Oscar Winning Songwriter Franke Previte Reflects on His Years in the Music Business (Including His Iconic Music for “Dirty Dancing”) and Looks Ahead to a Busy 2019

Pic by Richard Hoynes

Franke Previte’s music is everywhere: His Number One hit (Co-written with John DeNicola and Donald Markowitz) from the classic movie Dirty Dancing – (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life – has garnered not just massive radio play and umpteen album sales, but also a lucrative afterlife in the pop culture landscape, becoming a significant part of everyone’s DNA that grew up wishing they were good girl with a wild side Frances “Baby” Houseman or misunderstood bad boy Johnny Castle. His music can be found as far afield as a German car commercial or as close to home as an NFL Super Bowl parody spot. This writer, while preparing for this interview and watching an episode of The Office (I have very odd preparatory methods), was startled to hear The Time of My Life playing in the background of a scene. I shouldn’t have been. For Previte had helped pen what structurally is one of the best songs of the 1980s. Helped along by the soul stirring vocalizations of master crooners Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, the song has become an evergreen and will surely outlive us all.

VENTS Magazine was pleased to speak with Franke recently about not only his long career in the music and entertainment industry, but also his work on behalf of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (in honor of his old friend, Patrick Swayze) and a slew of new projects he has in 2019 such as the cd box set Franke and the Knockouts – The Complete Collection and a musical called Calling All Divas.

Vents: Getting the ball rolling Franke, would it be safe to say that a career for you in music was a foregone conclusion? I note that your father was an opera singer.

Franke Previte: Yes he was…My mom and dad met taking voice lessons from the same vocal coach and so I guess I’m their duet! That was actually my speech at the Academy Awards: “I want to thank my mom and dad for the best duet of all.” When I was four years old I remember my dad rehearsing all of the time in the house because he would sing with these different operas. So my mom brought me down to Convention Hall down in Asbury Park (New Jersey) and I remember sitting on her lap and my dad getting ready to hit the big high note. I stood up on her lap and I belted the note out before my father could hit it and the place went crazy! Of course my father stops the show and he looks at the audience and he goes, “Ladies and gentleman, my son.” So I really consider that my first gig.

Vents: Growing up, who were some of your musical influences?

FP: It’s interesting because, again, in my family there were all of these Italian notes because of the opera thing. So I was hearing my father listen to Caruso and Mario Lanza and these songs like Be My Love…I was ten or eleven years old and I was trying to find the blue notes, I’m trying to find the notes that weren’t these long Italian notes. So I put my own group together, me and four black guys, and then we started a group called Franke Luv and the Intruders. We did like Frankie Lymon songs and songs that were R&B. But then in 1963 and 1964 a group came out that helped me realize who I wanted to be as a singer and it was a group called the Young Rascals. Listening to the Rascals and then listening to Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers kind of really embedded in me this blue eyed soul: “That’s what I want to sound like; that’s who I want to be, those are the kinds of songs I want to write.” At the end of the day you have Bill Medley who sings my song in Dirty Dancing, I’ve Had the Time of My Life. So that was like full circle for me to have a Righteous Brother sing my song…You had groups that came out that changed history for all of us which were the Beatles. Every album of theirs you had hit after hit of just these great songs. So they were another influence. I’ve toured with bands where I’ve stood on the side of the stage and went to the School of Rock. I’ve toured with Rod Stewart and Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac. Standing on the side of the stage for two months watching these type of artists at the top of their game, playing the Madison Square Gardens of the world really gives you an opportunity to learn your craft. You’re watching the pros doing it and you’re a newbie, you’re learning the ropes.

Vents: Before coming to worldwide prominence with Franke and the Knockouts, you featured quite prominently in the bands Bull Angus and the Oxford Watchband. First of all, I have to ask: Where did the name “Bull Angus” originate from?

