Frankie Avalon: Muscle Beach Party – The United Artist Sessions

Frankie Avalon’s mid-60s sides for United Artists

Along with Bobby Rydell and Fabian, Frankie Avalon was one of the “Golden Boys of Bandstand” – handsome, talented teen idols whose appearances on the original Philadelphia-based American Bandstand provided a ticket to pop crooning stardom. Avalon’s biggest hits (including two chart-toppers, “Venus” and “Why”) were recorded for the Chancellor label from 1958 through 1960, but in that latter year he began an acting career that led to starring roles in a string of beach party movies, including 1964’s Muscle Beach Party. The beach party films innovated on the surf-theme of the Gidget series by adding original music, including songs by Avalon, his co-star Annette Funicello and guest stars that included Donna Loren.

Unlike today’s consolidated marketing, in which soundtracks are developed in parallel with a film’s marketing plan, actual soundtracks to the beach party films weren’t typically issued at the time. The only full soundtrack was Wand’s issue of How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and a few film tracks turned up on Annette Funicello’s solo albums. Instead, Avalon, Funicello and Loren re-recorded songs from the films for their respective labels (Avalon for United Artists, to which he’d signed after leaving Chancellor, Funicello for Disney’s Buena Vista and Loren for Capitol), often in very different arrangements. Most notably, several songs sung as duets in the films were re-sung as solos on the artists’ respective albums.

In the case of Avalon’s 1964 Muscle Beach Party (Funicello released an album under the same title that year), the first side was dedicated to remakes of songs from Beach Party and Muscle Beach Party, while side two featured six additional film-related titles. Avalon’s remakes of the beach party music weren’t typically as interesting as the film originals; having developed himself into a nightclub singer, he was miscast singing ‘60s pop-rock, and it’s even more evident without Funicello to sweeten the up-tempo numbers. The remakes often had minimal arrangements, such as these title themes, in which Avalon croons to raucous rock ‘n’ roll guitar offset by nagging yeah-yeah-yeah background singers. The best fit from the film sessions is the ballad “A Boy Needs a Girl,” which points to the success of the album’s second side.

The album’s flip gives Avalon a chance to show what he does best: croon orchestrated pop ballads. With the tempos slowed and the arrangements given a bit of sophistication, you can hear Avalon relax into his Perry Como-influenced balladeering, and his sensitivity as an interpreter and the deeper qualities of his voice both become evident. This may not have been what the films’ teen fans were looking for, but they remain the productions most worth hearing. Highlights include a tender reading of “Days of Wine and Roses,” an intimate, melancholy take on “Moon River” and a dreamy version of “Again.”

Real Gone’s CD reissue augments the album’s original dozen tracks with eight bonuses culled from additional United Artists releases. Avalon’s post-beach party singles failed to crack the charts but included some fine songs and performances, with the Brill Building-flavored “Don’t Make Fun of Me” chief among them. A shoulda-been-a-hit written by Neil Sedaka’s partner Howard Greenfield with his sometime collaborator Helen Miller, the song finds Avalon playing a wounded ex-boyfriend with a melody and arrangement that bring to mind dramatic hits by the Shangri-Las, Leslie Gore and Gary Lewis. Avalon’s four tracks from the soundtrack of I’ll Take Sweden, including the film’s title theme, are lightweight but charming, and the B-side “New-Fangled, Jingle-Jangle Swimming Suit from Paris” provides a cute take-off on “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

All tracks are listed as stereo, though “Every Girl Should Get Married” is indistinguishable from mono. Many are mixed in a super-wide soundstage that has instruments or vocals panned hard-left and -right. The disc is delivered in a two-panel cardboard sleeve with an eight-page booklet that includes liner notes from Tom Pickles, a reproduction of the Muscle Beach Party back cover and the front cover from I’ll Take Sweden. Also reproduced is the Muscle Beach Party cover photo without the credit overlay. If you haven’t heard Avalon’s Chancellor hits, start with Varese’s 25 All Time Greatest Hits, but if you’re already a fan, this is a most welcome look at his post-Chancellor recordings for United Artists. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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