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The Brief, Unexpected Success of The DeFranco Family

on February 25, 2015, 3:00pm

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Sarah Kurchak instigates the strange rise of The DeFranco Family in ’70s small town Canada.

~

No one really knows how or why a makeshift Tiger Beat scout wound up in Welland, Ontario, Canada, in the early ‘70s. The blue-collar, almost-border town was over 2,100 miles from Los Angeles by air and might as well have been on another planet psychologically.

It was the kind of place that offered well-paying factory jobs, affordable family homes, and safe passage between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie via its eponymous canal. Its primary exports were steel and the occasional pro hockey player. Presumably, Welland had just as many talented and/or photogenic moppets as any other small town, but no one had ever thought to look for them there. And none of those untapped heartthrobs ever expected anyone to discover them.

Strangely, though, they did.

Benny, Marisa, Nino, Merlina, and Tony DeFranco, five musically inclined siblings who had recently moved to Welland from the neighboring town of Port Colborne, were just going about their business as The DeFranco Quintet, playing instrumental standards at local weddings and parades, when someone materialized at one of their gigs like a Hollywood fairy godmother, took their photo, and sent it to their friend Chuck Laufer, the head of Tiger Beat. Laufer liked what he saw and flew the whole clan down to Los Angeles to take some photos and record some demos. Within a year, the newly christened DeFranco Family left Welland permanently and set up shop down south. Within three, they had racked up a handful of Top 40 hits, multiple appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and American Bandstand, and spreads in a staggering number of issues of Tiger Beat. By the late ‘70s, they had disbanded. But until a young Stratford, Ontario, boy named Justin Bieber sang his way into the hearts of pop fans everywhere (and subsequently smirked and pissed his way back out of them again), The DeFranco Family were small town Canada’s biggest — and maybe only — overnight success story.

~

I discovered The DeFranco Family just over 20 years later, in my family’s basement in Welland.

While my mother transferred a load of laundry into our temperamental dryer, I poked around on a nearby shelf. In between the Marineland glasses from the ‘80s and the collectable Pizza Hut water bottles from the early ‘90s, I found an old, wooden ruler with the remnants of a name scribbled on the back.

“Does this say ‘Tony’? Who’s Tony?” I asked my mother.

“Oh, that must be Tony DeFranco’s ruler,” Mom said. Tony, she explained, was the lead singer of a local family band who had enjoyed some international success for a while in the ‘70s. Before they’d made it big, she’d gone to school with the eldest brother, Benny. My aunt Karen had been in the same grade as Tony and had expropriated his school supplies because she helped herself to all of her classmates’ rulers back then. And somehow Tony’s had survived and become a nominally prized possession in our family.

This struck me as absurd. A famous family from Welland?

A few months later, I found a couple of issues of Tiger Beat buried in my uncle’s long-lost softcore porn mag stash in the attic and was scandalized to discover that they had belonged to my decidedly bubblegum-free mother.

“I got those for the DeFrancos,” Mom explained when I confronted her with the evidence. Sure enough, there was a spread on Tony and the gang in each one. It was easy to find the articles once I looked inside the magazines. They were the only pages that remained untouched by her scornful teenage scribblings.

This was when I realized The DeFranco Family had a strange and powerful hold on my small town. I decided to explore how bizarre it must have been for everyone back then.

~

“Why the heck would you be doing this?” Karen’s friend Cheryl asks over the phone, before I even get an actual question in about the DeFrancos.

I tell her that I grew up hearing about the DeFrancos and have spent my entire adult life reading and writing about small-town kids making good. This time, I wanted to know what the story looked like from the other side. What’s it like to watch your neighbors and classmates suddenly become famous?

“Did they get famous, though?” she says. “Like, really?”

The DeFranco Family, for the record, had a gold-selling, top-three single on the Billboard charts in “Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat”, which was also No. 1 on the Cashbox singles chart, and spent the entirety of 1973 hovering around the top position on Chicago AM radio station WLS’s chart. They also had two more Top 40 songs in “Abra-Ca-Dabra” in 1973 and a cover of “Save the Last Dance for Me” in 1974, along with nine appearances on American Bandstand, countless teen magazine profiles and photo shoots, and one minor teenage riot at a show in Chicago.

It may have been fleeting, but it was definitely fame while it lasted.

Cheryl laughs and breaks into the chorus of “Heartbeat”.

“I was in love with Nino,” she says. “I kissed him, actually. I actually kissed him.”

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Cheryl befriended the entire DeFranco clan when they moved into a house on Welland’s South Pelham Street. They became part of the group that she hung out with at the park down the road.

