Who Is Frankie Avalon And Why Was He On ‘American Idol’?

Fifties crooner/actor made surprise performance on Wednesday's elimination show.

[url id=”/news/topics/a/american_idol/”]”American Idol”[/url] loves surprises, whether it’s finding new ways to torture the contestants as they await their fate, wacky themes — like next week’s ” ’Idol’ at the Movies” show with Quentin Tarantino — or throwing new twists into the mix, like this year’s one-time-only judges’ save.

But on the “Idol” elimination show Wednesday night , host Ryan Seacrest pulled out a true head-scratcher during one of his latest bouts of teasing directed at judge Simon Cowell. Tuesday night’s “songs from the year you were born”-themed show featured a cute segment in which Seacrest showed off some pictures of the judges when they were children, during which he ribbed Cowell about an embarrassing kiddie pic in which the acerbic British judge was seen wearing a spaceman costume while unsmilingly pointing a toy gun at the camera.

Well, Wednesday night, Seacrest continued the teasing, saying that after doing some digging about the year Cowell was born, he wanted to share the song that topped the charts that year. The big onstage screen then filled with black and white footage of 1950s crooner [artist id=”2170″]Frankie Avalon[/artist] singing his indelible homage to female beauty, “Venus.”

That gave way to the real-life, still-youthful-looking Avalon sauntering out on the stage and finishing the tune. Cowell gave him a standing ovation, as Kara DioGuardi and Paula Abdul swayed along like moon-eyed bobby soxers. And while the judges were clearly enamored, many younger “Idol” viewers might have been wondering: Who was that guy?

The 69-year-old Philadelphia-bred singer, born Francis Thomas Avallone, was a child star who morphed into one of the biggest teen idols of the late 1950s and early 1960s, just before the explosion of the rock-and-roll era sent Avalon and many of his contemporaries to music’s back pages.

Encouraged by his parents to pursue music, Avalon was tutored on the trumpet by his father. After winning some local talent shows, he began getting booked for national TV programs like “The Jackie Gleason Show.” By age 12, he had joined the group Rocco and the Saints, led by drummer and teen heartthrob Bobby Rydell.

Soon enough, Avalon had signed on with a pair of Philadelphia songwriters who earned him some minor teenybopper hits with songs like “Cupid” (later recorded by Sam Cooke) and “Teacher’s Pet.”

In 1959, they switched up his formerly bouncy, happy sound with a more produced, orchestral backing for the breakthrough hit “Venus,” which sold more than a million copies and launched a string of smash platinum singles to follow, including “Bobby Sox to Stockings,” “Just Ask Your Heart” and “Why.”

Though he launched a total of 31 chart singles between 1958 and 1962, Avalon’s recording career began to fade by the early 1960s, at which point he turned to movies, appearing in dramatic roles in genre flicks like “Guns of the Timberland,” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and John Wayne’s “The Alamo.”

His career hit a brief peak again in the mid-1960s when he jumped on the craze for surfing movies, appearing alongside Annette Funicello in “Muscle Beach Party,” “Beach Party,” “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine,” “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” and “Beach Blanket Bingo.”

His music career would never peak again, but Avalon continued releasing singles, scoring a minor hit in 1976 with a disco version of “Venus.” He gained his most lasting fame with a new generation when he appeared as Teen Angel in the 1978 hit “Grease,” in which he crooned “Beauty School Dropout.” In later years, he would also make numerous cameos in movies like “Troop Beverly Hills,” “The Stoned Age” and “Casino.”

These days, he continues to perform and has launched his own line of natural health and beauty products, including Frankie Avalon’s Twilight Tanning Lotion Touch Up Spray and a line of arthritis remedies and homeopathic anti-itch creams.

And though his star has faded somewhat, Avalon has remained on the musical radar by popping up in bizarre lyrical cameos by contemporary bands, including System of a Down, who name check him in “Old School Hollywood” (which is seemingly about an all-celebrity baseball game) and the Wu-Tang Clan’s “The City,” in which they drop the reference, “ride the wave like Frankie Avalon.”

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I'm so fancy.