Faded glory of Frankie, man out of his time.
Frankie Vaughan is someone whose place in popular memory seems to have receded dramatically since his death in 1999. For at least two reasons, that’s a bit surprising.
First, he was pretty big. All told, he put no fewer than 27 singles into the Top 30, including 11 top-10s and two chart-toppers. That’s a track record at least equal to those of Adam Faith or Billy Fury, and significantly superior to Tommy Steele or Marty Wilde.
Second, in addition to being a chart artiste, Frankie was a major personality. Not only did he pull large audiences in variety theatres and summer seasons, but he was also a top draw in plum venues like the London Palladium and the Talk of the Town.
Although he had a couple of Decca releases in 1950, Frankie didn’t get his first serious recording contract until 1953 – 60 years ago. That March, his HMV debut laid down a marker of sorts. While the reworking of the old 1920s chestnut My Sweetie Went Away wasn’t a hit, his personality did shine brightly through the grooves.
Still, it took him nearly a year to earn his first chart appearance. In part, this was a function of an uneven playing field, courtesy of recording covers that put him up against established American heavyweights like Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine.
Finally, his version of Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon’s lyrically clever Istanbul brought a modicum of recognition in early 1954.
But Frankie’s golden period started after he switched labels and joined Philips in 1955. It was there that he enjoyed the bulk of his hits, including the two chart-toppers and all but one of his top tenners.
The second-half of the 50s was particularly fruitful. Between late 1956 and early 1958, no fewer than six of his records went into the Top 10. And the 1958 New Musical Express readers’ poll named him as both the Top British Male Singer and the Top British Vocal Personality. Even when the newly-arrived Cliff Richard ascended to the male singer throne in 1959, Frankie was still capable of snagging that year’s vocal personality crown.
After he left Philips in the mid-60s, Frankie returned to the EMI fold, this time on the Columbia imprint. Initially, the omens were auspicious. Tapping into the style of arrangement then popularised by Engelbert Humperdinck, the first single, There Must Be A Way, was a significant hit, going as high as No.7 during a 21-week chart run, and earning a Silver Disc for sales in excess of 250,000.
But it was something of a false dawn. Within a matter of months, Frankie’s chart career petered out, although his continued popularity in major cabaret and theatre venues guaranteed that he wasn’t short of work.
Inevitably, the combination of Frankie’s dark good looks and strong personality brought the picture business calling.
During the late 50s, producer Herbert Wilcox tried to make him into a British film star with a series of movies like The Lady is a Square and The Heart of a Man. There was even a Hollywood sojourn resulting in Let’s Make Love (with Marilyn Monroe) and The Right Approach, but as no fires were lit at the cinema box-office, his silver screen career melted away.
Thinking about Frankie now, it’s clear that he was always a man out of his time. Seven years older than Elvis, he was a throwback to the world of the music hall and variety stage. Handsome in his spiffy tuxedo – replete with top hat and cane – he would have been at home doing a bit of stage business with Fred Astaire.
That said, he could handle a rock ‘n’ roll oriented song with power and aplomb. Tim Rice has reminisced about buying Garden of Eden, Man on Fire and Kewpie Doll as a youngster. And music journalist Chris Hutchins has noted how, appearing on early 60s award show bills alongside the young idols of the day, Frankie could still wow a teenage audience with the dynamism of his performance.
To be sure, he did a lot of covers of American hits, and a few of them were dire. My Boy Flat Top, for instance, should never be heard again.
But many of Frankie’s versions were fine renditions of good pop songs, and perfectly capable of at least holding their own against the originals. If anything, his Tower of Strength, Green Door and Loop De Loop had more oomph than the American recordings. And, while Perry Como’s Kewpie Doll was smoother, Frankie’s had more swagger.
If you want to add Frankie to your collection, the obvious place to start is with a compilation of the Philips singles. My 22-track The Essential Recordings was released by Phonogram in 1993, but I haven’t seen it around for a while. But Spectrum do have a nicely-priced 26-track version that touches almost all of the Philips bases.
And if you’re in the mood for more, follow that with the 21-track Best of the EMI Years. Between the two collections, you’ll be missing very little.
As for something to watch, Odeon Entertainment put out a very enjoyable DVD in 2008 called Frankie Vaughan: The Heart of a Man, it runs for 120 minutes and includes numerous performance clips as well as interviews with Frankie and people who knew him.
Indeed, the DVD may also inadvertently answer the question as to why he has faded from popular memory. Although Frankie was a fine recording artiste, he was even more potent as a visual performer.As music journalist Keith Altham shrewdly observes, if you never experienced Frankie on stage, then you couldn’t fully appreciate him.
Maybe that’s it. Pity though.
A native of Dublin, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada