I have produced shows for almost 40 years now. And even though there is no doubt I am a classic rocker by virtue of my high school years in the 70s, the street-corner music of the East Coast from the 1950s and 1960s is also very close to the top of my list.
Frankie Avalon performed at our Arcada Theatre last week, and before the show, as we usually do, we sat and chatted about all the business endeavors with which he is involved. A food line, QVC items he sells, touring, appearances … I was exhausted by the end of the conversation! All during our talk, I'm looking at this fit-and-trim guy, with thick hair, not believing he is 78 years old!
"How do you manage to stay so young looking," I asked him. "Clean livin'," he said.
But then I thought about his contemporaries, all of whom I have worked with before, and all of whom are still going strong, and looking great! I am referring to Bobby Rydell, James Darren, Fabian and Lou Christie.
"They can't ALL attribute it to clean livin'," I thought. In fact, a couple of those guys had their fair share of run-ins with a bottle of Jack Daniels or two.
What do they all have in common?
They are all from Pennsylvania and all from Philadelphia, except Lou Christie, who was born in Pittsburgh. The music scene was hot there in the 1950s, illustrated by Dick Clark filming his hit television show "American Bandstand" in Philadelphia beginning in 1950.
Oh, and another tidbit they share is the olive oil that runs through their veins because they are all of Italian descent. Francis Avallone (Avalon), Robert Ridarelli (Rydell), Fabian Forte, James Ercolani (Darren) and Lugee Alfredo Giovanni Sacco (Christie) all grew up in Italian neighborhoods similar to that depicted in that great film "A Bronx Tale."
As Avalon was backstage just about to go on, we both watched his opening video. It began with a young Frankie playing the trumpet on the iconic television show "The Honeymooners."
"I was only 12 back then, and I loved to play the trumpet," Frankie said. "My first recordings were with the trumpet. Five years later, I recorded 'Venus.' It went to No. 1, and I haven't stopped since!"
I asked him about the "Philly" connection. "We all came from the same South Philly neighborhood (except for Christie), including the great Mario Lanza. Bobby and I formed a rock band when I was about 14 and it was rock 'n' roll all the way from then on," Frankie said. "And even though we all appeared on 'American Bandstand,' we didn't get the shot just because we were from Philadelphia, where they filmed it. Dick (Clark) only let us on individually when we had a national record out, and it had to be a good one!"
Bobby Rydell played The Arcada last year and it was fabulous! He was so engaging with the audience and also proud of his roots. He not too long ago had some serious health challenges, and frankly, I was a bit concerned. But boy, did he overdeliver!
We had a funny moment backstage before Bobby's show as we spoke about the rock band Cheap Trick, who was appearing at The Arcada soon after his performance. "Can you believe that my biggest hit, 'Volare,' was considered a rock 'n' roll ballad back then?" Bobby asked. "How many Italian restaurants play Cheap Trick music while you are eating pasta and meatballs?"
James Darren appeared for us at our Little Italy Fest--West in Addison a couple years ago. What a classy and humble guy! He still has the look of a "teenage heartthrob," and his show was a definite throwback to his days as Moondoggie on the famed "Gidget" films of the 1960s. He is quite a performer and still a "neighborhood guy."
Lou Christie also appeared recently at our Italian Festival in Addison. He can still fire off those high notes in his huge hit "Lightening Strikes." He is another example of "time standing still" good looks, and Lou is as proud of his Italian heritage as he is his music.
"I probably would have done this festival for no money, just a bowl of your meatballs and your mom's spaghetti!" he said. Wish I would have known that BEFORE I gave him his check!
And Fabian Forte … still as laid back and humble as ever. One day in 1957, Fabian's father had a heart attack, and, while he was being taken away in an ambulance, a record producer happened to be next door at a friend's house. Fabian said, "He kept staring at me and looking at me. I had a crew cut, but this was the day of Rick Nelson and Elvis. He comes up and says to me, 'So if you're ever interested in the rock 'n' roll business … and hands me his card. I looked at the guy like he was out of his mind. I told him, 'Leave me alone. I'm worried about my dad'," he said.
When Fabian's father returned from the hospital, he was unable to work, so Fabian agreed to record a single. "I guess I had the look," he said.
These guys, all still working hard after 60-plus years in the biz, are true legends, great guys and never forgot the neighborhood they come from. Now, if they can only bottle that water from the Philly fountain of youth they all drank from, THAT would be a business I would be interested in!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.