Fabian: big – but not in Britain

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Jan 2013 Fabian: big – but not in Britain


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Some Americans didn’t make it in Britain.

Back in the 50s and 60s, most American pop stars made at least a bit of a splash in Britain.  Some, like Ricky Nelson, didn’t do it on the same scale as in their homeland. And others, such as Buddy Holly and Gene Pitney, were actually bigger in Britain.

But almost all of them made a noticeable dent.

Among those whose success didn’t cross the Atlantic, three names particularly stand out:

Fabian, Frankie Avalon, pictured far right, and Bobby Vinton.

Fabian was perhaps the most egregious example. For a relatively brief period, beginning in the spring of 1959, he was very big in America, registering three Top 10 singles and two Top 10 albums. Indeed, he was even rumoured to have become the biggest threat to the throne of the absent Elvis.

Those two big albums – Hold That Tiger and Fabulous Fabian – were a significant commercial accomplishment. After all, it was an era when most American rock ‘n’ roll legends never put an album into the Top 10. And some, like Eddie Cochran, never put one on the chart at all!

So why did Fabian draw a blank in Britain?

Although Americans sometimes suffered the indignity of having their hits “stolen” by local British cover versions, that wasn’t Fabian’s problem. None of his three biggies provided a  trans-Atlantic success for anyone.

And it’s not as if the records were all completely useless. Artfully recorded so as to conceal his extreme vocal limitations, a couple – Turn Me Loose (written by Doc Pomus and Mort

Shuman) and Tiger – even had moderate potential.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation had to do with the fact that Fabian’s exceptional good looks were a key driver of his American popularity. Showcased regularly on TV shows, like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and amplified by lavish fan magazine spreads, his looks were sufficient to create a boom, however short-lived.

But as he enjoyed no corresponding exposure in Britain, there was nothing to get things going there.

Frankie Avalon was a different case. Blessed with a pleasant singing voice, he scored six American Top 10 entries between 1958 and 1960 – seven if you give full credit for the double-sided Bobby Sox to Stock-ings/A Boy Without a Girl. Two of them, Venus and Why, even made it all the way to the top.

american1But Frankie had bad luck in Britain, with his two most promising prospects falling foul of local covers.

Venus was first up, the competition coming from Dickie Valentine. And while Dickie may have been getting long in the tooth for the teen market, he still had profile, which allowed him to enter the NME chart on March 14, 1959, a full six weeks before Frankie’s original.

When the dust finally settled, honours were roughly split. Frankie peaked at No.16 as opposed to Dickie’s No. 20: but Dickie’s run was two weeks longer. However, it’s a safe bet that, absent the competition, Frankie would have enjoyed a healthy Top 10 appearance.

Less than a year later, the cruellest blow came. With Why sitting on top of the American chart, Anthony Newley rushed out a British cover, and scooped the pot with what turned out to be the biggest hit of his career – four weeks at the summit.          Frankie’s consolation prize was a brief run in the lower regions, peaking at No. 20.

While our third artiste, Bobby Vinton, is sometimes written off as “a bland balladeer,” he had a relatively long American hit-making career. From 1962 to 1975, he chalked up no fewer than 29 Top 40 entries, including nine Top 10 hits, and four chart-toppers.  Along the way, five of his records passed the million mark.

In addition, Bobby was one of those singers who was popular on both Top 40 and Easy Listening radio. If anything, his popularity in the latter adult-oriented format was greater, particularly as the 60s wore on.

Britain, though, was pretty barren territory. At the beginning, he was a casualty of the covers factor, courtesy of Belfast’s Ronnie Carroll and Roses Are Red.  Bobby may have taken the song to the top for four weeks in America, but in Britain he was relegated to a very distant second.

After that, competing versions were not his problem. But pickings were very slim. The only significant exception came in 1990, when his decades-old recording of Blue Velvet rose to No.2 on the back of its use in a Nivea Lotion TV commercial.

america2Even in 1963, the year in which he was shifting more singles in America than virtually any-

one else, Bobby was unable to generate uptake in Britain.

While one may be tempted to ascribe it to the fact that many of his songs were re-stylings of older sentimental ballads, that didn’t stop the likes of Frank Ifield or The Bachelors from scoring major British chart successes with precisely the same gambit.

Perhaps it was a matter of personality, the fact that Bobby managed to be unmistakably American but devoid of sex appeal. So there was neither familiarity nor allure for British audiences to relate to.

Still, he could put on a show. I saw him entertain an open-air concert audience at a Toronto amusement park about 30 years ago. And he was a very enjoyable turn.

Vocally, he sounded pretty much as he did on record, and the long string of hits was supplemented by some genial novelties, such as playing saxophone (he started his professional career as “a young man with a big band”). He even ventured into rock ‘n’ roll.  His rendition of Johnny B. Goode would not have given Chuck Berry any sleepless nights, but it was exuberant and engaging.

Most likely, there’ll be no Bobby Vinton in your album collection. But if you’re disposed to change that, the one to hunt down is the Varese Sarabande All-Time Greatest Hits collection released by Sony Music in 2003.  With 25 tracks, it covers his American hit roster during the decade 1962-72. They’re the original Epic recordings, not later re-makes.

To be sure, the music has a bit of a samey quality, which makes it suitable to be enjoyed in instalments rather than all at one go.  But there’s a bonus. Mixed in with his biggest American hits, you’ll also find first-class renditions of early 60s classics like Halfway to Paradise and Sealed with a Kiss.

A native of Ireland, Pat

Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.

Pat Murphy

 

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