A look back at how a pop star went viral before computers, let alone the Internet
Fabian shattered the notion that the world of rock’n’roll was a meritocracy. He was the first post-modern Pop Idol, the prototype of the Warhol superstar: his fifteen minutes of fame were willed into existence by a cabal of co-conspirators in the music industry, and no one even pretended that he was, by any objective yardstick, talented.
The phenomenon that was Fabian was skillfully orchestrated, and sixty years ago this summer, “Tiger,” his third chart single on Chancellor Records, became his biggest hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard chart. It is a ludicrous record, and Fabian flails around in it, a 16-year-old boy, clearly out of his depth, making claims he could never live up to, throwing out similes that get progressively sillier: “You keep my heart jumpin’ like a kangaroo/Floatin’ like an onion in a bowl of stew.” He also compares himself to a grizzly bear, an eagle, an antelope. He is a one-boy menagerie, trying to impress a girl with his animalistic qualities.
The usual explanation for Fabian—he was unique in needing a rationale for his success—is that with Elvis serving time in the armed forces, there was a vacuum that nonthreatening vacuousness could fill, and that makes some sense: Fabian did share housing in the top 20 with label-mate Frankie Avalon’s “Bobby Sox to Stockings,” Paul Anka singing the self-pitying doggerel “Lonely Boy,” and Pat Boone’s pandering “Twixt Twelve and Twenty.” Overall, 1959 was not the most dynamic of musical years. But while it is an explanation, it isn’t an excuse. To understand Fabian in particular, you need to grasp the level of cynicism and exploitation in the pop industry. He was discovered, the legend has it, by manager Bob Marcucci (the inspiration for Ray Sharkey’s character in the movie The Idolmaker), just hanging out on a street in Philadelphia. Young Fabe had “the look,” and it may not have occurred to Marcucci to find out if he had a voice.
No matter. He signed Fabian Forte (the last name was deemed as extraneous as his vocal abilities) to Chancellor, and whipped up a guerilla marketing campaign that was daring for its time. “Fabian is Coming,” the ads blared. “Who is Fabian?” they asked. He was a handsome kid with a kind of panic in his eyes, an awkward stage presence, a towering pompadour. The wheels of hype began to spin. Dick Clark put him on American Bandstand, and the girls went berserk. Dig and 16 magazines ran stories and posters of the “Fabulous Fabian.” Clark’s Philly-chauvinistic promotion of Fabe was a huge asset, and we can assume disc jockeys were financially incentivized to spin the Chancellor singles. In early ’59, Fabian hit the charts with “I’m a Man,” written for him by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.
He was not a man, really. “I may be young and I still go to school,” he admitted; “When it comes to chicks I’m no poor little fool” (Doc was quoting a Ricky Nelson hit in there). He didn’t sound tough, and girls probably sensed that he was puffing himself up, but that made him all the cuter. The next Fabian 45, “Turn Me Loose,” was another, better, Pomus & Shuman song. You can hear how the songwriters were using the Presley template: I can’t be tamed, so watch out. “I’ve got some change in my pocket and I’m raring to go/Taking some chick to the picture show.” Some chick! When he takes her home, he’s expecting to be unleashed. It’s kind of funny (many years later, Dion sang it on a Pomus tribute album, and you can hear how it sounds with some authority behind it). Of course, Fabian’s shaky voice is coming from somewhere deep in an echo chamber, and the arrangement is stiff, but Pomus & Shuman’s bridge is rock’n’ roll time-capsule-worthy.
Fabian performs “Turn Me Loose” on American Bandstand
“Turn Me Loose” made it into the top 10, followed by “Tiger,” and four more charting A and B sides in 1959. One track that didn’t chart was Pomus & Shuman’s “Mighty Cold (To a Warm Warm Heart),” the flip of “Tiger,” and a pretty convincing pop-rockabilly tune (Fleetwood Mac covered it in their pre-Stevie & Lindsey years). In this scenario, Fabe is hitting the amorous wall with some chick: “You treat me like a dog that you’re trying to muzzle,” he complains. Turn him loose! He’s a tiger! Or a dog, or an antelope. Who knows? What he was, was a star, but also kind of a punchline, one-word shorthand for the shallowness of rock’n’roll in general and the teen idols in particular. Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks did a comedy routine about an inarticulate singer named Fabiola (“the new rage!”). Rod McKuen cut a record called “What Is a Fabian?” Fabe’s ineptitude as a singer was common knowledge (his albums were basically color fold-out posters with a vinyl afterthought), but his singing was never the point. He was the late ’50s equivalent of an Instagram “celebrity.” He was a brand.
And so they put him in movies: Hound Dog Man was the first, a pleasant little B-picture (and another top 10 single with the title track), then High Time with Bing Crosby, Tuesday Weld and Richard Beymer, and North to Alaska with John Wayne. (The Duke was also saddled with Frankie Avalon in The Alamo and, more successfully, with Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo.) The most notorious moment in Fabian’s acting career came when he starred in a 1961 episode of the TV anthology series Bus Stop. “A Lion Walks Among Us,” directed by Robert Altman, was called “an hour of dark and sordid ugliness” and an “onslaught of mayhem and suggestiveness” by The New York Times, was condemned in Congress, and has built up a reputation over the decades as a particularly contemptible example of network television. Fabe, as a charming hipster psychopath, puts the make on an older alcoholic babe who picks him up hitchhiking (he calls her “Mother Goose”), picks up a guitar at a local Beat-ish joint and serenades a blonde local (in what you’d have to call the Tuesday Weld role), and kills a store owner and his own defense attorney.
Fabian represented, to the guardians of the cultural galaxy, the elevation of the musically hopeless, the pandering to the Clearasil Generation (all the stale rock’n’roll jokes were about pimples and Brylcreamed hair and nonsensical lyrics), the Decline in Standards (in the moral and song sense). In the scheme of things, there were a lot worse (Bobby Vinton comes to mind, and I’d much rather listen to Fabian than to Anka), but I get it. He was bad, as in good-bad-but-not-evil, but also as in simply bad, as in inept. In “A Lion Walks Among Us,” he’s unsettling, and not always in the way Altman wants him to be; because his acting is amateurish, you just see Fabian trying to act, and I think that’s what got some of the critics rattled. Maybe he’s evil, and we know rock’n’roll is evil… There were other seedy, violent TV shows on ABC in the early ’60s—Naked City (’58–’63), The Untouchables (’59–’63)—but they didn’t star a 19-year-old psycho-Lotharios who was imploring innocent daughters to turn him loose.
VIDEO: Fabian performs “Tiger” on TV, 1959