make cameos including Dick Dale, Stevie Ray Vaughan (the two join forces for a blistering version of “Pipeline”), Connie Stevens, Edd Byrnes and Jerry Mathers, Tony Dow and Barbara Billingsley. After a 1995 appearance as himself in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, Frank joined his old pals Bobby Rydell and Fabian in the Golden Boys tour that continues to play many theatres and casinos across the country. On the home front, Frankie Avalon has been married to his wife, Kathryn, since 1963! The couple has 8 children and 10 grandchildren.
Frankie Avalon is one of those rare gems, really. He was truly an iconic player in the golden era who has persevered, enjoyed a scandal-free life and he is someone who has aged gracefully. It is perhaps unfortunate that he is also a good example of an entertainer who got caught up “paying the bills”; Frank got shoved into a niche in both his singing career and his acting career. Likely his dream of becoming Harry James was never going to be realized but as a vocalist he certainly had a much better voice than the songs he is known for illustrate. To hear what I mean, I suggest you seek out his reverent and classy Christmas record and a gem of an album track, “The Stolen Hours” from Muscle Beach Party and Other Motion Picture Songs. On the big screen, Frankie – possessed of an ability to play light comedy well – never got the chance to pursue a serious acting career in high quality films. When he scored a hit with the kids playing a tanned, surf-crazed teenager in goofy, lightweight, drive-in films, that was what he was called upon to appear in. Having said all that, Frankie seems like the type who is content with having given a generation of fans some fun and some wonderful memories.
** I profiled Frankie for Norwood Media‘s The Doo-Wop Express **