Once upon a time, not so long ago (the early 80s), the format album-oriented rock (AOR) ruled the charts and radio airwaves. Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Foreigner exemplified the genre, which mixed rock with some elements of R&B to create a softer, mainstream alternative to hard rock. Another band to evolve from this scene was Franke and the Knockouts, lead by singer/songwriter Franke Previte. A frequent guest on the ABC comedy show Fridays, the group scored a top ten hit with the R&B-inflected “Sweetheart.” While Franke and the Knockouts made three albums and scored a a couple more top 50 hits, the band split circa 1986 and were never heard from since. Previte went on to forge a highly successful songwriting career, penning two songs for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Tico Torres, a former member, joined forces with Bon Jovi and racked up enormous hits. Despite these connections, Franke and the Knockouts’ albums had lapsed into “out of print” status, available only through other collectors or expensive imports. Now, 30 years after “Sweetheart’s” Top Ten reign, Previte has remastered and reissued the band’s entire catalog, including the greatest hits collection Sweetheart—Anniversary Edition. While not all the tracks equal the infectious pop of “Sweetheart,” the CD still serves as a time machine, transporting listeners back to a different time in rock.
The collection kicks off with, appropriately enough, “Sweetheart.” Long unavailable except on certain “hits of the 80s” compilations, the single appears in an extended version with a slightly longer synthesizer solo. Listening to the track is like revisiting an old friend; it remains a charming slice of blue-eyed soul, with Previte’s voice soaring over the catchy piano riff. Reaching number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981, the track kicked off a seemingly successful career for the band. The single was followed by two others: “Come Back,” which contains a piano riff similar to “Sweetheart,” and “You’re My Girl,” which sounds very much like Foreigner (in fact, Foreigner asked Previte to audition for the band after Lou Gramm’s departure). Previte’s falsetto vocals seem tailor-made for AOR, deftly handling both power ballads and straight-ahead rock. “You’re My Girl” peaked at number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. While not a single, “Annie Goes to Hollywood” intrigues with its harmonies and heavy use of piano.
By 1982, Torres had joined the band for their next album, Below the Belt, and released the single “Without You (Not Another Lonely Night),” which became their next best hit (reaching number 24 on the Billboard charts). While the synthesizer dates the track, it still demonstrates Previte’s skill in crafting enjoyable pop/rock. “Never Had It Better” features Torres’ hard-driving drumming, with Previte’s powerful voice adding the perfect ingredients for early 80s rock. Other tracks like “Just What I Want” are fairly far removed from the lighthearted “Sweetheart,” which may have surprised some fans. Perhaps Torres’ presence on their second album steered them toward a harder rock sound. Just listen to Previte’s scream toward the end of the tune, and one senses that by 1982 the band decided to jump fully on the Foreigner and Journey bandwagon. At the very least, 2011 listeners will feel compelled to hold their cigarette lighters (or cell phones) high in the air.
Franke and the Knockouts’ final album, 1984’s Makin’ the Point, marked their final attempt to recapture their 1981 magic. “Come Rain or Shine” definitely emulates their biggest hit, as Previte admits in Sweetheart—Anniversary Edition’s liner notes. An equally interesting fact is that Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro played on the track, which makes sense due to the song’s similar sound to Toto tunes such as “Hold the Line.” However, the band clearly wanted to imitate then-successful acts like Night Ranger, and “You Don’t Want Me” accomplishes that goal with its combination of rock guitars and pop melodies. The power ballad “Blame It on My Heart” features the Tower of Power’s sax player, and also showcases Torres’ thundering drumming skills. The saxophone adds a soulful touch to the otherwise straightforward rock ballad.
As previously mentioned, after Franke and the Knockouts split, Previte revived his career as a songwriter. He shopped a demo version of a song he co-wrote, “Hungry Eyes,” which was initially turned down by virtually every record company. Of course the song, performed by ex-Raspberries singer Eric Carmen, ended up on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Peaking at number four on Billboard’s Top 100, it reestablished Previte as a first-class pop craftsman. His original version is included here, which varies little from Carmen’s rendition. As if that weren’t enough, he co-wrote the hugely successful “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life,” with the Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes song winning an Oscar for Best Song in 1987. While his demo is not included on Sweetheart—Anniversary Edition, it does contain “Beat of a Broken Heart,” which he submitted for consideration for the Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights soundtrack. The song did not make the final cut, which is frankly not surprising. The power ballad has a dated quality with its dramatic vocals and synthesizers. If the film had been released in the 1980s, the song would have been a natural fit.
AOR may not dominate the charts anymore, and such bands have been relegated to “classic rock” or “oldies” status. Franke and the Knockouts’ music may come from a very different era, but the melodies, catchy beats, and lighthearted lyrics still charm. The band had a short life, but it provided very enjoyable pop that was perfect for its time. Pick up a copy of Sweetheart—Anniversary Edition and relive a more naive time in rock and roll. And don’t forget those cigarette lighters.
Previte is donating a portion of the proceeds from the album to the Pancreas Cancer Action Network in memory of his Dirty Dancing colleague.
Powered by Sidelines