It Only Hurts When They Sing
Given our now fixed image of members of the press as ruthless invaders of privacy who pursued Princess Diana to a grisly end, it hardly seems possible that once upon a time journalists and photographers actually worked in tandem to keep a celebrity's private life out of print. And no publication wielded the squeaky-clean magic wand with as much humor and good taste as 16 magazine. With good reason: Quashing the fervent longings of prepubescent girls was bad for business. The teen-dream mag had no paid advertisers from its inception in 1959 up until the mid-Seventies. All 16 cared about selling was fan-fan-fan-tasy!
In its peak year, 1967, 16 claimed one million copies sold at newsstands, a figure it managed to schmendrake into "The Top Favorite of Over Seven Million Readers" because of "pass-along" readership. It's still published today, with considerably less pass-along readership and with the likes of Hanson emblazoned on its cover. Mention 16 to someone age 32 and it's the magazine's pre-1975 look she remembers most -- those cheery disembodied heads of pop stars plunked down on innocuous cartoon bodies.
Even bad-boy stars like Alice Cooper, Mick Jagger, and (shudder, shudder) Dark Shadows's resident vampire Jonathan Frid were depicted happily riding a runaway toboggan with a polar bear or presiding over a picnic blanket near an oversize zebra. Fans of those halcyon days can now relive them twofold. Boulevard Books has just published a fascinating paperback by former 16 editors Randi Reisfeld and Danny Fields titled Who's Your Fave Rave? while Rhino Records has released a CD companion under the same title, with (count 'em) sixteen teen-idol treasures. Spiffy!
In keeping with the myth-preserving tone of the original magazine, Who's Your Fave Rave? includes no up-to-date pix of yesterday's heroes now sporting receding hairlines or dissipated, post-twelve-step glazes. True, there's an unpublished photo of David Cassidy giving the finger and the Hudson Brothers peeing into a fountain, but otherwise you see all the stars as you remember them, even while they reveal their groupie-groping days on the road.
To commemorate the release of these invaluable cultural documents, join us now as we count down ten of the worst torturers of song ever to elicit screams from adolescent girls and gut-wrenching groans from just about everyone else:
10. Frankie Avalon (years of 16 popularity: 1959-63); Fabian (years of 16 popularity: 1959-62) Why do we equate teen idols with artists of no discernible musical ability? Probably because of guys like Frankie Avalon and Fabian, idols "manufactured" by the same manager, Bob Marcucci (on whom the film The Idolmaker was loosely based). These two cheap knockoffs of the King were quickly separated from single-digit chart slots once Private Presley returned to civilian life. Avalon sang his first hit "DeDe Dinah" pinch-holding his nose, a posture many listeners would emulate while suffering through his entire recorded output. Fabian was even less musically accomplished, if that's possible, growling hits like "Tiger" and "Turn Me Loose" with all the finesse of a schoolyard bully shaking you down for your milk money. Without these two, payola would've never become a word.
9. Paul Peterson (years of 16 popularity: 1962-65) Essentially the first TV star turned teen idol turned recording star to follow in Ricky Nelson's wake. But even Ricky, with a cool do-nothing patriarch like Ozzie, would never have warbled the saccharine "My Dad" with a straight face like P.P. did. And Carl Betz wasn't even his dad! Darn suckup!
8. Patty Duke (years of 16 popularity: 1964-65) Here's another twist -- an Oscar-winning movie star (The Miracle Worker) turned TV star turned teen-idol clone of Lesley Gore. Too bad there wasn't a miracle worker present in the studio. On a session outtake from Duke's Legendary Masters Series CD, the producer clearly instructs Patty: "If it's wrong, let's make it LOUD wrong." Even double-tracked, the identical cousin sounds Lisa Simpson-meek on her lone Top 10 hit "Don't Just Stand There." Her spoken bridge ("If it's a game I don't want to play it!/And if it's goodbye/Why don't you just SAY IT?") showcases the same histrionics she'd deploy in the Eighties while portraying herself in her made-for-TV biopic.
7. Dino, Desi and Billy (years of 16 popularity: 1965-70) Dino, Desi and Billy were rock's first supergroup, but only because their parents were SUPER! Desi was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's little drummer boy, Dino was Dean Martin's spawn and Billy's folks were ... uhhh, not famous. With all we know about the hell that sons of celebrity parents endure, why then couldn't any of these boys manage even a meager scream on their cover version of "Hang On Sloopy" or muster any real anger on "Get Off My Cloud"? Despite the tough fuzz-bass overtures of the group's anthem "The Rebel Kind," Dino's whining sounds not like a punk intent on pissing off his short-haired elders but rather like a kid being exhorted to take out the trash while Shindig is on the tube. The hate that catapulted this group to stardom is seismic. Rock's greatest foe, Frank Sinatra, "auditioned" the boys in Dean's living room, presumably with a well-stocked wet bar close by. After hearing a mere three songs, Sinatra signed the kids to his label, Reprise. That the Chairman of the Board and his pals believed kids couldn't tell the difference between real rock and this rancid racket speaks volumes about the generation gap.