FP: (laughing) Well, I was in a band called the Oxford Watchband and we were on Hand Records which was distributed by Capitol and from that band I took the drummer and I saw these guys in Poughkeepsie, New York when we were doing a gig and I said to the drummer, “Let’s grab four of those guys and put a group together.” We decided that we were going to formulate this group and the guy that was managing us put up some money and for about seven or eight weeks we rented a farmhouse in Rhinebeck, New York and we would sit there and for eight hours a day we would write songs and rehearse. At that time we were calling the band “Angus.” Then we found out that there was a band in Texas that was also called Angus. So we said, “We like our name, but now we’re Bull Angus.” (laughter)

What happened was that about two to three months into that band rehearsing, I got a call from the guy that was producing the Oxford Watchband. He was calling us on a tip from Jeff Franklin who was from ATI. Jeff Franklin owned this club in Ohio called the Sugar Shack. He said, “I really like you guys. I’m going to call this producer up and have him maybe do some demos.” So this producer called us and it was Vinny Testa. Vinny Testa was involved with the Oxford Watchband, but he didn’t know that Geno and I – my drummer Geno and I – were in this band. So he called me up and said, “Hi, this is Vinny Testa and I’m calling you up because Jeff Franklin told me about you guys. Can you tell me about the band?” I start telling him about the band and he says it sounds very interesting and then I stop him: “Vinny, you don’t know who you’re talking to, do you? I’m Franke Previte from Oxford Watchband.” (Laughter) So he comes up to Rhinebeck, New York takes us into the studio, it was Ultrasonic Studios in Long Island, and they gave us a record deal and within one week we recorded the first Bull Angus record. Jeff Franklin, within two weeks after the record came out, we were playing Red Hook High School on a Friday night and he called up and said, “Next Saturday you’re starting a two month tour with Rod Stewart and you start at the Garden next Friday night.”

Vents: How do you square being a New Jersey kid who is suddenly being foisted on the global stage?

FP: I was in my early twenties and I’d been performing for a minute, playing in clubs, writing original music and so obviously the very first gig that that band played with Rod Stewart was Madison Square Garden and you’re the opening band. There were three acts on that show: There was Bull Angus, there was a band called Cactus and then there was Rod Stewart. Cactus was the Vanilla Fudge revisited…They were an ass-kicking band and so the three of us went on tour for a couple of months. Learning and being on that stage kind of gives you the impetus of “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” Getting the energy back from 20,000 people a night was amazing. In 1971 they booked us at the Pocono Mountain Festival with 300,000 people; they had to fly us in on a helicopter. It was a three day concert and that really, really put the fork in me. I decided that that was my passion. I wasn’t going to do anything else.

Vents: Forget about selling used cars in New Jersey after that experience, right?

FP: Well, after that band broke up I moved back home and was selling used cars out of my driveway so that I didn’t have to play club bands, so that I could write enough songs to get a deal.

Vents: What is the secret origin of Franke and the Knockouts? How did this amazing band come to be?

FP: The genesis of that band was when I split from Bull Angus I went back home and I met this girl that I used to date in college and she told me “I married Art Kass who is the owner of Buddah Records and he needs to hear you sing.” So Art then sent me over to this guy named Tony Camillo who produced Gladys Knight and a bunch of other really big time people and I had to sing for him. So I did and he called up Art Kass and said, “This kids a really good singer and maybe you should give him a deal.” So the good news was I had a record deal on Buddah. The bad news was they didn’t want me to do any rock and roll; they only wanted me to sing R&B. So I’m writing all of this R&B stuff, but I’m not feeling it. I’m used to getting my ass kicked with some rock and roll, I’ve got shrapnel wounds, you know? So basically I said to myself, “I’ve got to get back to doing some rock and roll, but I enjoy this soul thing, too.” So I took the guitar player from Bull Angus, Billy Elworthy, and I had him move into my apartment. My parents had given me an apartment in an apartment house that they owned and so I didn’t have to pay rent, but I had to pay other bills like electric and my phone. So Billy moved in and we started writing and I started submitting these songs. I met this guy, Bert Padell who took my songs over to Jimmy Lenner at Millennium Records and Jimmy was like, “Yeah, I like this kid, bring him in.” So I sat with Jimmy – and remember it’s just me and Billy – and he said, “These are really cool songs. You got a band?” So I told him, “Yeah I got a band, man. It’s an ass-kicking band!” So he told us to bring him more songs as good as the ones we had just given him and he’d give us a record deal.

The Young Lions: Franke and the Knockouts pose for an album cover.

