The DeFranco Family was Canada’s answer to The Osmonds, The Cowsills, and The Jackson 5. They were as synonymous with pop culture history as the 3 S’s (slinky, spirograph, and silly putty). If you had a lite brite, someone in your family probably had a DeFranco pin-up poster, customized bell bottoms, and their records. They were on TV and on the radio, packing the stadiums and put Canada in the realm of the ‘musical family.’
Antonio and Maria struck it big – They moved to Canada following WW II, and their five kids were all the rage growing up in the tiny town of Port Colborne, Ontario. They all tried out several instruments that were always laying around the house, and when Tony was only four, The DeFranco Quintet was born.
Benny, the eldest, had already making a buck while he was still in school teaching guitar, and had won various awards throughout Canada. Nino also settled on the guitar, Marisa on the keyboards, and Merlina and Tony both dabbled in drums and percussion. Eventually Merlina got the drum sticks.
Several family groups sprouted out of the GTA about the same time, but while most came and went, The DeFrancos’ following grew, and in the latter part of the decade, they were in constant demand for TV shows and benefits. They played at local parades, halls, churches and in front of any other good, clean, wholesome audience. The first show that wasn’t just instruments was when Tony was ten, when his mother bribed him $5 to sing “Hey Jude” at a large banquet in Toronto.
They were invited to audition in front of Tiger Beat Magazine executives. Mailboxes were full of letters from every teeny bopper on the continent, in love with the article without the kids actually having “done” anything yet. Recognizing a cash cow, Ted Laufer of the magazine inked them on paper with his entertainment company, and the family packed up and moved to Beverly.
But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Because the production and writing teams they would work with from here on in were American, recorded in the US, and distributed by an American label, they didn’t qualify as being Canadian anymore. This was established by the newly formed CRTC’s CanCon Regulations, requiring minimum MAPL (Music Artist Publisher Lyrics), which they no longer qualified as, even though they still maintained Canadian citizenship.
In less time that it took me to explain the catch to the CCR, Laufer had the kids off the tarmac and in the studios. Naturally, the label brought in their own production team to work with them, Pete Carpenter and Walt Meskell. They recorded enough material to demo for 20th Century Records, who signed them to a deal on the spot. and the gravy train was on the tracks by the summer of 1973.
They recorded in the famed United Western Recorders studios in Hollywood, (now known as Ocean Way Recording) with accompaniment by Wrecking Crew veterans Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Carlton on guitar, and Max Bennett (bass player). “Heartbeat, It’s A Lovebeat,” which made the top 3 on the charts on both sides of the border, would go on to sell 2 1/2 million copies worldwide. Within a month of its release, they were on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, where they drew the show’s largest response at that time, and returned eight more times throughout their career. Their follow-up singles, “Abra-Ca-Dabra” and “We Belong Together” also struck gold, all the while they were dressed up in matching bell bottom outfits and appearing in front of national TV audiences, guests of Jack Benny and Mike Douglas, among others.
Label reps tried to hurry out a follow-up album, but there was already tension between the producers Pete Carpenter and Walt Meskell and the family, who were now stars. They wanted more say in their direction and the opportunity to grow. Production ground to a hault when the family fought Meskell’s refusal to record one of Benny’s original compositions. They kissed, made up, and ultimately did exactly what Meskell, Laufer, and the label reps all wanted them to do – play what they were told to play – like the pile of material that had been carefully prepared for them but now costing 20th Century money while sitting on the shelf.
SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME was on kids’ record players by the summer of ’74, just in time for the new run of t-shirts, hats, and lunch boxes. They were now The DeFranco Family Featuring Tony DeFranco. The title track, a Motown hit for The Drifters, hit #18 in Canada, and they were back in business.
The band’s schedule across the continent was highlighted by a 3-month tour, followed later by a jaunt around Japan before year’s end. While they were overseas, “Write Me A Letter” was released while on the road, but disapointingly stalled and barely cracked the charts at all.
It was fully intended to keep the train moving, and have a third album on the shelves the next day, if management had their way. Meskell and Carpenter were fired, replaced by Mike Curb. He’d previously worked with The Osmonds and believed they could turn things around. Several weeks of recording were done, but the friction between the family’s management team and their clients mounted again.
By the end of 1974 the record was scrapped, the family was wondering what just happened, and like a car battery in the middle of an Alberta Lakeland winter that dies,our time in that small light of pop culture was over. Like that battery, you know you’ll have to replace it eventually, it just happened a little quicker and unexpectly than thought.
They tried to find a new deal while working the Vegas Strip for a few years, but now they were all growing or grown, and trying to adapt didn’t work. They all drifted back to reality that the ride was over, and eventually found normalicy outside of the business. Benny did production work, including working across the street from 20th Century at Disney. But in the end, he got out of show business and the entertainment industry all together, as had everyone else.
They reunited in whole or in part every now and then, including appearances at Rhino Records’ annual RetroFest, and their introduction to the compact disc in 2000. Because they were formulated to 2 1/2 minutes, every song they ever released conveniently fit on the disc, and even had room for two that got left on the cutting room floor 25 years earlier, “Gee Baby” and “Drummer Man.”