In July 2008 I took the three-hour bus commute through the mountains of the San Fernando Valley from Los Angeles to the community of Westlake Village, California. On my very first trip to California, I was spending a week doing interviews and other freelance work, and my trip to Westlake would be prove to be a memorable moment in the early days of my writing career. But, despite having little problem navigating my way to the small city, once in Westlake I promptly found myself lost with little time left before my appointment. This wouldn’t surprise people who know me. I get easily lost, and as a result I sometimes find myself late. Without a cell phone in my possession, I found a pay phone at a local grocery store and made a phone call.
“Hi. Tony? It’s Sam Tweedle. I made it to Westlake, but I couldn’t find your office. Where am I?” I told him the name of the grocery store. “Your close by? You’ll c0ome and get me? Okay. Great. See you soon.”
I waited outside the grocery store and soon a gold-colored SUV pulled up. I ran around to the passenger side and opened the door. A very good-looking man with a broad smile and shining eyes sat behind the wheel.
“Sam Tweedle” he asked with a smile. I confirmed it was me. He put out his hand for me to shake. “Tony DeFranco. Nice to meet you.”
“Thanks for picking me up, Tony,” I said, putting on my seatbelt. “David Cassidy would never have done this.”
Tony laughed. “Yeah, but David Cassidy is still singing,” he replied.
The two of us drove only a few streets over to his office where Tony works as a real estate mogul. Ironically, I had just minutes ago been outside of the office and had even asked a gardener for directions who sent me in the other direction. I wasn’t too lost after all. Although Tony no longer looked like he did when he hit pop success in the 1970’s when his family and he had a top ten hit with the bubblegum classic “Heartbeat, It’s a Love Beat,” Tony still had all the traits that someone needs to be a teen heart throb. He had good looks, a charming personality and a likeable demeanor that put you at ease. In his office were framed photos of him and his siblings during their show business career. One photo had them on stage being mobbed by the audience. Another had them presenting at the Emmy Awards with country superstar Loretta Lynn. But that was decades ago, and while Tony DeFranco’s show business career seemed long in the past, but Tony had obviously taken his unique experience with sudden fame and used it to his advantage as an adult.
Flash forward to November 2023. Last week on social media photos were posted of Tony DeFranco alongside his older siblings; brothers Benny and Nino and sisters Marisa and Merlina, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the release of “Heartbeat, It’s a Love Beat.” Rising to the top of the Billboard charts in 1973, peaking at #3, “Heartbeat” would put Tony, who was thirteen years old, out front of the family as a poster boy appearing on magazine covers alongside the hottest teen stars of the day. The photos, filled with a sense of joy and playfulness, got me to thinking back to my afternoon with Tony, and I dug out that old interview I did which has long ago disappeared from the internet which charged my memory of my afternoon with Tony DeFranco.
The quick rise and short career of the DeFranco Family is a unprecedented one, where a family of young musicians from Port Colbourne, Ontario suddenly found themselves at the center of a star making campaign in faraway Los Angeles where they were basically marketed as “The Italian Osmonds.” With wholesome good looks, the DeFrancos were personally groomed for pop success by teen magazine publisher Chuck Laufer, despite having a legitimate background as real musicians.
Children of Italian immigrants, the DeFranco kids began playing together at an early age. With brothers Benny and Nino on guitar, Marissa on keyboards and Merlina on drums, youngest brother Tony started singing lead vocals for the group when he turned twelve years old and they played local parks, events and variety shows around the Niagara Falls region. It was one of these gigs that their father was approached by a spectator who claimed that he had formally worked with the Osmonds and that he thought the DeFrancos had potential star talent and wanted to take their picture. Their father said he could and thought little about it. But the spectator sent the photo to Chuck Laufer at Tiger Beat Magazine and told him about this great musical group from up North.
Well, when Laufer saw the photo, he liked what he saw. He didn’t know what they sounded like, but he saw the potential of marketing a star making campaign around these good-looking kids, and especially Tony. No matter what they sounded like, family bands were hot in 1972. The Osmond Brothers were the biggest pop act in the world, and the talent in The Jackson Five couldn’t be denied. Meanwhile The Partridge Family, who weren’t even a real family but characters in a TV show, were having Billboard hits via the vocal talents of David Cassidy, and even The Brady Bunch, another fictional family, were releasing albums of questionable quality. One thing that Laufer was doing that the other teen magazines were not was that he wasn’t waiting for teen idols to hit. He was in the business of not just promoting teen stars, he also made teen stars. He believed that if a photo could get attention, he could build a campaign around a teen idol. In The DeFranco Family he saw the potential that they could be Tiger Beat’s very own family band and sent word to Canada that he wanted to meet them.