So then I wrote, She’s A Runner, I wrote You’re My Girl and I wrote Annie Goes to Hollywood. I go in and he said, “I’m giving you a record deal. You’ll start recording next month at Media Sound.” That’s when I knew I’d better get some guys together for a band and start learning these songs! So we added Blake Levinsohn, we added Leigh Foxx, we started adding these players, Claude LeHenaff, and we went in and we recorded the first Franke and the Knockouts record. But before we went in I wrote one last song. I went in to Jimmy and I said, “Here’s one more song. Maybe we should think about putting it on the record.” It was a song called Sweetheart. He said to me, “Really good song, but I’m going to tell you right now that it’s a pop song. You’re a rock and roll band. If you put that bullet in the gun, radio is going to kind of classify you as a pop act if it becomes a hit.” I said, “Listen, if it’s a hit then put the bullet in the gun. We’ll deal with it later.”

Vents: Franke and the Knockouts had a meteoric run: you had three Top 40 songs: Sweetheart, Without You (Not Another Lonely Night) and my personal favorite You’re My Girl. Do you have a favorite among that trifecta of awesome music, or are you partial to a song that might be a little more obscure and not played as much as these three?

FP: There’s a couple of songs that I really like that are Knockout records: Annie Goes to Hollywood is a great song; She’s A Runner is a really good song. There are some songs on the third Franke and the Knockouts record that really never got heard because Millennium closed their doors and sold us to MCA. MCA really, really dropped the ball on our third record. But there’s a song on that third record which is on this new collection that I just put out. It’s called One Good Reason and I really enjoy it. I also wrote a song on that record which is called Come Rain Or Shine. I had told MCA to put that song out because radio will accept Franke and the Knockouts if you put that song out. It’s kind of like the follow-up to Sweetheart. They said no, they wanted us to sound more like Night Ranger. I was like, “Why would you want to do that? You have Night Ranger already on your label!” They even brought Night Ranger’s producer in to remix a song of ours that they released as a single, a song called Outrageous. Good song, a rock and roll song, but it really wasn’t what radio was ready to hear from Franke and the Knockouts. At that time Tico Torres, the current drummer for Bon Jovi, was in our band and he did that record with us. On Come Rain Or Shine Jeff Pecarro from Toto played on that song because we had just finished touring with them.

Vents: You and I are of the generation that grew up revering Dick Clark and American Bandstand. It seemed that a musician hadn’t made it until they landed a performance gig on this seminal show. What are your memories of that period of time when Franke and the Knockouts landed the gig on Bandstand?

FP: Here are my memories: Like I told you earlier, there was no band. So when they put the record out they – meaning Jimmy Lenner and Millennium Records – Sweetheart started going up the charts and so our manager at the time who also co-managed Jefferson Starship called me one day and said, “I want you to listen to the television tonight because the band that I’m working with, Jefferson Starship, they’re playing on this show called Fridays.” Fridays was kind of like Saturday Night Live but on Friday night. So I’m watching the show and at the end of the show Larry David comes out and he goes, “Next week’s guests will be Franke and the Knockouts!” Again, we had no band! So Michael called me and asked me what I thought. I said, “Michael, I gotta tell you something: There is no Franke and the Knockouts; it’s just me and Billy.” He said, “By next Friday you better have a band.” So we put together a couple of the guys that did the album and our very first gig as Franke and the Knockouts was on Fridays and it was a live show. We did Sweetheart and Come Back. The very next day our very next gig was Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The day after that, a Sunday, our third gig was Solid Gold and two weeks later we went on tour with the Beach Boys. That was the beginning of Franke and the Knockouts.

Vents: What led to the demise of Franke and the Knockouts?

FP: MCA had no interest in really promoting us. They decided that they wanted to change our sound and who we were and go after a different market. They were hearing the rock and roll edge side of us and they were liking that and that was a good thing, but radio never really embraced that side of us. They were playing the You’re My Girl’s and the Sweetheart’s and the Without You’s and those songs were the ones that went into the Top 10 or Top 20 or 30. So after they put out the one song Outrageous and radio didn’t accept it, they dropped us. I said, “Guy’s, there’s so many more songs on this record: Come Rain Or Shine, One Good Reason, You’re All That Really Matters. There are so many good songs on this record that you could follow-up with and radio will embrace and we can continue this.” And they were just like, “Ah, we’re done.”

