“We were plastic, these plastic . . . things--not even people,” said Fabian, the former teen idol, groping to describe the attitude of many adults--and critics in particular--toward him and most other teen stars in the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
“They laughed at us. They wouldn’t take us seriously as artists. They didn’t think we could sing or perform or anything. To them, we were this low form of life. You can’t laugh that off. Everybody craves respect. If people are looking down on you, all the money in the world doesn’t really make you feel any better about it.”
Squinting with apparent displeasure, Fabian appeared to be sifting through unsettling memories. Suddenly smiling, he said: “Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all bad. For a teen-age boy, you can imagine what it was like having all those girls drooling over you. That was heaven. Sometimes I was on top of the world. Me, this dumb kid from South Philly, got to be a star. I couldn’t believe it.”
He was looking down at the table in the empty restaurant patio as he spoke, rhythmically tapping his wine glass with a fork. “Whaddaya know, I got rhythm,” he joked. “See, I do have some musical talent.”
Though he wasn’t taken seriously in his peak years, singing songs like “I’m a Man,” “Turn Me Loose” and “Tiger,” Fabian has somehow managed to survive as an entertainer. After all these years, he still has enough clout to host and star in a rock ‘n’ roll revival show Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, featuring the Platters, the Drifters, Lou Christie, Lesley Gore, the Shirelles and Bo Diddley.
“Most of the audience for these shows is between 30 and 55,” he explained. “They’re looking to recapture a feeling, something they felt when they were younger and listening to rock ‘n’ roll. They reminisce and get wild. They also come because they’re curious, they want to see how we look after all these years. Are we fat, bald and wasted? I think I’ve held up OK.”
That’s an understatement. At 42, Fabian looks remarkably youthful. The only real clue to his age is his somewhat thinning hair in front.
Fabian is in the midst of his second comeback. His first retirement came in 1961, when he was a distraught and disillusioned 18-year-old. That layoff lasted 12 years, and his brief return was followed by a five-year hiatus that ended when he returned to the revival circuit in 1981.
Explaining why he quit that second time, Fabian said, “I wasn’t very happy. In fact, I was depressed and miserable. I didn’t like the people I was working with. I didn’t like the show I was doing--my heart wasn’t in it. I was doing it for the money, and it was good money. I was having some serious personal problems. I was divorced and I was trying to help my two kids, who are now 15 and 13 and doing fine, but they had problems then. They might have gone down the drain if I hadn’t taken time off to be with them.
“So I was off the road between ’77 and ’81. I stayed away as long as I could. I got back into this because I was antsy and also because of the money. It’s still very lucrative.”
In the late ‘50s, during the infancy of rock ‘n’ roll, a good-looking, minimally talented young singer, marketed shrewdly and supplied with passable material, could become an overnight sensation. That’s what happened to Fabian, the prototype of the manufactured star. At 15 in the late ‘50s, he was discovered in South Philadelphia by the manager of Frankie Avalon, another Philly teen idol. By his own admission, Fabian had no particular musical talent.
“This guy liked the way I looked and he liked my name (his surname is Forte),” Fabian explained. “He didn’t chose me because I was a great singer.
“I was happy to go along with it. My family needed money. What else was I going to do? I was in a gang hanging out on the streets. I was probably going to be a nobody. It was a chance to amount to something. I figured I could learn to be a decent singer. I was constantly amazed. I never thought I’d get as far as I did.”
Rock ‘n’ roll stardom led to an acting career that began when Fabian was 16 with “Hound Dog Man” (1959), directed by Don Siegel. Fabian’s most notable films were “North to Alaska” (1960), featuring John Wayne, and the star-studded war epic “The Longest Day” (1962). Usually no more than an appealing presence on screen, Fabian did demonstrate considerable dramatic range in an early-'60s TV series, “Bus Stop,” portraying a psychopath in an episode directed by Robert Altman.
In full bloom by then, his acting career tailed off as his singing career faded along with ‘50s-style rock ‘n’ roll. He’s had a number of parts since, but none particularly memorable. His most significant role in many years was in his most recent film, “Get Crazy,” a rock ‘n’ roll spoof starring Malcolm McDowell, released a year and a half ago.
“I’m always on the lookout for a good role,” Fabian explained. “If one came along, I’d jump at it. But music is my bread and butter now.”
At present, Fabian has no complaints. He not only stars in but promotes these rock ‘n’ roll revivals, which are especially popular in the Midwest and the South. This summer he’ll be touring with Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell, both also former teen idols from Philadelphia.
“Things are great now,” Fabian said. “I’m married again. My kids are happy. I’m making money. But I could be down again. I know that. I’ve been rich and gone broke before. This rock ‘n’ roll business is crazy--all of show business is crazy. You’re up one minute and down the next. But I keep coming back to it. It keeps sucking me in. This business may be the death of me yet.”