Take it from Fabian, who once was a teen idol who had a half-dozen chart hits in a year: Don’t be so hard on the Biebs.
Yes, current teen idol Justin Bieber is besieged by charges of breaking the law by racing his high-end cars on city streets, using illegal substances and battling with neighbors and paparazzi. But take away the fame, and Bieber probably isn’t all that different from others his age, Fabian says.
“He’s a 19-year-old guy, and paparazzi — we didn’t have the paparazzi. If I got caught doing some of the things that I did it’d be bad, too,” he says, laughing, by phone from his home in Fayette County in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Asked whether he ever raced cars on the streets of Philadelphia, Fabian says, “God only knows the fun we had. But there was no camera around to catch it.”
Because there wasn’t, Fabian’s image remains that of the clean-cut teen with a pompadour who was discovered by an agent on the streets of South Philadelphia, recorded such hits as “Tiger” and “Turn Me Loose” and starred in a dozen mostly teen-oriented movies before he turned 21.
Fifty-five years later, Fabian, 71, continues to trade on that image as he joins fellow former Philadelphia teen idols Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell in promoter Dick Fox’s Golden Boys.
Fabian says the three performers grew up in a golden age of teen idols in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “Guys with a certain look were making it in those days,” he says.
Avalon, 73, had six Top 20 singles, including the No. 1 “Venus,” from 1958 to 1959. He later starred in two dozen movies in the 1960s, several with the late “Mickey Mouse Club” star Annette Funicello.
Rydell, 71, had a dozen Top 20 hits from 1959 to 1964, including the No. 2 hit “Wild One” and Top 5’s “Volare” and “Forget Him.” He also starred in movies, most notably “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1963.
But Fabian notes that there has always been a music market for good-looking young men.
“It all started with, I guess, the original teen idol was Frank Sinatra,” he says. “Well, before that was Valentino.”
The difference, Fabian says, is that unlike Avalon and Rydell, he had no designs on a show business career.
“They were born to be in show business,” he says. “Me, I wanted to play football, be an engineer. But my father got very sick, we were broke, we had no money, we were down and out.” That, he says, is when an agent approached him on the street in Philadelphia and asked, “How would you like to be a rock ’n’ roll singer?”
“First, I told him to go to hell,” Fabian says with a laugh. “But then I knew how bad we were, our family, with a bad situation, and he came back and I met his partner and that’s how it worked out.”
Fabian says Dick Clark’s “Bandstand” show was based in Philadelphia, and he got on it as a performer.
“My first two records were, uh, really bad,” Fabian says with a laugh. But record producers worked their magic — something else he has in common with some teen idols of today — and he got better, and more popular.
Fabian says people with the movie studio 20th Century Fox saw him on “‘The Ed Sullivan Show” and signed him to a contract.
“God, I worked with the best — John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby,” Fabian says. By the 1970s, his career slowed. He did several television movies into the 1980s, but returned to singing on the oldies circuit and performed in the hit show “The Original Stars of Bandstand” at the Dick Clark Theater in Branson, Mo.
These days, Fabian says he’s semi-retired. He says Fox came up with the Golden Boys idea in the mid-1990s, and “we’ve been doing the show ever since, anywhere you can imagine.”
“It’s three goofy guys reminiscing,” Fabian says with a laugh. “We do all our hits and lots of 1950s and ’60s video is shown. We have a lot of fun on stage; we reminisce a lot and we laugh a lot.”