In our interview in 2008, Tony continued the story: “Chuck Laufer flew us to Hollywood, and I was like a deer in headlights. I’d never seen a palm tree. Total deer in headlights. Long story short, we met Chuck Laufer, and we went to his house, I sang for him in front of a piano and he said ‘You know what? Let’s do a few demos.’ He couldn’t get a producer who wanted to work with us who had success, just because they were saying ‘I don’t want to work with kids! What am I going to do with these kids?”’ So, he got a guy named Walt Meskell under Mike Curb, and we did three or four demos and one of them was ‘Heartbeat.’ We took it to Russ Reagan, president of 20th Century Records, and he basically flipped out and the rest is history.“
One thing I find interesting is that while The DeFrancos were actually a band who played their own instruments with oldest brother Benny writing original songs, the people producing the DeFranco’s music were completely uninterested in utilizing their true talents. Instead, they wanted them to sing, and they wanted them to dance, and the DeFranco suddenly were meeting with stylists and dance coordinators and being given unproduced bubble gum numbers to perform. But, despite wasting their potential true talent, the DeFrancos had a great distinct sound and there was no denying “Heartbeat” had something special about it. You might be able to make a successful campaign around a teen idols image, but the music will ultimately speak for itself, and “Heartbeat” was destined to be a hit.
“When you listen to the talent and the musicians that Walt Meskill had hired for our early sessions, they were really good.” Tony told me. “So, we had a sound that I thought was really cool. I don’t listen to it very often but when I got into the project of re-releasing our family music on CD, I listened to the tracks and thought ‘Damn, [Walt] was really good.’ Within six months we’re driving down Ventura Boulevard in the heart of the San Fernando Valley and my brother turns up the radio and he’s flipping out! Our song was on the radio, and then you couldn’t stop hearing ‘Heartbeat’ because back then on AM radio the rotation was really short, so you’d just change stations and there it was.”
By this point its 1973 and Tony was thirteen years old, and with a hit record on the charts, the DeFrancos made their TV debut on a Jack Benny special, followed by stops on “American Bandstand” and “The Mice Douglas Show” and two follow-up singles, “Abracadabra” and “Sweet Loretta” would have minor cusses on the Billboard charts. But what truly kept the DeFranco Family, and primarily Tony, in the public spere was their placement on the cover of each and ever issue of Tiger Beat Magazine. Tony became a star because Tiger Beat said he was a star, and in time he became a popular poster boy. Tony told me that during this time girls would camp out at the gates of the family home, but while that might sound like most teenage boy’s dreams, Tony felt a bit differently about it.
“You know, it was a bit overwhelming because I didn’t know who to trust,” Tony confessed “I mean, did they like me because I had fame and hit a record or were they just genuine? I’m sure fans would not like hearing this but more often than not if I met a girl who had no idea who I was, I had more interest in her. But the ones that were just drooling and sitting at the bottom of the driveway…well how do you have a relationship with someone like that? I just couldn’t do it. I feel weird saying that, but it’s been enough decades that I doubt it matters anymore.
But as fast as the DeFranco Family hit the top, their descent seemed to be just as fast. After the success of “Heartbeat” it was time to go into the studio to record another album, but things would turn sour when their career was put into the hands of producer Mike Curb. We’ve covered Mike Curb at Vinyl Stories, and he has a sordid reputation where he has been hailed a genius for creating some people’s careers, while been vilified for destroying others. As the producer currently working with The Osmonds, it seemed like a no brainer that Curb would be the best option for The DeFrancos. However, Mike Curb didn’t seem to get the DeFrancos or their sound, and instead of building on their prior success, he mishandled the group resulting in a limp second release, 1974’s “Save the Last Dance.”
“’I’m going to be brutally honest,” Tony said to me when talking about the second album. “The songs that they gave us were Osmond leftovers that Donny and the rest of the Osmonds didn’t want to sing. My memory of it as a young man was ‘Okay. I’m not comfortable with this’ and the record company and the manager saying ‘What do you know? You’re a teenage boy. Just go in. Mike Burb is really good.’ So, they decided that Curb was going to produce us. We work on song keys and the next thing we know, the songs are ready for vocals. I went ‘What do you mean? Where’s the session? I want to go to the session of the tracks being recorded.; They said, ‘No no, their already to be sung on.; So, I go ‘How do you know they’re in the right key?’ They said they’d be fine. I may have been a young man, but I wasn’t stupid enough to know that these songs had already been recorded and I went and listened to them, and my heart sank and I went ‘These are somebody else’s leftovers.’ I didn’t like it. This is how I felt back then.”
