Great Moments In Canadian Music (Track 11): Confessions of a Teen Idol – Tony DeFranco & The DeFranco Family

With headlines like, “Tony’s ticklish! Find out where!”, a 13-year old Tony DeFranco was introduced to the world by Tiger Beat magazine, and became Canada’s entry in the teen idol world of the 1970s. Creepy by today’s standards, the magazine was famous for promoting fresh-faced young singers and actors to early teen and pre-teen girls, and crammed its pages with photos of David and Shaun Cassidy, Donny Osmond, The Brady Bunch boys and Bobby Sherman. The articles were secondary, usually fluff such as “The Real Donny – Sweet or sexy?” And whoever was featured on the magazine’s cover could become very, very famous.

That’s exactly what happened to Tony DeFranco and his four older siblings in The DeFranco Family. They went from being an obscure family group from Port Colborne, Ontario, to a chart-topping pop band seemingly in the blink of an eye in 1973, with the huge hit “Heartbeat – It’s a Love Beat.” Of course, it wasn’t that easy, and it took years of hard work, loads of talent, and lots of crucial support to get there. But the big break happened when Tony started showing up on the covers of Tiger Beat.

Cover of Tiger Beat Magazine featuring a young Tony DeFranco.

“Tiger Beat focused on non-threatening young men that still didn’t shave and all the young girls could fall in love with,” says Tony today, from his home in Los Angeles. “There wasn’t MTV or the internet. That was marketing, pure and simple. The young girls would go to the corner store, 7-11 or wherever, and they bought that magazine with their baby-sitting money.”

And then they’d buy records and watch TV. It was a perfect cross-promotional platform for all those Hollywood studios. It worked for The Monkees, The Cowsills, The Jackson 5, The Osmonds, The Partridge Family, and it would work for The DeFranco Family. Whether the groups had their own TV series or were guests on national talk and variety shows, it was a thing of beauty when it all clicked. The TV shows would get great ratings, the hit songs would soar up the charts, and the teen mags, Tiger Beat the leader, would fly off the shelves. The magazine always picked one of the boys in the family on which to focus, the youngest and cutest. So like Donny in The Osmonds, Micheal in The Jacksons, and, um, Keith in The Partridges, Tony got to be the star of The DeFranco Family.

There were five DeFranco kids, all actual family, not actors, and all in the band. Benny was the oldest, born in 1953, then came Marisa a year later, Nino in 1955, Merlina in 1957, and the baby was Tony, born in 1959. The driving force for the group was the patriarch, Antonio.

“It was definitely my father,” says Tony. “When he immigrated from Italy one of the first things he bought was a guitar for himself, and he considered himself a singer. He wanted his kids on stage, and one by one, it started with Benny, guitar lessons, Marisa, she was given the accordion, and so on. We were all given different things to do. My dad got me a drum kit, but I was all of four or five years old, and I couldn’t play it, I couldn’t reach the pedals so he gave it to my sister Merlina. He handed me a pair of maracas and said, dance and be cute. That’s how it started. There was no singing at that part.”

From the time he was four, Tony would play with his family wherever their dad could book them, all over the Niagara area, up to Hamilton and in Toronto. They were an instrumental group known as The DeFrancos Quintet, playing at civic holiday events, in parades, and doing lots of Italian weddings and gatherings. They did a lot of Italian songs of course, and the rest of the numbers were classics, show tunes, but they stayed away from pop tunes in the early years.

The DeFrancos Quintet performing during a parade in St. Catharines, ON. circa 1960s. Courtesy of Tony DeFranco.

Being on stage wasn’t a big deal to Tony, it was just part of being in the family. “My dad expected us to practice every day, either on our own or as a group. Then on the weekends, sometimes we’d have two or three gigs, it would be a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. So it was pretty frequent. I have an old diary which lists where we played, how much we got paid, like 25 dollars, and then it would be 125 dollars, whoa!

“We were definitely not a big deal. I think the biggest thing we did pre-fame was we flew out to Calgary and performed at the Stampede. It was my first time on a plane, and it was pre-singing for the band. I don’t know how my dad got that gig.”

Although he never rebelled, it wasn’t really Tony’s favourite way to spend his weekends. “I don’t know if I enjoyed it so much as a kid, but I had to get up there and do it. The people were all entertained, they loved it, they clapped and gave you a hug, and it was just normal. Here I am, 4 or 5 or 6 years old and going on stage with my siblings, and it was part of my childhood, I didn’t know any different. But I also didn’t embrace it, I don’t think. The first chance I got to go outside and grab my hockey stick, I’d do it.”

At first, Tony’s role was playing maracas and dancing, but later he was given a bass guitar. The gigs were changing too. “As we got older, we would now play longer, or multiple sets. At some point, singing was introduced, and my mom bribed me five dollars to go up on stage. I think it was ‘Hey Jude’ because I was singing that around the house. Everything changed when I started singing. We started introducing pop songs. I don’t know if we were all that good at it, but everybody kept telling us we were good.”