6. The Brady Bunch (years of 16 popularity: 1970-73) As responsible parents, Carol and Mike should've 86'ed the Brady Six after hearing their kids mangle the show's theme song. And then they should've fired Alice for showing them which end of a pitch pipe to blow into. There wasn't one Brady in the sextet who could be counted on to find the right note at any given time. And two of 'em even had spinoff solo singing careers! Most cringe-worthy Brady moment: the flaky cover of "American Pie." If the tune hadn't already been dead, this would've sent it crashing into cardiac arrest.
5. Leif Garrett (years of 16 popularity: 1975-80) Mispronouncing Garrett's first name is about the only way to extract "life" from his limp discography. (Hint: His name rhymes with "safe.") His albums are minefields of tepid disco numbers like "I Was Made for Dancin'" and bad Beach Boys covers that make people grateful for the little rills of silence they put in between cuts. One suspects that the popular teen-idol practice of "sweetening" his voice (i.e., masking it behind background session singers) is in practice here, since Garrett's voice sounds different on almost every cut. Undistinguished, but still different. If you can name what unsuccessful TV show this idol was plucked from, you already know way too much about Leif.
4. John Travolta (years of 16 popularity: 1976-78) Even though Travolta's mug is plastered on one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack featured not a single note of Travolta's singing. Unfortunately, his two embarrassing teen-idol albums contained more than their share. Both LPs were repackaged under the misleading title of Travolta Fever in the hopes some brain-dead Vinnie Barbarino fans would mistakenly purchase it and somehow not miss the Bee Gees. On Travolta's only chart hit "Let Her In," the Sweathog barely stays on top of the studio mike long enough to deliver the last syllable of each line. He sounds very much like someone in the grips of a posthypnotic suggestion waiting for a bell to spur him into action or at least wake him up for Mr. Kotter's next class.
3. Jimmy and Kristy McNichol (years of 16 popularity: 1977-80) Kristy's the one with the deep booming voice, right? If one had to isolate the worst moment here -- and that's not easy -- try "He's a Dancer": "He's the king of moves and the music is his crown." Wonder what his throne is?
2. Pat Boone (years of 16 popularity: 1958-62) Though Pat excelled at singing ballads like "April Love," when he applied that same smooth baritone to rock tunes he bordered on musical retardation. According to the liner notes of his first LP, Boone seriously toyed with the idea of changing Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" to "Isn't That a Shame." Now, that's soul! He did change a line in "Tutti Frutti" from "Boy, you don't know what she's doin' to me" to "Pretty little Suzy is the girl for me." Reasons Pat: "It worked just as well. The kids didn't care." Guess that's why when Pat took to metal he wore rub-on tattoos and sang "Enter Sandman" like it was "April Love." The kids didn't care. No, Pat couldn't rock. Not for shit. Not for anyone.
1. Bobby Sherman (years of 16 popularity: 1969-71) Here was the ultimate nice idol, always concerned about giving his fans "quality Bobby Sherman." The gatefold sleeve to his Here Comes Bobby album opened up to a life-size poster of Bobby, if you were three feet tall. With Love, Bobby came loaded with a scrapbook album of maddeningly dull photos ("At Age 6, He Liked to Pose Next to Flowers"), a "Telegram Sent to Bobby from His Baseball Coach", even an elementary school Safety Certificate of Merit. What wouldn't you give to see a bad report card! Bobby reportedly still maintains friendships with old fans; he accompanied one to her tenth-year high school reunion in 1988. Try picturing Davy Jones doing that now without insisting on money up-front.
Part of Bobby's appeal was his selflessness. Half the Bobby pix published in his 1996 autobiography Still Remembering You have him pointing at the camera, as if to divert attention away from himself and back toward you, the ever-lovin' fan! Even describing his darkest day in 1979, after his wife and kids left him, Shermy still manages to sound like a polite, well-mannered 16 Dream Date: "I drank a lot of Scotch and the next thing I remember I woke up under the pool table. I don't remember how I got there and that scared me." Sorta sounds like Keith Richards's best day, don't it? Fave Rave authors agree that "if you could gather all the components of a perfect idol and load them in to a computer, Bobby Sherman would appear on the screen." But don'tcha dare load any sound bites! Any time Mr. "Easy Come, Easy Go" destroyed a perfect smile by separating his choppers to sing, the sound was not unlike someone yelping after a runaway Saint Bernard (remember "Hey, Little Woman"?). It's the two allotted showcases for Bobby's songwriting on each album that reveal the inner Bobby girls read 16 to know. He'd progressed to a reasonable facsimile of Rod McKuen by album four's "Runaway" ("I runaway with my dreams till the light my eyes can see disappears behind the visions of my mind." Whaaa?). But on his eponymous debut, he already had enough confidence to tackle two weighty subjects -- "Love" and "Time."
Bobby on love: "I told you to be my bride/Still you're near my every side/We'll just love each other till all the signs of love are gone."
Bobby on time: "We all die from Time/No matter who you are, you answer to Time/Chucka-chicka-chucka-chicka, chucka-chicka-chucka-chicka." That's Bobby imitating a clock! Even David Bowie never thought of doing that. When Bobby later groans, "I bet in a year we all run out of time," he could've been speaking about his colleagues in 16. In a year he'd have David Cassidy and the Osmonds breathing down his neck, and they'd have the Fonz and the Bay City Rollers to worry about soon after that. Chucka-chicka-chucka-chicka, indeed!
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