“They were like normal, everyday kids from what I remember,” she says. Everyone knew that the family had a band, but the DeFrancos themselves didn’t talk about their music much.

“When they lived on South Pelham, they had a little studio set up in the garage, but I never had the opportunity [to see them play]. I don’t know if they ever performed for us at the school or anything like that.”

“Tony [the lead singer] was very shy and humble. He didn’t speak too often. If you said hi to him, he would say hi back, but that was it,” Michelle Houle, another DeFranco classmate who now splits her time between Welland and Western New York, says about her memories of the band. But that’s about as much as she knew about their musical pursuits.

When the DeFrancos moved to Welland, Benny joined the Centennial Secondary School band. He was so unassuming that his fellow horn players — my mom, Jane Kurchak, and her friend Leslie Moxon — barely noticed him at first.

“For a long time, he was just the shy guy,” Mom recalls. “I mean, he talked, he was very friendly, but he was the shy guy that sat beside me and played trumpet.”

032512MSMO060At some point, the fact that he was in a band with his siblings started making the rounds. Even before Los Angeles started calling, this made him a bit of a novelty.

“I think it got around pretty quickly because that wasn’t typical in Welland, either. ‘What do you mean you sing?!’”

Aunt Karen had no clue who Tony was or what he might become when they attended Fitch Street Public School together. Cheryl says Karen hung out with them, but my aunt doesn’t actually remember this. To her, Tony was just another victim of her school-supply crusade.

“It was part of my ruler campaign!” she laughs when I bring it up. “Honestly, it’s true. I collected rulers. I had a hundred rulers. And then I found a ruler that was Tony DeFranco’s.”

“I don’t think anybody ever realized how talented they were or that they were the next Osmonds,” Cheryl says. She did, however, discover Nino’s heartthrob potential before Tiger Beat and swooning teens across the rest of North America.

“He was tall, kind of shy. He was cute,” she recalls. “I had a huge crush on him.”

Tony was the band’s main dreamboat at the height of their fame, but both Benny and Nino had their share of admirers, too. Once young fans across the continent started squealing over her former crush, I ask, was there a part of her that thought, “I saw him first! I kissed him first!”?

“Yeah!” she exclaims. She wasn’t jealous, but she had her little claim on him.

~

tb0574tonypu The Brief, Unexpected Success of The DeFranco FamilyEveryone that I talked to knew that the DeFrancos were going somewhere before they left town for good, but no one remembers the DeFrancos themselves ever saying anything about their trips to Los Angeles, their demos, their photo shoots, or their contract negotiations.

“It was high school. People talked,” my mother says when I asked her how she knew about what was starting to happen to them. “They had to have talked about it, or family had to have talked about it for it to make its way into the school. I don’t know exactly. It’s not like there was a definitive moment where it was like, ‘Oh! They’re going to be famous!’ It brewed. They were doing this. Then they were doing that. It was a process, and we all sort of grew along with it, and then it was like the little birds flew out of the nest.”

The DeFrancos disappeared from Welland almost as quickly and quietly as they arrived. One day they were there, and the next they had moved to Los Angeles. Most people back home didn’t hear from them again until they debuted their new bubblegum sound and their matching sequined outfits in 1973 with that signature single “Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat” and the album of the same name.

“Heartbeat” was probably the second biggest thing to happen to Welland in 1973, next to the opening of the new Welland Canal. (The DeFrancos may have sold an impressive number of issues and LPs, but the canal came with its own commemorative mug, which I own for some reason.) Although they were usually hailed as being “from Canada” in American media most of the time, those rare occasions when the DeFrancos’ hometowns got the occasional shout-out was a badge of pride for the kids who were still back there.

Frankly, Karen, Cheryl, and Michelle were close to Tony’s age (13 in 1973) and already big fans of other musical family acts like The Osmonds and The Jackson 5, so they probably would have loved The DeFranco Family regardless of where they came from. But being one degree of separation from Heartbeat-mania certainly added to it.

“They reminded me of The Osmonds. That was cool,” Karen says. “I think we were kind of like, ‘Oh wow! They’re from here!’ And he was cute.”

Cheryl was a little more invested, following their TV appearances and buying every magazine she could get her hands on.

“I followed them like a groupie!” she exclaims. “I mean, they were our friends. We grew up together.”

~

But personal connection wasn’t the only reason to love The DeFranco Family in the Niagara Region in the mid-‘70s. Andi Miller, a personal trainer from Port Colborne, had never met the family, and she was a huge fan. She didn’t even realize they were originally from her city until long after she fell in love with their songs on the radio.