One person who was impressed was a would-be music entrepreneur from nearby Buffalo. “We were performing at a park in the Niagara Peninsula and a man named Ron Myers approached my dad. He said, ‘Hey you really have some talented kids here. I’d like to do a couple of things. I want to take some pictures and I would like to do some demos.’ In short order, we did just that.”

By then the family had moved to nearby Welland, Ontario, and Myers started coming over to the house to work with the group. “We’d have conversations, work on different songs. We did some really raw recordings, one mic in the room and you’re recording live. He was a very unique fellow who said he had been a tutor for The Osmonds, and he fancied himself a songwriter. A lot of them were sort of campy and Broadway-sounding, but hey, he was talented, somewhat. I will never speak ill of him because he introduced us to the next step, he got us to Hollywood.”

Myers said he had some contacts and sent off the demo tapes and group photos to record labels and industry people. One of those packages ended up on the desk of Tiger Beat publisher Charles Laufer. While Laufer wasn’t looking for a pop band, he did see something he was keen on, a potential new cover star for his magazine empire. So an offer was made to The DeFrancos.

The DeFranco Family press photo. Courtesy of Tony DeFranco.

“It was a situation where they said, ‘Chuck Laufer wants to fly the family out to meet you. No promises. No guarantees,'” says Tony. “We all went out, including mom and dad. We went to his house for a dinner party, and sat around the piano and sang a couple of songs. They said, ‘That’s great, we’ll get back to you.'”

Laufer’s vision at first didn’t include the rest of the siblings. “He was looking for a teen idol, he wasn’t looking for the family situation per se. But my dad said, ‘Hey, we’re a family, and we’re sticking together.’ So Chuck said, ‘Okay here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to push Tony in the magazine, and we’re going to then find you a producer and do some demos.'”

Still, nothing was certain, as Tony had yet to pass the crucial test. Would he click with tween-age girls? “Their gauge, as Chuck Laufner would say, was they ran a little tester photo of me on the front, and something inside the magazine, nothing too big. And they would gauge it by the amount of mail that would come into the offices of Tiger Beat. They used to get bags and bags of mail for different stars. These are the U.S. postal canvas bags. And he went, ‘Okay, we had two bags show up today, four or five feet tall, we’re on to something.’ So I got a bigger photo in the next issue.”

It was time for The DeFranco Family to make a big decision. “They said they wanted us to move out there. My dad was conflicted because he was still working at the Inco factory in Port Colborne, his life-long job. Once they realized, hey we’re not coming back, this train has left the station, he finally sold everything and moved out to L.A. It was a leap of faith.”

Then the real work began. The group was signed to 20th Century Records, and teamed up with producer Walt Meskell. Sure, Tony had the looks, but did he and the band have the talent? “What they wanted to do at first was to see my range, see if I could even sing. So they decided that this kid was just pure power vocal, a little untrained but man, he can belt. They put me in public school in North Hollywood, and Walt lived nearby. I would go to his house pretty much every day after school. We’d start doing vocal exercises, and he would tell me things like, ‘No, if you’re singing rock and roll, that’s not how you would sing that phrase.’ So he really took the time to train me as best he could, and it made a big difference. He taught me stuff vocally that made me transition from just a raw belter to getting a little control, paying attention to timing, and things. So yeah, he was great.”

Far from being overnight sensations, and manufactured pop stars, the group had close to a decade of experience, and spent weeks working with top Los Angeles talent as they prepared for their first recordings. There was nothing phony about the group. “A lot of work went into it,” says Tony.  “I was singing these songs. They didn’t have a computer that was going to fix your vocals and make it all sound great. I was singing my butt off. I’d have to fix a line, you’re in there working on it, and you did it until you got it right. No one was fixing your pitch except you.

“They took the time,” he says of the production team. “They flew us out, they got us a place to stay, they got the choreographers. It was an investment of time, money, and energy. I remember we did four demos and one of them was ‘Heartbeat.’ Everybody flipped out over ‘Heartbeat.'”

The group’s debut single rushed to #1 on the Cashbox chart, #3 in Billboard, and #3 in Canada’s RPM Weekly. Not that Tony had any doubt. “What’s weird was, being a little kid, we’re in the studio singing, having a little fun, I’m listening to this stuff, and I’m saying, ‘We’re going to have a hit record!’ Never did it dawn on me that you don’t always have a hit record. I’m glad that I was so ignorant of the fact that the majority of people don’t have a hit record. It was a feel-good moment, a magic carpet ride.” 

