The talented Jersey Shore couple of Oscar winner Franke Previte and Broadway star Lisa Sherman once again have joined forces on the new production “Calling All Divas,” the musical tale of how an audition turns into a singing group that’s “stronger together.” Co-produced by Previte, an Oscar winner for “Dirty Dancing,” and starring Sherman, star of Broadway revivals of “West Side Story” and “Evita,” the show will make its Philadelphia area debut on March 2 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa. PHOTO BY JOHN POSADA
Shortly after Jersey favorites Franke & the Knockouts broke up in 1986, their former label head Jimmy Ienner called front man and main songwriter Franke Previte and said, “I’ve got something for you that’s going to change your life.” An Oscar, a five-time diamond record and a beautiful home at the Jersey Shore later, Previte sure has had the time of his life with his association with the 1987 film, “Dirty Dancing” and its more recent Broadway stage adaptation. For the past five years, life is even better in a longtime personal and professional relationship with Lisa Sherman, the Jersey Shore-raised star of such Broadway revivals as “West Side Story” and “Evita.”
The couple has created a new show entitled “Calling All Divas,” a story-oriented adaptation of their “Decades of Divas” revue, which, in turn, was culled from Sherman’s one-woman show, “Songbird.” The musical tale of four women who form a singing group, The Un4gettables, after they audition for the same nightclub – because “they’re stronger together” – will make its Philly debut on March 2 at the Keswick Theatre.
The show also stars Philly R&B vocalist Carol Riddick (Jill Scott), Nashville siren Trenna Barnes (Cowboy Crush), and newcomer Brittneyann Accetta as the other Un4gettables, plus Frank Dicopoulos (“Guiding Light”) as the nightclub owner and Ben Paul Williams, as young songwriter Franke. “Calling All Divas” is directed, choreographed and co-written by Michael LaFleur (Celine Dion, Sarah Brightman) and music directed and conducted by Henry Aaronson (“Rock of Ages,” “Rocktopia”).
Previte also is busy with a career-spanning box set, “The Complete Collection,” recently released by Friday Music that focuses on the three albums released by Franke & the Knockouts in the 1980s on Millennium and MCA Records. The collection also features unreleased Knockout live tracks, as well as demos from such early Previte acts as Bull Angus, which was signed to Mercury Records in the early 1970s. Many have urged Previte to reunite the Knockouts, whose members included a pre-Bon Jovi Tico Torres on drums and Leigh Fox of Blondie on bass. He’s mulling that option over while he produces “Calling All Divas” with Executive Producer Dennis J. D’Amico (Paul McCartney) and producers Dicopoulos and Micky Hyman (Red Sky Entertainment, MGM/UA Home Video).
Previte, a New Brunswick native raised in Milltown, has been performing in Asbury Park since 1968 and has lived nearby for about a decade. He continues to perform frequently in Asbury with Sherman, a lifelong resident of Rumson and Fair Haven except for a nine-year stint as the Jane Fonda of New Zealand when an opportunity to host an exercise show sponsored by Nike there surfaced in the early ’90s. In Asbury and elsewhere along the Shore, Sherman often produces and stars in tributes to music legends, as well as genres. They include James Taylor-Carole King-Carly Simon, disco, Bonnie Raitt, Broadway, Paul McCartney and sweet soul music. Previte often performs with her. Her next music revues will be “Disco Connection” on May 4 and July 6 at the Wonder Bar and “The Best of Taylor, King & Simon” in the summer at McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury.
In the following chat, the busy couple talks about their history apart and together, their present projects and their bright future.
Franke: I was at The Supper Club talking to an agent, saying, ‘Who are the other musicians I should be meeting?’ and he started pointing out people. Lisa was one of the people he pointed out. And then she walked by, stopped and said hello. I said, ‘Are you here with someone?’ And she said, ‘I’m here with everyone’ (all laugh).
Lisa: I love that line. It’s the best. I was like, ‘Who is this guy that he’s so confident?’ I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t put two and two together. I knew who he was in terms of ‘Dirty Dancing,’ but everybody’s a songwriter or a musician in Asbury and everybody has a line. He told me, ‘I wrote the song ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.’ My exact words were, ‘Get the fuck outta here! And you’re here in Asbury? You’re just hanging out here?’ And then he said, ‘I also wrote ‘Hungry Eyes.’’ I was walkin’ out the door. I didn’t believe him. He had a CD in his car, which was parked right in front of the restaurant. He got that spot. And he showed me the CD, and I was like, ‘Oh God, it’s true.’
