Avalon, Frankie (1939—)

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Avalon, Frankie (1939—)

During the late 1950s, as record producers and promoters rushed to capitalize on the potent youth market, they aggressively sought out clean-cut young males to mold into singing stars. Seeking to fill a void that had been created in part by the absence of Elvis Presley, who was then a G.I. stationed in Germany, they purposely toned down the controversial aspects of the new musical form, rock 'n' roll. Unlike Presley, who emoted a powerful sexuality, the manufactured teen idols elicited a friendly, non-threatening demeanor. The engaging Frankie Avalon, whose skinniness prompted comparisons to an earlier generation's teen idol, Frank Sinatra, perfectly filled that bill. As he once explained, "I was one of those guys who there was a possibility of dating … I had a certain innocence."

A native of South Philadelphia, Francis Thomas Avallone was just eleven when he talked his father into buying him a thirty-five-dollar pawn shop trumpet (after seeing the 1950 Kirk Douglas movie, Young Man with a Horn). Avalon went on to appear in local talent shows, including the program TV Teen Club. The show's host, Paul Whiteman, christened him "Frankie Avalon."

A meeting with singer Al Martino led to an introduction to a New York talent scout, who in turn arranged an audition with Jackie Gleason. After appearing on Gleason's TV show, additional national shows followed, as did a contract with an RCA subsidiary label. For his first two records—the instrumentals "Trumpet Sorrento" and "Trumpet Tarantella"—the performer was billed as "11-year-old Frankie Avalon." He was twelve when he became the trumpet player for the South Philadelphia group, Rocco and the Saints, which also included Bobby Rydell on drums. As a member of the Saints, Avalon performed at local clubs, on local television, and even toured Atlantic City. The talented trumpeter also sometimes doubled as the group's singer. As a result of one such performance he caught the attention of Bob Marcucci and Peter De Angelis, owners of Chancellor Records. In 1958 Avalon signed a contract with their label, and went on to be managed by Marcucci, who also handled Fabian.

Though his first two Chancellor records were unsuccessful, Avalon enjoyed a hit with his third effort, "Dede Dinah," which he performed while pinching his nose for a nasal inflection. Though the record went gold, it was with the 1959 "Venus" that Avalon enjoyed his biggest success. Recorded after nine takes, and released three days later, it sold more than a million copies in less than one week.

Along with other heartthrobs of the day, Avalon became a frequent guest artist on American Bandstand. And like his teen idol brethren, including Philadelphia friends Fabian and Rydell, he headed to Hollywood where he was given co-starring roles alongside respected veterans. In Guns of the Timberland he shared the screen with Alan Ladd; in The Alamo he joined an all-star cast, led by John Wayne.

In the early 1960s, Avalon used his affable, clean-cut image to clever effect as the star and a producer of the Beach Party movies, in which he was sometimes romantically teamed with another former 1950s icon and close friend Annette Funicello. Made by the youth-oriented American International Pictures, the movies were filmed in less than two weeks, on shoestring budgets, and featured a melange of robust young performers, musical numbers, surfing, drag racing, and innocuous comedy. Despite the preponderance of bikini-clad starlets, the overall effect was one of wholesome, fun-loving youth. But in fact, the young people of the decade were on the verge of a counter-culture revolution. When it happened, Avalon, like many others who got their start in the 1950s, was passé.

He attempted to change his image by appearing in low-budget exploitation movies such as the 1970 Horror House. But despite his rebellion at what he once called "that damn teen idol thing," it was precisely that reputation that propelled his comeback. In the 1976 movie version of Grease, which celebrates the 1950s, Avalon seemingly emerges from heaven to dispense advice in the stand-out musical number, "Beauty School Dropout." Avalon's cameo appearance generated so much attention that he went on to record a disco-version of "Venus." He further capitalized on his early image with the 1987 movie, Back to the Beach, in which he was reunited with Funicello.

Avalon, who is the father of eight and a grandfather, has also capitalized on his still-youthful looks to market a line of beauty and health care products on the Home Shopping Nework. In addition, he performs in the concert tour "The Golden Boys of Rock 'n' Roll," in which he and Fabian and Rydell star.

—Pat H. Broeske

Further Reading:

Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. New York, Billboard Publications, 1988.

Miller, Jim, editor. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York, Random House, 1980.

Whitney, Dwight. "Easy Doesn't Do It—Starring Frankie Avalon."TV Guide. August 21, 1976, 14-17.