Everything changed, including the family band dynamics. The single was credited to The DeFranco Family featuring Tony DeFranco, and their debut album featured a huge photo of Tony on the cover, with just a tiny one of the group at the bottom. It was all a blur for the 13-year old. “It was pretty crazy. It went from zero to one hundred pretty quickly. I didn’t even know where Hollywood was. We get there and I’m tripping out over things like palm trees. It was definitely crazy because there was no down time, no time to myself to be a kid anymore. Working in the studio, photoshoots, interviews, and next thing you know, it’s hey, you’re going to be on American Bandstand.”

The DeFranco Family with Dick Clark on the set of American Bandstand. Courtesy of Tony DeFranco.

Actually, they were on Bandstand a total of nine times. And the Dinah Shore show five times, plus three more on the Mike Douglas show. There was a Jack Benny special, and the Sonny and Cher show as well. Every issue of Tiger Beat had more pictures of Tony and occasionally some of the other kids as well (“DeFranco Tour: In Concert, On The Bus, In Their Rooms!”). They had a follow-up Top 30 hit in “Abra-Ca-Dabra” and in 1974, a second album and another Top 20 hit, “Save The Last Dance For Me.” 

On the road, the group really proved their talent, all of them playing and singing live, and doing lots of choreography. A big highlight was coming back home to play. “When the record was big, we returned and sang at the CNE,” says Tony. “That was phenomenal. We grew up going to the CNE every summer. Now here we are, the headliners. The place was jam-packed, we’re doing Canadian TV interviews. They found out I was a big Maple Leafs fan, so the record company had a party and gave me a Maple Leaf jersey, I was excited. My heart still belongs to the Maple Leafs.”

The trouble with being a teen idol is that teens grow up fast. One minute they can’t live without you, and the next, they’ve moved on. In pop terms, The DeFranco Family actually had a good long run of it, staying together most of the ’70’s. It was something unexpected that really hurt them though. 

“When we had success, everybody wanted their input on what the next songs would be. We had the head of the record company, Russ Regan, telling us what he wanted us to sing. There were too many cooks in the kitchen. I was a kid, but I was the one who was saying, ‘Let’s stick with the formula that got us here.’ And they didn’t. Also what got in the way was disco. When the disco phase hit, it changed everything. Nobody wanted to hear anything but disco. We went in the studio with a different producer and did what we thought would be a disco record and it didn’t take off.”

Chuck Laufer ended his relationship with the group, and they weren’t able to release any more records after that. At first, Tony took it hard. “I went through periods where it really affected me. You have this fame, everybody loves you, everybody wants a piece of you, everybody wants to touch you, everybody is related to you, everybody has a story. And pretty quickly, nobody gives a crap anymore. So you’re trying to find yourself. I was in my late teens. That definitely played some head games on me. But it was all good, I’m still here, and I never became a drug addict. Think about it, how many child stars have turned into total train wrecks?

“The majority of artists have one hit record and you never hear from them again. If you have three or four charted records on the Top 40, which we did, that’s pretty good! Getting past that is very difficult. Artists having hit records decade to decade is pretty rare. But it was phenomenal, it was fun, memories I wouldn’t trade for anything. Did we make a lot of money off of it? Absolutely not. Like most artists back in the ’70s, we were taken advantage of. I’d like to tell you it was unusual, but it wasn’t. If I went back in time, would I change that? I’m not so sure because everything that was given to me, and that joy, is probably more valuable than the actual cash. Not to say that if I was to do it all over again today, it would be, show me the contract.”

Tony put his skills in the music world to use in other areas after that, working as a studio contractor, arranging sessions for international labels, and bringing clients to L.A. to record. He was at ease in the studio with stars such as Tina Turner and Mick Jagger. And for the last 20 years, he’s been in real estate, selling high-end properties all along the southern California coast. And yes, he gets the odd old fan as a client. 

“Every once in a while I’ll get a call from a client, like, ‘Tony, what the hell, why didn’t you tell us about your past?’ I’ll say, ‘I don’t go around trying to get a listing for your house, saying let me tell you about when I was a teen idol’. Other times people know, and they don’t tell you they know, it comes out in the wash, a few weeks later. ‘I kinda had your picture on my wall,’ and I say, ‘Only one?'”

Perhaps the best news out of their pressure-cooker past is that somehow, the whole family remains close. All five kids live within an hour of each other around Los Angeles. “We have been seeing each other a lot lately, the last couple of weekends we’ve gotten together. My mom is still doing well, she’s 92, we try to get together even more so now for her, because she loves it. We’ve all had our vaccines, we feel safe enough to get together and not expose our mom. Typically, you get together and start reminiscing about the old days, and you start talking about being onstage, or pre-fame. The stories start coming out and we’re laughing, the tears are flowing. Some of the stuff we did was pretty wacky.”

If he’s still ticklish, and where, Tony’s not saying.