When listening to “Save the Last Dance for Me” you can hear the distinctive shift in quality, and the element that made the DeFranco’s so likeable in “Heartbeat” is no longer there. It’s a dull album, and although Benny were still writing original material, no producers seemed to be interested. When the album failed to produce any hits the music company seemed to lose interest in the DeFrancos, and it became theorized that the days of the family band was over. By 1975 the Osmonds had split up with Donny and Marie becoming a duo, the Jackson’s had gone disco, and the Partridge Family was cancelled. Although Tony would remain in the pages of Tiger Beat until around 1978, after two albums and only one top ten hit, the DeFranco Family’s reign as pop stars were over as quickly as it had begun.
Not even eighteen years old yet, Tony was already on the other side of the entertainment industry. “Here’s part of the problem when you have fame,” Tony said to me. “You start as nobody and then you have fame and, well, let’s talk about going back to Port Colbourne and Welland after having a hit record. We were greeted with the key to the city and a parade in Port Colbourne and people were coming out of the woodwork and pulling on our hair and going berserk. That’s all fine and dandy, but the real issue is what happens when you stop having a hit record. You start going down and you can’t get your career started again and all of a sudden you can’t get arrested, and people are treating you differently and you’re still a teenage boy. You’re nineteen or twenty years old and people are treating you like crap. So, it was something that I had to deal with. I have my skeletons in the closet but, frankly I never went down the toilet like so many people do. I never had any drug problems. It’s hard for me to even take a Tylenol. Maybe it was because we came from a loving family. Maybe it’s because I’ve always just pushed forward and tried to be a good person but during the actual fame portion I kind of retracted.”
Despite their short career, the DeFranco Family continued living in California and went into various directions building lives away from the music industry. For Tony, that meant creating a successful career in real estate. But, when 70’s acts become popular again in the 1990’s with many bands reforming on the nostalgic concert circuit, Tony and his siblings never really got back into the game. But its not that they weren’t asked. “I get offers all the time to join up with some 70’s revue program in Vegas or wherever they are,” he revealed. “I’ve done it a few times but, frankly, it takes me away from my business and in my business, I have a lot of responsibility. I can’t in all honesty say to my clients ‘Hey, I don’t mind selling your property for seven million dollars but I’m leaving for a couple of days to sing ‘Heartbeat’ one more time.’”
However, there was one take away from my conversation with Tony DeFranco that stuck with me, and really affected the way that I thought about the modern music industry for years to come. I asked Tony what he thought about the modern pop industry, and in particular the teen idols of the moment. “I’m not taking away from their talent because I’m not throwing out any names. Some of them are probably genuinely talented but some of them are really borderline,” Tony stated. “There are applications and studio tricks that make some of them sound really good and all I know is that when I was in the studio, I worked my butt off until two or three in the morning, as a little boy, rerecording. There weren’t any computer tools to fix my vocals. I had to do it.”
When going back to listen to the DeFranco Family albums, the flaws are there. Even in “Heartbeat” Tony’s voice cracks once in a while. But the thought of Tony at twelve years old, doing take after take in the studio until the wee hours of the morning made me realize that he, and every kid who cut and album in the 1970’s, genuinely worked for it. I thought about the groups today that go into the studio and depend on studio magic and isolated tracking and autotune so heavily that often they can’t even perform live on stage. Although I’ve never been a fan of heavy use of autotune, Tony’s comments made me despise it even more and, still today, the use of heavy autotuning or studio tricks in music production, especially in regard to pop music, makes my skin crawl. You can say what you want about the bubble-gum pop music of the 1970‘s, but in regards to authenticity it was more legitimate than much of the pop music being produced today.
Fifty years later music fans are still pulsating to the heartbeats and love beats of the DeFranco Family. Partially thanks to CRTC laws that has kept “Heartbeat, it’s a Love Beat” in rotation on Canadian stations, the DeFrancos have also maintained a strong fanbase from the girls who hung Tony’s pictures on their bedroom walls, and vinyl collectors that just love a good deep cut from the 70’s. Still today “Heartbeat” is a good vibration.