So when I went home a year and a half goes by and I get this call from out of the blue from Jimmy Lenner of Millennium Records and he says to me, “I got this little movie I want you to write a song for.”  I told him that I was in the middle of trying to get a deal and I just didn’t know about this. I had already written Hungry Eyes for the next Franke and the Knockouts record and nobody had liked it. Not one label expressed any interest in that song. It blew my mind. He said, “I want you to listen to me: This could change your life.” And I replied, “Jimmy, two years ago you shut your label; you changed my life then.” He told me had a really good feeling about this movie. So I asked him for the name of the movie.  He goes, “Dirty Dancing.” Imagine this now: I put my hand on my forehead and I go, “Oh my god, Jimmy’s doing porn!” He goes, “No man, this is a cool little movie.” He gives me this description of Baby meets Johnny and the father doesn’t like the kid but they end up together. Then he says, “The good news is that I must talked you into writing a song for this movie.” Then he hits me with this: “The song is going at the end of the movie and it needs to be seven minutes long.”  I’m thinking to myself, ‘I gotta write MacArthur Park!’

Vents: What was your ultimate methodology for writing Time of My Life? Did the time crunch influence it at all?

FP: It was a couple of things: I had a hundred bucks in my bank account and the next thing was that I had called John DeNicola who I had written Hungry Eyes with and I told him, “The good news is that we’re going to write a song. Seven minutes is a long song, so start it up front with the chorus.” I told him that it was a little out of my realm of the songs that I usually write, but let’s give it a whirl. I said, “On the downbeat of the verse let’s double-time it and make it a dance song.” So he sent me a track and I played it over the phone to Jimmy and he said, “That sounds really good. Why don’t you make a song.” So I’m on my way over to the studio with a cassette that I stick into my dashboard. I’m on Exit 140 of the Garden State Parkway and I’m paying the union toll listening to the cassette. When I write a song, I jam. I jam melody. I’m listening to the track and I’m singing the words “Time of my life.” I’m like, “What the hell am I saying?” So I scribble the words “Time of my life” on an envelope. And that’s where the seed of that song began and started. Basically the Man Upstairs wrote the song, because I had no idea what the movie was about and musically it was left of center from where I was as an artist.

Vents: Were you expecting the movie – and in turn the soundtrack – to be such a mind-blowing success? Did it completely catch you off guard the level of popularity it achieved?

FP: Where I was really caught off guard was there were a couple of events that happened. First of all, RCA Records and Vestron Film were never on the same page with the movie. And so RCA put the record out and the song started to chart on the Adult Contemporary charts. So it was going up the charts and there was no movie. RCA called Vestron and was like, “Where’s your movie?” Vestron said, “Oh, we decided to postpone it for two months.” So RCA stopped promoting it. Now instead of having a bullet, it had an anchor. It fell off the charts…Jimmy told me, “We’re just going to re-release it when the movie comes out and we’re just going to tell radio that we didn’t like the mix and we’re remixing it.”

Vestron Films didn’t really like the movie and decided they were only going to put it out for two weeks and then go directly to home video with it. So they put it out and within the first two weeks three hundred thousand people backordered the record. And before RCA could print a record, a million records got backordered. It ended up selling fifty five million records. It was a phenomenon that happened due not to Vestron, not to RCA but to Joe Public. It hit a chord for the public, for people that related to that little movie and to Patrick Swayze and to Jennifer (Grey) and to the song. Probably if you took any one of those elements out you wouldn’t have had the same phenomenon. Patrick, in fact, told me at the Academy Awards, he said, “Listen, I need to know about the song. Who sang the demo?” I told him I had with this girl Rachelle Cappelli. I asked him why that was so important and he said, “Because we hated the movie…We didn’t have an original song to end the movie and we filmed out of sequence. We filmed the last scene first and we were getting ready to film to a cover song. We were like, ‘Man, let’s just get this movie over with.’ Then they came in with the last cassette, the hundred and fiftieth cassette which had your song on it and we filmed that day to you singing Time of My Life and at the end of the day we all were just stunned. We all looked at each other and asked, ‘What the hell just happened?’ Let’s go make a movie!” He told me that those songs totally gave camaraderie for the cast and the crew, it totally turned things around. To hear that blew me away.

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze dancing to Franke Previte’s (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life in Dirty     Dancing’s climactic scene.

Vents: You touched briefly upon your relationship with Patrick Swayze. Is there anything else you would like to share about him?