He said, ‘When are you performing again?’ It just so happened, I was performing the next night in Point Pleasant Beach.
Franke: I walked in, and she had her back to me, getting some food. And there was chair next to her. So I tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, is this seat taken?’ And she said …
Lisa: ‘You! It’s you again’ (all laugh).
Franke: We went for a walk on the beach. And then she had to go on. Before she started to sing, she started ingratiating the audience. And I was like, ‘Man, if she’s any good, she’s got ’em.’ She got four standing ovations. I said, ‘I gotta find out where her next gig is.’ I wanted to know where else she was playing so I could see how she could fit into what I was trying to do.
Lisa: I already was doing a production called ‘Songbird.’ I already had done ‘Songbird’ twice at the Algonquin and the Count Basie. The Basie said, ‘I want you to come back, but I want you to think of a different title for the show, a different production. Nobody knows who you are in this. You need something a little more catchy.’ And I thought of ‘Decades of Divas’ because in ‘Songbird,’ I was doing all these different genres of artists. I told Franke this, and a light bulb went off in his head.
Franke: I said to her, ‘What’s the production of the show?’ And she said, ‘Well, I’ll get three of my girlfriends. We do all these different divas who influenced us over the years to become the singers we are.’ And I said, ‘Think about you’re in a night club, and there’s a night club owner, and you have a bar set up on stage, and you have tables and chairs set up on stage of the audience. Bring them up on stage.’ Each girl had a different diva that they would do. And I would put on these projections of each diva they were celebrating. And then there was a little story about each girl.
I tried to trademark ‘Decades of Divas,’ but there was a band called Divas through the Decades, so it was close enough that the trademark company would trademark it. So we came up with ‘Calling All Divas.’ Then we hired Michael LaFleur, a show creator. He helped build the show in Las Vegas for Celine Dion. He’s worked with Disney, Universal, Sarah Brightman. He took this idea that Lisa and I had, and we made a story of it where these four girls compete against in each other in the first act. And a young songwriter, Frankie, tries to find the next voice for his song to bring back to his boss, who needs to have something happen for his club and his connections to break the next superstar. So he finds a country singer in a really funky country bar. And he finds a soul singer in Harlem. And he finds Lisa in a recording studio who’s been there, done that. And she says, ‘No, no, no, no, thank you. It’s not for me.’ And he says, ‘But Mr. D. would love you.’ She says, ‘Mr. D.?’ And he says, ‘You know D.?’ And she says, ‘Yeah, he has the key to my front door.’
Lisa: In other words, we had a relationship together.
Franke: She says, ‘If he wanted me, he would have come and gotten me a long time ago.’ So she passes on it. So he’s on his way back to tell Mr. D. he only has two girls. And he’s sitting there and the subway car breaks. There’ll be a five-minute wait. And this 19-year-old girl starts playing in the subway. ‘A Moment like This,’ she sings. So he invites her. Then next scene is these three girls getting ready to sing, and Lisa shows up at the club.
“Calling All Divas” PHOTO BY JOHN POSADA
Q: And you’re the mentor of the four of them?
Lisa: Yeah, I’ve been around the longest. It offers a story that we’re better together sometimes. There’s strength in numbers and friendship and love and loyalty and all that good stuff. He finds four women that are better together. The audience become close to the different characters.
Franke: There are four diverse females. Somebody in the audience can relate to one of those females, so it’s 18 to 80. A person of color can say, ‘That’s me. I can be her.’
Lisa: She’s the soul singer. And then we have the Broadway-type rock singer. And then you’ve got the country girl.
Franke: That’s Trenna Barnes. She was in Cowboy Crush, which was on Curb (Records). Then she did the Johnny Cash ‘Ring of Fire’ play, and she was in that for quite a long time. And the young girl is played by Brittney Accetta, who’s only 20 years old. And Carol Riddick is awesome.
Q: How is the latest production for the show’s Philly premiere on March 2 different from previous productions? If folks, have seen it before, why should they come see it again?
