Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Philadelphia Story

The man's name was Bob Marcucci and he did things that people don't do these days.  He died recently in Los Angeles, but his story begins in his native Philadelphia, where he was working as a waiter in an Italian restaurant in 1957.  That's when he borrowed $10,000 from his father and started a record label known as Chancellor Records (there's a Chancellor Street in Philly.)

Those being the nascent days of rock 'n' roll, three years later, the small label grossed $2 million. The first big seller for Marcucci was a kid who showed some musical talent.  Born Francis Thomas Avallone, he was a teen trumpeter and he thought he could also sing a little, but would prefer to keep tooting the horn. Marcucci said, "Give me a year and I'll make you a star."  The first two records they released on the young man failed to hit the Top 40, or the Top 4,000 for that matter.  But then, Marcucci wrote a little ditty called "De De Dinah."  The young man with a horn put the trumpet down, stepped up the mic and sang the song while holding his nose to create a distinctive vocal sound, and went on the road, now known as Frankie Avalon.  He's still known that way and he is still out on the oldies revue circuit, still singing "De De Dinah" and other hits.  Regular viewers of cable tv know him as Teen Angel, singing "Beauty School Dropout" in the movie "Grease."
"He was my mentor, he was my creator, and he really put all of his time and efforts into creating a star," Avalon told the Los Angeles Times. "He had so much zest for life. And with his enthusiasm for show business and the people that he believed in, he just wouldn't stop."

Well, a guy with some musical talent is one thing to make into a star, but here's the real kicker.  Frankie's sister went to school with a 15-year-old kid named Fabiano Forte.  As the legend goes, Marcucci was in the South Philly neighborhood where the Avallones lived when he saw an ambulance in front of a house and an upset looking kid on the porch.  The kid was Fabiano Forte, who was pondering the family's fate.  His father, the breadwinner for the family, was a Philly cop, and in those days, a cop who went sick was a cop who went without a paycheck, so naturally, Fabiano was worried.

Marcucci asked the lad if he could sing or if he were interested in being a singer.  Answer to both: "No."
But you don't get to be a millionaire show biz mogul by taking any amount of "nos" for answers.  He kept at it, and of course pointed out that the Forte family fortunes could be vastly improved by the proceeds from a couple of hit records.  Bob gave the singer a new name ("Fabian") and a new wardrobe. He beat the drum, hanging posters that read “Who Is Fabian?,” “What Is a Fabian?” and “Fabian Is Coming!” This was sort of the Facebook of the 50's - hiring kids to go around tacking posters on street corners and telephone poles. In June 1958, Fabian showed up on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” tv show, sporting a sweater, tight pants and white bucks.

“The little girls at the hop went wild,” Clark told The Washington Post. “They started screaming and yelling for this guy who didn’t do a thing but stand there. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Before buying his way out of his contract several years later, Fabian had hit records with “I’m a Man,” “Tiger,” “Turn Me Loose” and “Hound Dog Man.”

As is the way with teen idols, his popularity waned, and he wound up making a couple of movies before hopping on the oldies revue bus with Frankie Avalon.

And Bob Marcucci's Midas touch went away too. The last Top 10 hit for the Chancellor label was Claudine Clark’s “Party Lights,” in 1962, and by 1965 the label was out of business.

He moved to Los Angeles, as do so many, and he found work on the edges of show business.

And now, at long last, I can quit sitting around on our front porch wearing my plaintive, despondent face.  Bob Marcucci has passed on, and I guess I'll never be discovered.  Which is good, because I'm a terrible singer.

But there was a time when that didn't matter!

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