Bob Marcucci: Pop impresario who launched the careers of Frankie Avalon and Fabian
Saturday 18 June 2011
The musical impresario Bob Marcucci discovered and launched the careers of both Frankie Avalon and Fabian.
Regarded by many as the original puppetmaster of young teen singers, he was a marketing wizard who was unfazed by the young Fabiano Forte's confession that he could not sing, knowing that that need not be any impediment to pop stardom. In 1980 a film based on his life, The Idolmaker, was released, with Ray Sharkey in the role of the Marcucci-like Vinnie Vaccari.
Robert Phillip Marcucci was born in 1930, the son of a union organiser who looked after hotel and restaurant staff in Philadelphia. He grew up with a love of the great songwriters and his favourite performer was Al Jolson. When his parents divorced in the late 1940s, he took menial jobs to help his mother rather than go to college.
In the early 1950s, Marcucci, who had ability as a lyricist, teamed up with his friend Pete DeAngelis, who wrote music. Their first published song was a romantic ballad, "You Are Mine" for Vince Carson in 1953. Unfortunately, the Mafia claimed the royalties. However, Marcucci revived the song with Frankie Avalon in 1962.
In 1956 Marcucci's father set him up in business. He and DeAngelis formed a record company, Chancellor, taking its name from the Chancellor Hall Hotel, where they had an office. Their first US Top 20 hit was "With All My Heart", recorded by local singer Jodie Sands. A cover version by Petula Clark made the UK Top 10.
As a result of their success, Marcucci negotiated a licensing agreement with ABC-Paramount. The company would fund Chancellor's productions and, most importantly for Marcuccci's later income, the label could keep the masters.
Marcucci knew an 18-year-old trumpeter named Frankie Avalon, who invited him to hear the vocalist with his band, Rocco and the Saints. Marcucci was unimpressed but he did enjoy the couple of numbers that Avalon sang and he and DeAngelis very cynically wrote an inane teenage love song, "DeDe Dinah" specifically for him. They asked Avalon to hold his nose to emphasise a nasal sound as he sang, employed guitarist Al Caiola and saxophonist King Curtis, and the record made the US Top 10.
"DeDe Dinah" was followed by the equally daft "Gingerbread", but then Avalon recorded a classy pop ballad, "Venus", which had been written by Ed Marshall for Al Martino. Martino was taking his time and Marshall passed it to Avalon. His record topped the US charts for five weeks in 1959.
Also in 1959, Marcucci and DeAngelis wrote Avalon's second US No 1, "Why", and it was a UK No 1 for Anthony Newley. Newley told me, "I thought 'Why' was charming. We worked very hard to get me sounding as innocuous as the original American performance. Frankie Avalon was one of those watered-down American teenagers who sang as if he'd only had lessons in potty training. The trick was to get myself sounding as simple as that and I think, to my credit, that we did succeed." Marcucci had learnt something from promoting Avalon: it didn't matter how talented the artist was, the selling factor was a pleasing personality which appealed to young teenage girls.
In 1958, Marcucci visited a friend and found an ambulance had come for the policeman who lived next door and had had a heart attack. His son, Fabiano Forte, was sitting by the ambulance, looking distressed. Marcucci was struck by his good looks and his pompadour. Despite the circumstances, he asked Forte if he could sing and might be interested in a singing career – and was told no on both counts.
But Forte's father could not work again, and his son, working as a delivery boy to help his family, reconsidered Marcucci's offer and followed it up. Marcucci had the brilliant idea of marketing him before anyone heard him sing a word. Advertisements announcing that Fabian was coming were so effective that there was hysteria by the time he appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.
Marcucci obtained two sexually charged compositions, "I'm a Man" and "Turn Me Loose" from thesongwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman; Fabian had little idea ofpitch and charged his way through the songs, but they became US hits.Fabian had no chart success in the UK, largely because we had ourown Fabian in Jess Conrad. Although Fabian was the ultimate manufactured pop star, he proved himself a reasonable actor, later starring with Stuart Whitman in Hound-DogMan (1959), John Wayne in North to Alaska and Bing Crosby in High Time (both 1960).
In 1962, Chancellor had another US hit with Claudine Clark's "Party Lights", but by then Frankie Avalon had moved to cabaret and Fabian's chart-making days were over. Marcucci wound up the label in 1965 and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked managing various actors and Hollywood personalities. Notably he was the manager of the gossip columnist Rona Barrett, and he produced The Razor's Edge (1984), an adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel starring Bill Murray.
A fictionalised version of his life story was told in The Idolmaker (1980), which was directed by Taylor Hackford with Marcucci as technical advisor and new songs from Jeff Barry. The authoritarian manager and father figure, Vincent Vaccari (played by Ray Sharkey), is clearly based on Marcucci, but Frankie Avalon and Fabian were good friends and not the sworn enemies of the film.
When the film was released, Fabian sued Marcucci over his portrayal, winning a considerable out-of-court settlement. He never made up with Marcucci and when he saw him in Hollywood, grooming a potential star at a restaurant, he went over to the young boy and said, "Be careful."
DeAngelis died in 1982; Marcucci sold his catalogue to the Digital Music Group in 2006 – as there is still, it is hard to believe, a market for those old Fabian records.
Robert Phillip Marcucci, impresario: born Philadelphia 28 February 1930; married (divorced; two sons); died Ontario, California 9 March 2011.
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