Lisa: We’re going to have some new songs. Every time you do a production, you try different things, different lines, find out what doesn’t work as well from the show before. It could be a dance step. Maybe something’s too long.
It’s really fun when a show is in the beginning stage that they do have a metamorphosis. Things are tweaked because it does make it more exciting, and we’re at that point right now. We’re testing different things, so anyone who saw it in New York, they probably would want to come see it again. That was like a run through. It was our showcase.
Franke: To our surprise, it was standing room only for two nights. We filmed it in a four-camera shoot to figure out what we needed to fix.
Lisa: It will be a little different because we’ll have a better idea from the first show of where we’re really trying to get to. We’re not as nervous. We’ve been there, done that. Now we can start to portray the characters a little more comfortably … and portray that to the audience.
Franke: What’s neat is this young songwriter, Frankie, is looking for a diva to sing his next song, so we’ll stick an original in there that he finally writes, and at the end of the show, the girls say, ‘Guess what, there really is a Franke, and he did write a hit song, and he’s here to do it for you.’ So I go out and we do ‘Time of My Life’ together.
Lisa: (In New York), the place went crazy. As soon as that song starts, everyone gets up. It’s a win-win. It’s a happy song, and they feel it.
Franke: That song with that movie with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer (Grey) created a phenomenon. I could be Froggy & the Gremlins singing that song, and they’d still stand up and sing it.
The Un4gettables. PHOTO BY RICHARD ELLIOT HAYNES
Q: Is that your favorite part of the show?
Franke: No, my favorite part of the show is hearing the girls sing. The whole second act becomes a concert of them and how they interact. Each one brings a different element or genre of music from country to R&B to rock ‘n’ roll. Lisa does a version of Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ that kicks ass. Their voices is my favorite part.
Lisa: We have fun together onstage.
Franke: And the songs that we’ve picked are platinum-selling songs so you’d have to be under a rock not to know them, like ‘At Last’ by Etta James, which Carol sings.
Lisa: Being there from the beginning, going from ‘Songbird’ to ‘Decades of Divas’ to ‘Calling All Divas,’ so far, my favorite part has been watching the whole production change. I don’t have a favorite single part of the show that I can pick out yet because I’m still too new in it even though I’ve been watching it come together, watching it grow. I’m looking forward to this production because I can find my place in there. I don’t have a favorite place yet. My excitement is watching the entire show become something. It really has been an interesting growth, and we’re still in the infancy stage.
I don’t like rushing performances, productions. I like watching them. It takes a while even though you rehearse it a bunch of times. Until it gets to the point as a performer where you can just get on that stage, open up your arms, and you’re just there. And the audience can feel it. They can really tell how you perform the song, say your lines, ingratiate that stage.
I don’t know that I ever want to get to a place where I stop trying. If it gets a point where you don’t feel those butterflies and don’t think about it too much anymore, maybe you need to walk away. I always want to have those butterflies. I never want to be so confident that I don’t put that thought in. That’s when you make mistakes. I always want to have that edge.
Franke: To come home and play ‘Calling All Divas’ in front of our friends, so the Count Basie is on our agenda. There’s the Mayo, which is up in Morristown. The agency then will be able to put us in different places. I think this would go great in secondary markets, so we’re going to try to stay away from Broadway to those types of places that aren’t saturated with a lot of music.
Q: You’re bringing Broadway to them.
Lisa: That’s how we’re selling it. It’s funny you say that.
Franke: One of the reviews was, ‘You don’t have to go to Broadway. It came here tonight.’ Our show brings a professionalism of these vocalists that are some of the best vocalists I’ve ever worked with.
What’s neat about the show is that the whole second act is about The Un4gettables, so if a cruise line or a casino says you only have 90 minutes, you can’t do the play, The Un4gettables, can do the second act. We’re booking that as well.
Right now we have Michael Rubenstein, who’s a Tony Award-winning producer. He’s booking us, along with Dennis D’Amico, our executive producer. We’re talking to many people. Tony Pallagrosi. We’ve had several meetings with him. We’d love him to come on board.
Lisa: Taylor, King & Simon will happen in the summer at McLoone’s. When we did it in August, it sold out five weeks in advance. I was shocked. That will always work because those three artists, you can’t go wrong.
