It’s sort of unfair to cast this as our first “oh, no” song of the day. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
The idea of the teen idol as music star has been around since at least the World War II era, when young girls in bobby sox wet themselves over Frank Sinatra. I’d say the big difference between the early days of this phenomenon and what took hold in the 70’s was that the later teen idols offered music that was empty and unmemorable. Not exactly their fault in most cases; their handlers were marketing an image and the music was incidental. Compare that to Sinatra in the 40’s, Elvis in the 50’s, and the Beatles in the 60’s – there was plenty of substance behind the hype; all three artists have endured to this day. Sure, there were always talentless hacks like Fabian out there, but by and large, these artists had something to offer besides a pretty face. Even the Cowsills, the prototype for teenybopper groups like this, showed some musical chops.
It might be more accurate to call the Jackson 5ive the prototype for these kinds of groups – a vocal group consisting of siblings led by the youngest. Of course, the Jacksons’ musical credentials were beyond reproach. The Jacksons spawned the Osmonds, who had actually been around since the early 60’s (in fact, “One Bad Apple” was rejected by the Jacksons because they didn’t have time to record it, and it was they who suggested shopping it to the Osmonds). Make no mistake – the Osmonds were HOT in the early 70’s and every major label wanted a Donny of its own. The teen girl magazines such as 16 and Tiger Beat were always looking for fresh faces to put on their covers as well, which brings us to today’s, um, featured artist.
The DeFranco family hailed from Canada and consisted of siblings Benny, Marisa, Nino, Merlina, and lead singer Tony, who had been performing as the DeFranco Quintet. They had recorded a demo tape that found its way into the hands of Tiger Beat editor Sharon Lee, who convinced publisher Charles Laufer to invite the group to Los Angeles for an audition. They had found their fresh face, and Laufer signed the group to his entertainment company and got them a recording contract with 20th Century Records. It was clear that the label and magazine were really interested in Tony, who was all of thirteen years old, because when they got into the studio, his musical siblings were replaced by Wrecking Crew veterans Hal Blaine (drums), Larry Carlton (guitar), and Max Bennett (bass). Yep, mostly the same bunch that was behind the Partridge Family. Hey, you betroth yourself to a label, you do what they tell you to do. Their lawyers are better than your lawyers.
Not that deferring to the label’s wishes was a bad thing – today’s featured song, their debut single, climbed to #3 in the U.S. and Canada in the fall of 1973 and sold two million copies, thanks in no small part to the marketing might of Tiger Beat, who featured their discovery often. The DeFrancos appeared on American Bandstand multiple times, as well as several appearances on Dinah Shore’s and Mike Douglas’s programs and once on Sonny & Cher’s variety show. Two more hits and another album followed in 1973 and ’74, and it seemed that Tony DeFranco was poised to become the next Donny Osmond. Then the wheels fell off.
Their fourth single, “Write Me A Letter,” was, to be kind and charitable, a fresh, steaming pile of shit. I tried to listen to it on YouTube and bailed out in less than a minute. Not that our featured song is any kind of beloved all-time classic, but this one was so bad the record company fired the producer. They brought in Mike Curb from MGM, who had worked with the Osmonds and made Donny a successful solo artist by having him sing execrable covers of 50’s love songs. Curb tried to take the DeFrancos in that direction, and their response was to sever their ties with 20th Century and Charles Laufer. Hey, they were artists and had integrity. Riiiight. Integrity gets you nowhere when you tell a major record label and a major entertainment company to go to hell – they were unable to get another recording contract and finally gave up in 1978. In a 2002 interview with Gary James, Tony DeFranco said, “We had a lot of success very quickly but unfortunately there were some bad management and record company decisions and we didn’t put our foot down in certain situations. We were totally ripped off.” Classic story of getting screwed by the people who invented the game and don’t tell you the rules. Today, Tony is a real estate agent with the prestigious Sotheby’s International Realty, and despite the ugly way it ended, has fond memories of his time in the spotlight:
“…(R)egardless of what happened financially with the situation, it was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Very few people get to experience that. To put good money after bad, to hire attorneys, I don’t think it’s worth the effort. We weren’t the only people to be taken advantage of in the music business and it still continues to this day.”
Gee, I almost feel bad now about putting this in the “oh, no” category, but put it there I must. Bubblegum music certainly has its place, but it’s clear Tony DeFranco’s appeal was based strictly on looks. The song was embarrassing enough to hear in 1973, and hearing it in 2014 is positively surreal. So let’s rack it up and hear it! Here’s the DeFranco Family, who didn’t play on this record at all, with “Heartbeat – It’s A Lovebeat.”
Good God, let’s go back in time and bulk erase the master tape!
Will tomorrow’s song be good…or EVIL? Tune in then and see for yourself!