Everyone loves gourmet meals. But sometimes all you want is a burger and fries — good comfort food that may not be fancy, but still satisfies. Music often works the same way, particularly when it comes to pop. A particular tune may be unsophisticated and a guilty pleasure, but you never fail to turn it up whenever it plays on your iPod. Like comfort food, it just makes you feel good. I had this experience recently when stumbling upon a one-hit wonder from the ’80s: "Sweetheart" by Franke and the Knockouts.
When I heard this upbeat song, I was instantly transported back to 1981. During that time I listened to WLS AM in Chicago, when the legendary team of Larry Lujack and Tommy Edwards ruled the radio. Established bands like Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Journey scored big hits, but among these acts was an obscure band named Franke and the Knockouts. Their one top ten single, "Sweetheart," still ranks as one of my favorite pop singles of the ’80s.
Written by lead singer Franke Previte and guitarist Billy Elworthy, the song sports a catchy chorus, rocking piano, a smooth synthesizer solo and, of course, Previte's soaring vocals. Critics often compare the song to Toto's "Hold the Line," which it resembles in terms of tempo and the piano's dominance in the tune. The lyrics hardly contain poetry, referring to Kojak's line "who loves you baby" and assuring that the singer will be around to "help you dry your eyes." The chorus contains these simple lines: "Sweetheart/Who loved you from the start/Who treats you like a star/Sweetheart." Sure, the "I'll be there to pick up the pieces" theme is nothing new or profound, but the overall groove of the song rescues it from complete banality.
After hearing "Sweetheart," I decided to research Franke and the Knockouts's history. Unfortunately little information exists on the Internet; Allmusic, Wikipedia, other music blogs, and even the band's own website (it's unclear who maintains that page, the band or a fan) contain the most perfunctory of entries about the group. Their albums are even hard to find — an Amazon search turned up a few long out-of-print greatest hits collections and vinyl. Independent sellers were asking for $85 and up per album! Still, Franke and the Knockouts has an interesting history, even though the group was short-lived.
Based in New Jersey, the original group consisted of five members: Previte, Elworthy, Blake Levinsohn (keyboards), Leigh Foxx (bass), and Claude LeHenaff (drums). Previte toiled in various local rock and metal acts before meeting Elworthy; shortly thereafter they were signed to Millennium Records. In 1981, the band released their self-titled debut, bursting out of the gate with the surprise success of "Sweetheart." Franke and the Knockouts played various shows, most notably ABC's infamous Fridays program. A second single, "You're My Girl," cracked the top 40, but did not experience the popularity of the first song.
When Franke and the Knockouts hit the studio to record their followup, they did so with two new band members: keyboardist Tommy Ayers and drummer Tico Torres. Yes, Tico Torres, the drummer who later joined the phenomenally successful band Bon Jovi. Their next album, Below the Belt, spawned a minor hit, "Without You (Not Another Lonely Night)." However, Millennium Records failed, forcing the band to sign with MCA. Their label debut, 1984's Makin' The Point, barely made a dent on the music charts and ultimately led to the band's dissolution. The story seems to end there, with Franke and the Knockouts fading into obscurity, only to be remembered for "Sweetheart" and for Torres's brief stint with the band. But Previte experienced a rare second act.
According to Popdose, Previte was approached by Jimmy Ienner, former chairman of Millennium Records, in the mid-’80s. Ienner was producing the soundtrack for a small film called Dirty Dancing, and needed a distinctive theme song. Not satisfied with any submissions he'd received, Ienner phoned friend Previte and asked him to contribute tunes to the film. Along with cowriters John DeNicola and Donald Markowitz, Previte submitted his track: "I've Had the Time of My Life." Later recorded by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, the song became a massive hit, earning an Oscar for Best Original Song from A Motion Picture. In addition the songwriting team penned the soundtrack tune "Hungry Eyes," which ex-Raspberry singer Eric Carmen performed. That song's subsequent success led to Carmen's career resurgence. Unfortunately Previte seems to fall off the radar after his 1987 triumphs.
While Franke and the Knockouts may have experienced a short stint on the charts, the infectious "Sweetheart" hardly leaves a shameful legacy. For years to come, fans will hear the tune and instantly remember where they were back in 1981. Just like a chocolate milkshake, "Sweetheart" goes down smoothly and easily, ultimately leading to contentment. Those qualities are the marks of a great pop song.