I have my disco show too. I’ve been doing that like five years. No matter where it is, it’s a slam dunk. It’s completely different. I have two dates for the Wonder Bar already for the disco because people just go crazy with that. But all those sounds, singers, different genres teach you.
Lisa Sherman and Franke Previte pictured with his Oscar for “Dirty Dancing.” PHOTO BY BOB MAKIN
Q: Franke, how did you get involved in ‘Dirty Dancing?’
Franke: Jimmy Ienner called me … and said, ‘I have this movie, and I’d like you to write a song for it.’ I said, ‘Jimmy, I don’t have time. I’m trying to get a deal.’ He said, ‘Make time. This is going to change your life.’ I was like, ‘You’re gonna change my life, right.’ He said, ‘No, I’ve got a good feeling.’ I said, ‘All right, what’s the name of the movie.’ And he said, ‘“Dirty Dancing.”’ And I go, ‘Oh God, Jimmy’s doing porn’ (all laugh).
I had two weeks to write it. I immediately called (co-writer) John DeNicola. So I’m listening to his track at Exit 140 on the Garden State Parkway, and ‘the time of my life’ comes to me, and I start scribbling it down on a napkin.
At the Oscars, Patrick Swayze said to me, ‘That song turned the movie around. We listened to 149 songs, and yours was the 150th. We hated this movie. We didn’t have a song. So when we got to your cassette, we said we’re making the movie to that song … It changed us. It changed the camaraderie because we filmed out of sequence. We filmed the last scene. That dance duet was the first thing we filmed. And at the end of the day, we were like, holy crap, what a great ending, let’s go make a movie.’
They asked if I had anything else, and I gave them ‘Hungry Eyes.’ Eric Carmen sings it in the movie, but they filmed to me singing it. It was written for Franke & the Knockouts’ fourth record.
Franke: Every day is a new day with ‘Dirty Dancing,’ ‘The Time of My Life’ and the connections that it brings to me of being able to pick and choose the projects that I want to work on and not have to work on, pick and choose the songs that I want to write and not have to write to try to make the money to pay the rent. The song ‘The Time of My Life’ took me from being Franke the performer to Franke the songwriter. The song became bigger than me, and the phenomenon that it created … I don’t think a lot of people connect the dots to ‘The Time of My Life’ and Franke & the Knockouts.
Franke & the Knockouts with future Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres seated at far left. PHOTO COURTESY OF FRANKE PREVITE
Q: Is that why did you want you want to do the Knockouts box set?
Franke: I wanted to connect the dots. MCA didn’t know what to do with Franke & the Knockouts, so that third record never had the light of day. It had a lot of great songs. ‘One Good Reason,’ ‘Blame It on My Heart,’ a song called ‘Rain or Shine,’ which was the same groove as ‘Sweetheart,’ so they picked the wrong song to release as a single. Radio didn’t like it, and they dropped us. That gives this album a chance.
Songs are seeds that grow and come out of you. They’re like children, so you want to get your kids heard and seen and promoted.
There are 11 other songs that were my favorite songs in my drawer that didn’t make albums, songs that I wrote with Kasim Sulton (Todd Rundgren) and Mark Rivera (Billy Joel), songs that I wrote with my cousin, Dusty Micale, songs that I would submit for movies. So there’s a lot of music that didn’t see the light of day. And then I put in six Franke & the Knockouts live tracks, and I did that because when I wrote ‘Sweetheart,’ it was the last song I wrote for the first album. Jimmy said, ‘It’s a really good song. Could be a hit record, but it’s real pop, and you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll band. Are you sure you want to put that bullet in the gun?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, put it in the gun.’ And it was a hit. Jimmy was right, but radio saw us as a pop band, so when people came to see us, we’d rock out. They’d be like, ‘Who’s this band?’ And then we’d play ‘Sweetheart.’
When you write a song, it has a newness, and you don’t own it quite as much as after you’ve played it out two or three months, and it becomes a little more edgy. So ‘Sweetheart’ is on this new box set, but the live version so you can see that we were really a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Q: In order to promote the box set is there going to be a Franke & the Knockouts live reunion?
A: I don’t know. But they all said they would play, including Tico and Leigh.
Lisa: My favorite role is mother to my daughter Chelsea.
Bob Makin is the reporter for www.MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at email@example.com. And like Makin Waves at www.facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.