“I was 11, 10, and it was pop music about love,” she says, explaining what it was about the music that appealed to her. “You’re right at that age where they’re singing about the stuff that you just can’t wait to get into, and that cute boy is singing about how much he loves you. That’s what drew me.”

Andi was a hardcore fan — so much so that when she went to the local screen-print shop to make a DeFranco-themed T-shirt, she wouldn’t settle for a design based on something as obvious as one of their singles. She went straight for the deep cuts from their debut LP.

“‘Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat’ was too obvious, but I was thinking maybe ‘Love Is Bigger Than Baseball’ — I’d have a heart and a baseball — or the song ‘Gorilla’.” She scheduled her life around their appearances on American Bandstand and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. When DeFranco fever died down in the late ‘70s, she went on to develop a fondness for The Spinozas, a DeFranco Family tribute band from Welland that played in the area for a few years.

Andi was a fan of The Osmonds and The Partridge Family, too, but she preferred The DeFrancos because of Tony. He was only 13, after all. She was almost his age, which made him seem accessible to her in a way that the older heartthrobs weren’t.

“Because obviously I was going to marry him,” she says with a laugh.

When she found out that Tony was also from Port, it made her fantasy seem even more realistic.

“At 10 or 11, I didn’t really know anything outside of Port Colborne. We went to Welland to go shopping but … I knew there was a world out there, but it wasn’t really real. It was only a few years before that I thought the teachers stayed in their classroom and came out the next day,” she says. “It was a much bigger world back then than it is now, so that somebody close to you could have made it big and been famous because they were on TV [was huge].”

~

I first heard The DeFranco family in 1998 when “Heartbeat” was featured in the film Last Night. The Canadian feature, directed by Don McKellar and starring many of my favorite actors and filmmakers, was shot in my grandparents’ neighborhood in Toronto, the same neighborhood that I live in now.

I’d been obsessed with the domestic indie music scene for years at that point, but watching Last Night in the theatre and feeling the rush of seeing so many distinct landmarks from my own life on screen made me truly realize the importance and power of seeing, hearing, and reading stories from one’s own world.

My parents gave me the soundtrack, featuring The DeFrancos, for Christmas. My mom got a kick out of her own connection to the disc.

~

See, Mom wasn’t much of a pop fan and was almost half a decade removed from the group’s prime demographic, but she and Leslie also got swept up in their own way.

“We were 17 at the time, and their fans were 12, 13. Had they not been from Welland, we probably wouldn’t have paid attention to it. But Benny played trumpet with us, so there was a genuine excitement for him. And there was that excitement that we were one step removed from that. Maybe that was it, too: our little claim to fame, as close as we got.”

If there was any hint of jealousy, or of the particularly vicious Canadian strain of tall poppy syndrome, no one I talked to noticed it.

“There was, if anything, a giddiness, and that would have been my [age] group, and that would include guys, too,” Mom says. “Maybe if there had been any kind of ego that typically generates the jealousy, but there wasn’t any of that. He was such a nice guy, and we were happy for him. I think maybe we had a bigger ego about it than the family did.”

She and Leslie expressed that happiness by collecting copies of teen magazines for the first time in their decidedly non-teen magazine lives. And, when the family played in Buffalo on a tour of American shopping malls, they entered a contest to win free tickets.

“I can’t even remember what station it was, but you had to write in and tell them why you should get to see this band. It wasn’t even for a meet-and-greet or anything. It was just to see them play at this mall.”

So the two young women took a break from drawing terrible things on photos of the cast of The Waltons in their issues of Tiger Beat and wrote an essay. I had assumed this was an ironic exercise when my mother first told me about it, but she insists that wasn’t the case.

“There was a lot of laughter when we wrote it, but I think we were really serious, like, ‘We went to school with them! So obviously we deserve to go see them!’”

The argument was convincing enough to earn them a pair of tickets.

The Buffalo stop would end up being a fairly tame affair for the home-adjacent-coming. Other stops on the tour required a police presence, though. The Chicago show would even feature multiple stage rushes.

“There wasn’t anything like that. That would have been hugely exciting,” Mom says. “But no. There was no underwear throwing, either.”

In fact, the weirdest part might have been the fact that there were two 17-year-old girls in the middle of a swarm of children on a bubblegum sugar high.

“We got in the car, we drove ourselves over the border, to the mall and then stood amongst all of the parents with their 12- and 13-year-olds, and we were genuinely excited to be there,” she says. “We went to school with this guy, and now all of these people are here doing the screamy thing because he’s here.”

Mom doesn’t say whether or not she screamed herself. I can’t picture it.

~

That was the last time Mom saw any of the DeFrancos in the flesh, but they did come back to the area for the occasional visit.

