One of several teen singing sensations to emerge from Philadelphia in the late 1950s, Fabian was perhaps the most reluctant of the group, which included Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell. Pop stardom was never his dream, but the prospect of financial ruin after his father's illness spurred him to sign with a local record producer, who crafted him into a pinup-worthy crooner with the right mix of vulnerability and swagger. His time on the charts was remarkably short-lived, with just a handful of singles, including 1959's "Turn Me Loose" and "Tiger," achieving top sales. By 1960, he had largely forgone music for acting in features like "North to Alaska" (1960) and "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" (1962). His film career waned in the late '60s, but he re-emerged after a turbulent period in the early 1970s as an enthusiastic presence on the oldies touring circuit. Fabian also enjoyed a brief spell as a producer of television miniseries and specials, but his tenure as a pop singer, however brief, kept his fame intact and appreciated by fans for over four decades.
Born Fabiano Anthony Forte in Philadelphia, PA on Feb. 6, 1943, he was raised on the city's famed South Side, just blocks from where future fellow teen pop idols Avalon and Rydell lived and played. By all accounts, he was an average boy, who showed interest in but little aptitude for school sports and, most tellingly, the glee club. He also worked a variety of jobs to help his family make ends meet after his father, Domenic, took ill. According to pop legend, Fabian was discovered by his neighbor, producer Bob Marcucci, while his father was being carried out to an ambulance after suffering a heart attack. At the time, Marcucci and his partner, Pete DeAngelis, owned Chancellor Records and had just reached the crest of popularity with their first discovery, Frankie Avalon. Marcucci approached the distraught 14-year-old with an offer for a career in music. Reportedly, Fabian gave a vehemently negative response, but after considering the options on how to feed his family, he signed with Marcucci.
Marcucci and DeAngelis put the teenager through an intensive grooming process, during which he was subjected to a rigid schedule of vocal lessons, photo sessions and publicity-garnering events. Like Avalon, he was extremely photogenic, with ethnic but unthreatening good looks. Unlike his pop peer, however, Forte lacked a singing voice. Undaunted, Marcucci hired songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who would go on to pen chart-topping hits for Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Ben E. King, to craft songs for Fabian. More importantly, they used a variety of electronic methods to "sweeten" the singer's voice.
In 1958, Chancellor released Fabian's first single, "I'm in Love." The song was a failure almost immediately upon its release, but the hysterical reaction by female audience members to his appearance on "American Bandstand" (WFIL/ABC/syndicated/USA, 1952-1989) in June of that year seemed to indicate that even if Fabian's music was not selling records, his looks and personality alone was generating interest. Two more singles were released before he garnered some attention with "I'm A Man." Sensing that they might get a stronger response from listeners if they added a dash of danger to Fabian's image, Marcucci and DeAngelis had him record "Turn Me Loose," a sexy and confident rock number that saw the singer's voice deepen from his traditional high register to a lower growl. The results were stratospheric: "Turn Me Loose" shot to No. 9 on the Billboard charts in 1959, and was quickly followed by "Tiger," which surpassed its predecessor's success by breaking the Top Five. To support the single, Fabian toured relentlessly with a package of pop stars assembled by "Bandstand" host, Dick Clark.
Hollywood naturally developed an interest in Fabian, and in 1959, he was signed to a contract with 20th Century Fox. His first film, "Hound-Dog Man" (1959), was a simplistic story of backwoods romance that largely echoed the plot of Elvis Presley's debut film, "Love Me Tender" (1956). The film was a modest hit, which for Fabian, was well timed. His music career, having just reached its greatest height, was already headed for a precipitous decline. 1960's "This Friendly World" broke the Top 20, but each subsequent single landed in a lower position on the Billboard chart. After a year in the spotlight, Fabian's reign as a pop idol was largely over, as the singer basically lacked the vocal stylings of his fellow crooners.
By this point, Fabian had tired of Marcucci's iron grip on his career, so he took an unprecedented step and bought his contract back from the producer. He then focused his energies on his film career, which appeared poised to actually take off. A year after "Hound-Dog Man," he was co-starring with such Hollywood icons as Bing Crosby in the Blake Edwards comedy "High Time" (1960) and with John Wayne and Ernie Kovacs in the Western action-drama "North to Alaska" (1960). Unlike many pop stars-turned-actors, Fabian took his film career seriously, honing his craft with acclaimed acting coach Sanford Meisner. In 1961, his efforts paid off when he stunned critics and audiences alike as a psychopathic drifter in an episode of "Bus Stop" (ABC, 1961-1962) directed by Robert Altman.
Unfortunately, he was never able to capitalize on the strength of this performance, and worked largely in harmless family entertainment like "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" (1962) with Jimmy Stewart and "Five Weeks in a Balloon" (1962), as well as a brief turn as a nameless Army Ranger in the war epic "Longest Day" (1962). By the middle of the 1960s, he was working for Columbia on forgettable B-fare like "Ride the Wild Surf" (1964) and in episodic television. The end of the decade saw him follow Frankie Avalon to American International Pictures, the premier low-budget genre film company of the period, where his waning fame granted him top billing in pictures like "Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs" (1966) with Vincent Price, and the drug paranoia drama "Maryjane" (1968). A music career was no longer an option, as Fabian had given testimony before Congress about how Marcucci had manipulated his voice on his early recordings.
The 1970s saw Fabian's film career slip even further into obscurity with starring roles in no-budget dramas like "A Bullet for Pretty Boy" (1970), where he played Depression Era criminal Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and the Western "Little Laura and Big John" (1973) with Karen Black. That same year, he posed semi-nude for a layout in Playgirl, a decision that he later regretted. A painful divorce led to legal and financial troubles over unpaid child support, and Fabian soon sought psychiatric help with his mounting issues. By the end of the 1970s, he appeared to launch something of a comeback by participating in various rock-and-roll revival shows and guest starring in various TV movies and on episodic series. In 1980, Fabian and his legacy returned to the news with the release of Taylor Hackford's "The Idolmaker," a thinly veiled account of his relationship with Bob Marcucci, who served as a technical advisor on the film. Fabian took issue with the picture's portrayal, which cast him as a naïve teen (Peter Gallagher) with no singing ability who rose to fame through the machinations of a savvy producer (Ray Sharkey) and repays his Pygmalion by firing him. Due to his perceptions, Fabian sued both Marcucci and the production. An alleged settlement, which included Marcucci's percentage of the film's profits, was reached out of court.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Fabian kept busy with frequent tours on the revival circuit, for which he was often accompanied by fellow former idols Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell. He also branched into television production, where he earned an Emmy nomination for the documentary series "The Real West" (syndicated, 1993). In 2002, his career finally received some tribute when he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.