Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Sarah Kurchak instigates the strange rise of The DeFranco Family in ’70s small town Canada.
No one really knows how or why a makeshift Tiger Beat scout wound up in Welland, Ontario, Canada, in the early ‘70s. The blue-collar, almost-border town was over 2,100 miles from Los Angeles by air and might as well have been on another planet psychologically.
It was the kind of place that offered well-paying factory jobs, affordable family homes, and safe passage between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie via its eponymous canal. Its primary exports were steel and the occasional pro hockey player. Presumably, Welland had just as many talented and/or photogenic moppets as any other small town, but no one had ever thought to look for them there. And none of those untapped heartthrobs ever expected anyone to discover them.
Strangely, though, they did.
Benny, Marisa, Nino, Merlina, and Tony DeFranco, five musically inclined siblings who had recently moved to Welland from the neighboring town of Port Colborne, were just going about their business as The DeFranco Quintet, playing instrumental standards at local weddings and parades, when someone materialized at one of their gigs like a Hollywood fairy godmother, took their photo, and sent it to their friend Chuck Laufer, the head of Tiger Beat. Laufer liked what he saw and flew the whole clan down to Los Angeles to take some photos and record some demos. Within a year, the newly christened DeFranco Family left Welland permanently and set up shop down south. Within three, they had racked up a handful of Top 40 hits, multiple appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and American Bandstand, and spreads in a staggering number of issues of Tiger Beat. By the late ‘70s, they had disbanded. But until a young Stratford, Ontario, boy named Justin Bieber sang his way into the hearts of pop fans everywhere (and subsequently smirked and pissed his way back out of them again), The DeFranco Family were small town Canada’s biggest — and maybe only — overnight success story.
I discovered The DeFranco Family just over 20 years later, in my family’s basement in Welland.
While my mother transferred a load of laundry into our temperamental dryer, I poked around on a nearby shelf. In between the Marineland glasses from the ‘80s and the collectable Pizza Hut water bottles from the early ‘90s, I found an old, wooden ruler with the remnants of a name scribbled on the back.
“Does this say ‘Tony’? Who’s Tony?” I asked my mother.
“Oh, that must be Tony DeFranco’s ruler,” Mom said. Tony, she explained, was the lead singer of a local family band who had enjoyed some international success for a while in the ‘70s. Before they’d made it big, she’d gone to school with the eldest brother, Benny. My aunt Karen had been in the same grade as Tony and had expropriated his school supplies because she helped herself to all of her classmates’ rulers back then. And somehow Tony’s had survived and become a nominally prized possession in our family.
This struck me as absurd. A famous family from Welland?
A few months later, I found a couple of issues of Tiger Beat buried in my uncle’s long-lost softcore porn mag stash in the attic and was scandalized to discover that they had belonged to my decidedly bubblegum-free mother.
“I got those for the DeFrancos,” Mom explained when I confronted her with the evidence. Sure enough, there was a spread on Tony and the gang in each one. It was easy to find the articles once I looked inside the magazines. They were the only pages that remained untouched by her scornful teenage scribblings.
This was when I realized The DeFranco Family had a strange and powerful hold on my small town. I decided to explore how bizarre it must have been for everyone back then.