“We were greeted with the key to the city and a parade in Port Colborne, and people were coming out of the woodwork and pulling our hair and going berserk,” a thoughtful and grounded Tony told Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict in a wide-ranging interview from 2008.

Cheryl remembers a more relaxed reunion in Welland.

“Every once in a while they would come back and you would see them and hook up with them again, but nobody ever really thought they made it, you know what I mean?”

~

I think fame is different for Canadians. I can’t vouch for the experience of being famous — I never have been, and I run very little risk of becoming so in the future — but I know the concept is at least a little skewed. When you grow up next to the biggest pop cultural force in the modern western world — one so close and so overpowering that it all but kills the development of your own domestic star system — fame is something that happens elsewhere and usually to other people.

This is slowly starting to change now thanks to the uniquely Canadian efforts of artists like Drake, who manage to appeal to the world without permanently leaving the country or purging its influence from their work, but old-school, provincial insecurity is still going strong in small towns like Welland and Port Colborne.

Drake // Photo by Philip Cosores

Drake // Photo by Philip Cosores

When I was growing up in Welland in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the message was clear: Nothing ever happens here, and nothing ever happens to anyone from here. Even my ridiculously low-hanging dreams of becoming a struggling writer in Toronto were regarded with a certain amount of suspicion/outright condescension by some of my teachers, friends, and family.

Maybe that’s why I became so fixated on the DeFrancos. If a family from down the road made their way to American Bandstand and the Billboard charts, no matter how briefly, then why the hell was everyone so convinced that it could never happen again?

When I visit Welland now — from Toronto, where I write and struggle just like I said I would — I don’t get the impression that much has changed. But maybe that’s my own baggage talking. Other cities in the Niagara Region are currently experiencing their own brushes with the big time.

Niagara Falls has produced Deadmau5, and they’re mostly proud of the EDM juggernaut there, even if locals get disproportionately upset whenever he says anything remotely negative about the area. St. Catharines flies banners decorated with portraits of homegrown talent like Neil Peart from Rush and Ron Sexsmith on its downtown streets. And native son Dallas “City and Colour” Green recently sold out the city’s brand-new arena.

When I interviewed Green’s former Alexisonfire bandmate, George Pettit, at the height of the band’s success, I asked the Grimsby, Ontario, native what it was like to grow up in a region where no one thought that anyone could make it. He was confused by the question. No one in the burgeoning St. Catharines scene had ever noticed if anyone thought they could make it because they never cared about making it.

“We were making music for ourselves,” he told me.

~

My mom still struggles to reconcile the shy kid from the horn section that she knew with the pop star she saw on TV.

“I was trying to get it straight in my head, trying to make that connection between the guy that sat beside me playing trumpet in the band and that guy that was on stage, wearing those clothes and doing that choreographed thing. Because who from Welland does that? There’s the hockey thing. That happens. That’s part of our culture. Not a band that goes on to be on stage.

“Never in my life did I think that there was going to be a No. 1 hit [from Welland]. And still, at 60, I’m waiting for the next one to happen. It’s not going to happen. Maybe that was it. That’s our one-time thing.”

Even if Welland has never produced another pop star, it’s still fostered some great musicians, I argue. Attack in Black had some national success, and singer Daniel Romano continues to thrive as a broody country solo artist. The local scene, with bands like the Sublime-inspired Street Pharmacy, is pretty healthy for a city of Welland’s size. So it’s not fair to say that nothing’s happened, and it’s even less fair to say that it never will again.

Mom thinks about it.

“There was no indie scene back then. That was absolutely unheard of. If you made it, you made it on the big stage. You can have limited success … that sounds condescending. You can have success on different stages now.”

~

Three years ago, a Street Pharmacy fan dragged her guitar to the Welland city sign to record a cover of their backhanded hometown love letter “In This Town”.

It’s never going to land her or the members of Street Pharmacy on an American talk show or in the poster pages of a magazine. I can’t imagine that anyone involved would want it to. It’s a song about a beloved shithole town written for people from said shithole town. And it just happened to resonate with someone from another crappy town enough to inspire her to drive to Welland and immortalize it in her own way. To me, that’s worth celebrating every bit as much as an appearance on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.

I take some pride in the fact that the artists of Welland and the surrounding area continue to make their art there, just like the pre-fame DeFrancos did, and that, if the next big scout comes to town looking for the next big thing, they’ll be ready.

That said, I take more stock in the fact that they’ll be just fine if that opportunity never comes again.

~

Sarah Kurchak is a writer from Toronto. She has previously been published in Spinner, Huffington Post, Noisey, National Post, and AUX. She tweets.

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