Jesus of Cool: Jon’s Singles File — Franke Goes Dirty Dancing

By now it’s a cliché, though often a useful one, to allow a particular song to remind you of a certain time or place – that summer fling at the beach, that interminable drive to your grandmother’s, that drug-addled suicide attempt…

Usually in those situations, you can actually remember both the time and the song. The other day, however, with iTunes on shuffle and my thoughts distracted by some dude I never heard of trying to “friend” me on Facebook, I was suddenly transported back to 1981 and a long bus ride to a basketball playoff game with a gaggle of cheerleaders. (Such was frequently my fate in high school, as anyone who read my sadsack entry in Popdose’s “Songs for the Dumped” series might recall.) The trouble was, while the memory was crystal clear in an instant, I had no clue what the song was for a full minute, until the chorus at long last kicked in.

Thus was I re-introduced to Franke & the Knockouts’ “Sweetheart” (download), a Top 10 hit from that spring of ’81. A few notes of that overly bright keyboard intro, a line or two of Franke Previte’s vocals straining to break free of the song’s vice-like MOR grip, and an entire pop-radio playlist springs instantly to mind: “Morning Train,” “Kiss on My List,” “Keep on Loving You,” “Woman,” “Being With You,” “The Best of Times,” Stanley Clarke & George Duke’s “Sweet Baby,” the Alan Parsons Project’s “Time” … “The One That You Love” (I didn’t say it was a great playlist). The sound is somehow indelible, lodged in that time when disco was dead (except for Kool & the Gang), so was John Lennon, the charts were unbelievably tame, and the Next Cool Thing was hiding somewhere in England, in Minneapolis, or in Athens, Georgia.

Franke & the KnockoutsWhy did I buy a copy of “Sweetheart”? I don’t remember, but it probably had something to do with that bus ride and whichever cheerleader I was pointlessly obsessing over at the time. Nevertheless, my hard-earned $1.19 (the sticker’s still on the sleeve) contributed to the rapid rise of Mr. Previte, who — after knocking around for a decade with two different bands, to no great artistic or financial end — formed a third one, got signed and scored three Top 40 hits within 15 months. (Those other two bands? The Boston-based Oxford Watch Band — hello, late ’60s! — and a heavy-metal act called Bull Angus. Who knew Franke & the Knockouts were actually Spinal Tap?)

“Sweetheart” was the first of them; like the others, it was co-written by Previte and Knockouts guitarist Billy Elworthy. Its lyric was rather sticky, with some deliciously stupid bits (my favorite being the verse that starts with a Telly Savalas “Who loves you, baby?” and goes on to proclaim that “You’re the funk in my life/Yeah, day and night.” As a bonus, it was accompanied by one of those early videos that were too obvious by half — see if you can spot the allusion to the band’s name — and fairly screamed “We don’t know what the hell to do with this new medium!”

“Sweetheart” scraped the Top 10 in early June of ’81, as “Bette Davis Eyes” and the “Stars on 45” medley traded places at No. 1. When the Knockouts’ label, Millennium Records, released their second single, it was (IMHO) better than the first. “You’re My Girl” (download) had a punchier rock edge, a nice combination of guitars and keys … and, sadly, an utterly lame chorus that nearly deflates the whole enterprise. That chorus probably limited the single’s chart prospects (it stalled at #27); it surely couldn’t have been the guitars, which fit nicely on the radio beside the other pop-rockin’ hits of that summer of ’81, like Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” (Stay tuned to Popdose for more on Mr. Springfield, coming soon.)

Franke & the Knockouts followed these hits quickly with a second album, Below the Belt, that is remembered best these days (if at all) for its cheese-tastic cover art. It also featured the band’s last hit, the ballad “Without You (Not Another Lonely Night),” which peaked at #24 on the Hot 100 in the spring of ’82. (Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres has a better memory of the album; he joined the Knockouts in time to play on it.) Franke’s success wasn’t enough to save the Millennium label, which went under within the year; switching to the notorious career-killers at MCA, the band released a third album in 1984, but Makin’ the Point didn’t make much of an impact and the band dissolved soon after.

Though the Knockouts had abandoned the sinking Millennium ship, Previte’s financial security was assured a few years later when he re-teamed with that label’s chairman, Jimmy Ienner. In 1986 Ienner was executive-producing the music for a little period film that was shooting at a mountain resort near my hometown in Virginia, and he couldn’t come up with an appropriate song for the finale despite having heard nearly 150 submissions. He phoned Previte and asked for a contribution; after some hesitation, Previte and songwriting partners John DeNicola and Donald Markowitz cooked up “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”

Is Franke Previte compensating for something?Patrick Swayze loved Previte’s demo, Baby stuck the lift (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, what’s wrong with you?), and the rest was history. “The Time of My Life” went on to win a Golden Globe as well as the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Another song Previte had submitted to Ienner was a number the Knockouts had recorded, but hadn’t included on their last album. Ienner, who had risen to fame as a producer working with the Raspberries, matched Previte’s song with a certain Raspberries vocalist then in need of a career revival; Eric Carmen took “Hungry Eyes” to #4.

Neither Previte nor Carmen’s comebacks lasted too long, unfortunately. These days Previte is back in Jersey; he never found the “i” that should have completed his first name, but most likely he consoles himself by counting his money and remembering the good old days before Jon Bon Jovi stole his drummer. As for me, while I remember that bus ride, I’ve largely forgotten the cheerleaders. Maybe now I’ll forget “Sweetheart” all over again, too.

Sacrifice your first-born child and buy Franke & the Knockouts’ Sweetheart Collection at Amazon Marketplace.