FP: He and I did a few charity events together so I got to really know him as Patrick Swayze and not Johnny Castle. I realized that this big hearted tough guy that he played in the movie was really who he is. He was just this really cool guy…When he passed it had an impact on me and I knew I had to do something to help find a cure for pancreatic cancer. So I called up and I found out that his wife Lisa was working for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and so I called there and I got ahold of Pamela Acosta Marquardt. She was the CEO and creator of the charity which happens to be the world’s largest pancreatic cancer charity…I told her that I wanted to do something to help and I suggested that I would take the original demos that Patrick and Jennifer danced to and I’d do a Facebook page called Dirty Dancing Demos and I’d sell copies of those demos and then give them the money. And so throughout the last twenty years I’ve been doing that and I’ve raised about 30,000 dollars for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. When I do my shows for Calling All Divas which is a bit of a play and a concert, part of the profits for that is what I give to the Action Network. So for every seat sold I’ll give five dollars to help fight and find a cure for pancreatic cancer. If a thousand people come to the show, the Action Network will get 5,000 dollars.

Vents: Your work for raising money and awareness for pancreatic cancer is actually tied into your new box set, Franke and the Knockouts – The Complete Collection. Let’s unpack that because there is a lot to talk about there. And before we go on, if someone wants to purchase this set they can just hop over to the Friday Music website (fridaymusic.com) and find copies to purchase there for a very reasonable price.

FP: Absolutely. Joe Reagoso from Friday Music called me and talked about wanting to put the collection together. It’s never been done and that third record never really got heard and here was a chance. I told them I would also like to include starting back from Bull Angus to when I was an R&B artist, the songs that never made it on the Knockouts records, the songs that I did after I won an Academy Award. And I wanted to put on eleven unreleased demos that nobody knows about and also four or five songs of Franke and the Knockouts live in concert. I wanted to do all of this because people had thought because of songs like Sweetheart and You’re My Girl that we were a pop band. When we would play out to audiences we would play stuff like Never Had It Better or Come Back, just all of these really rock and roll songs and the audience would be stunned. Then we’d play Sweetheart and they’d be like, “Oh, that’s who they are!”

Also with this collection I’ve connected it to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and I’m doing a donation for every album sold to the charity.

Vents: I want to spend a little time today talking about your new musical, Calling All Divas. How did this come about and what is the story about?

FP: I went to Point Pleasant to hear a singer by the name of Lisa Sherman and she blew me away…I said to her afterwards, “What are you doing next?” She told me that she was thinking about putting together a show called Decades of Divas. So this lightbulb went off in my head and I told her I had an idea. So I started writing a story and it twisted and it turned and, because I couldn’t trademark Decades of Divas, I wrote a story about Calling All Divas and what that story is about is four different girls, all at different stages of their careers: one being a veteran rock and roll singer that was kind of on the cusp of making it but didn’t, she just does sessions; a Blues singer from Harlem and a country singer and then another young singer, a nineteen year old girl that we actually found in the subway, a subway singer. So I have these four girls, these four voices that were incredible and I wrote a story that they were going to compete against each other to become the next superstar… At the end of the first act the different scenes that you hear these girls sing in are projected onstage. So you’re in a subway and then you’re in a Blues club and then you’re in a Gospel church and you’re in a country bar. So with each girl you’re kind of getting the back history of her and who she is. Then they audition for this guy and he can’t imagine which girl he’s going to pick because each one is as good as another. The whole second act becomes who he picks as the winner. Who he picks as the winner is all four of them and he makes them into a group called The Unforgettables…

Vents: Would you like to pursue more projects like Calling All Divas in the future?

FP: We’ve played a couple of theaters in Manhattan and we’ve moved on to the Keswick Theatre outside of Philly. On July 11 in Long Branch, New Jersey Calling All Divas will be playing at the Pollak Theatre which is located at Monmouth University.

Vents: Is there somewhere online we can go to check out performance dates for Calling All Divas if we want to check it out?

FP: Yep. You can go to the Calling All Divas Facebook page or callingalldivas.com and it will give you a list of all of the tours and performances. We have about twelve touring dates we’re doing in Florida and then some in New Jersey and other different places. It’ll give you the whole feeling of what the show is about…

Vents: Franke, we just want to thank you so much for the time you gave us today, it was a real thrill.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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