Crooning through the ages
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
When one thinks of Frankie Avalon, it’s likely an image such as the one above is what comes to mind: him, on a beach with costar Annette Funicello, looking like they’re about to scare up some good, clean—and probably musically inclined—fun.
The image is certainly an iconic one—and not just for those of the era when “beach party” movies ruled the silver screen. In fact, the duo of Frankie and Annette looms large across time and generations, this squeaky-clean pair symbolizing a simpler time and harmless—albeit somewhat sandy—antics by the sea.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, because before Avalon was a beach-blanket heartthrob, he’d already had an entire successful musical career. Indeed, his pairing with Funicello was the second act in a career that has had many acts and is still ongoing, even though he’s left the beach behind for good.
Before he became Beach Blanket Frankie, Avalon was Teen Idol Frankie, a distinction he wore with seeming ease and a role for which he was actually better suited than many of his contemporaries. Avalon notched his status as a teenage dream neatly between the Twist craze of 1960 and the Beatles-led British Invasion of 1964. Avalon was the first of the massively popular pretty boys that would characterize this musical era, however, unlike his counterparts who would come later—such as Fabian and Bobby Rydell—Avalon had the musical chops to match his perfectly coiffed hair and matinee-idol looks.
In fact, Avalon got his start, not as a dreamy crooner of love songs, but as a trumpet prodigy, and it was as a horn player that he’d planned to make his musical mark. However, fate intervened in the form of Bob Marcucci, who discovered Avalon for his pipes rather than his horn, eventually giving the aspiring musician his first record deal.
What would follow would be an unprecedented string of hits including “Dede Dinah,” “Venus” (his biggest hit and the first to nab the number-one slot of the Top 40 chart), and more. In fact, during that first year, Avalon would chart an astonishing six records in the Top 40, and his reign of supremacy over popular music would continue for the next couple of years.
However, it wasn’t long before four lads from Liverpool came along, effectively ending the stint of classic crooning that characterized Avalon and his ilk. However, unlike most of his contemporaries, Avalon’s career was to experience a second coming, thanks, in large part, to the considerable talent and charm of a beloved Mouseketeer.
The Disney darling was, of course, the incomparable Annette Funicello, and her and Avalon would spend most of the mid-’60s starring in such sandy cinematic classics as Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo. The iconic pairing further cemented Avalon’s status as not only an engaging singer and entertainer, but also one of the good guys. Proof of that could be found in the enduring friendship between the matinee idol and the Mouseketeer, one that continued until Funicello’s death earlier this year.
Most performers only get one career arc, much less two, and if Avalon had faded into respectable semi-obscurity, content that he’d earned his place in musical history, no one would’ve been surprised.
But the crooner-turned-matinee-idol had other plans.
Avalon’s next iteration would also involve the big screen, and although his role would be smaller, his performance would have that iconic quality that has characterized so much of his life as a performer. The year was 1978, the character was simply dubbed “Teen Angel,” and “Grease” was most definitely the word.
In a scene that screams “somehow we got Frankie Avalon to film a cameo and we are going to make the most of it,” Avalon sings “Beauty School Dropout” to Frenchy with all the panache of a career crooner. Grease was an immediate and resounding success, and in the time it took Teen Angel to direct Frenchy to “Turn in your teasin’ comb and go back to high school,” Avalon had introduced himself to a whole new audience. And, given the kind of longevity Grease has enjoyed, that is an introduction that is made over and over again from one generation to the next.
These days, Avalon has come full circle. Instead of redefining himself yet again, he’s mining his various past lives for the ample material that makes up his concerts. He knows people come to hear the classics, and unlike some artists that have to reconcile themselves to all aspects of their back catalogs, Avalon revels in his. Now 73 years old, he remains the charming, baby-faced crooner—and he’s still one of the good guys.
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