For years the best-kept secret on Orlando's ballyhooed music scene, Frankie and the West End Boys truly came into their own in 1999, handily outdistancing all other pretenders to the title Band of the Year in a tumultuous seven days that saw their star rise, fall, and then rise again. In the West, of course.
It was no surprise that the group, whose talents at ringing in Pleasure Island's New Year 365 days a year had long gone underappreciated, would finally earn its due as a workingman's outfit par excellence. But what was so shocking was the lightning-quick ascension of the Boys' profile, and the commitment-testing travails that followed it.
The Cinderella story began in earnest with the group's Friday, Jan. 1, appearance on its home turf, Pleasure Island's West End Stage. A standard-issue audience of mildly interested vacationers was unexpectedly floored by the unveiling of a new jewel in the FATWEB repertoire: an adventurous rearrangement of Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" that saw the original's honky-tonk piano melody instead performed on a newly purchased balalaika. After years of techno dalliance and power-pop coitus interruptus, here was the Orlando Sound we had all been waiting for.
Word spread, and the following night's gig drew a record-shattering crowd of downtown scenesters and sightseeing Belgians, all eager to bear witness to the Big Next Thing. Among them was a talent scout for Universal Studios Escape, who approached the Boys backstage and immediately made a lucrative offer to install them as the house act at the new Hard Rock Live. As he walked lead singer Frankie to the latter's recreational vehicle, however, it became clear that the proposal was not what it seemed.
"Kid, it's you I want," the seedy industry pro is alleged to have averred. "Forget the rest of these turkeys you have to make look good night after night. We've got a backup band ready for you that'll blow your mind. Great players, nice boys, done a lot of cruise ships. You're the one with the voice, the one the charisma. And besides, you own the balalaika."
Learning of the offer, Disney officials hastily convened a Sunday recording session for the band's multilingual cover of Chumbawumba's "Tubthumper," whose "I get knocked down" chorus would be pumped into monorail cars and rest rooms in every known tongue.
But the temperamental Frankie became impatient at ongoing problems in setting the click track and stormed out, vowing to quit and never return.
Luckily, no show had been scheduled for Monday, although the remaining members performed an unannounced "unplugged" set outside Wolfgang Puck's to prove they still could.
Salvation, as is its wont, came in the strangest of forms. Tuesday morning brought word that the unit's sudden rise to dominance had made it easy prey for the vultures of entertainment law. Copyright-infringement suits had been brought against Frankie and his Boys by both mixmaster DJ Frankie Bumps and Winter Park eatery the West End Grill.
"This is just the sort of nuisance litigation that clogs America's courts and ties the hands of the semiprofessional musician," the band's lawyer protested in a heartfelt but futile public statement.
As had happened to so many of their heroes before them, the Boys were left with no option but a reunion that would help defray their escalating legal costs. Frankie again lined up with his compadres Tuesday night, taking the stage to the cheers and tears of the fans who had followed so closely their rocky, highly condensed career.
Tearing into a blistering rendition of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher," the group was clearly back to firing on all of its highly polished cylinders.
"I heard you missed us, we're back!" the singer cried with unprecedented emotion. Some in the front row later swore he had tears in his eyes; how could they tell, considering how they themselves were welling up?
A short, agonizing story had come to a happy end, its lesson clear to all: They got knocked down. And they got up again.
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