Whatever happened to Frankie Valens?
By Bud Norman
Although he's admittedly shy, and obviously ill at ease with publicity, Frankie Valens can be gently prodded into discussing his career as a pop singer.
Speaking in a voice quiet enough for the Wichita Public Library, the location he'd chosen for an interview because he doesn't like people to know where in Wichita he lives, Valens explained that he agreed to talk only because he's starting to perform more often and is going to blow his cover anyway.
He also wants to let people know that he'll be one of the performers on the Kansas Literacy Telethon, which airs live today on KAKE, Channel 10, and several other ABC affiliates around Kansas to benefit Literacy Resources.
He's clearly reluctant to say much more about his life in Wichita, where he moved two years ago to be near his daughter and grandchildren.
I have a circle of friends, and my grandkids, but I don't socialize much," said Valens, who was wearing fashionable clothes, flashy jewelry and a worried expression, as his agent sat protectively nearby. "I've only let a few people in town know who I am."
Quite a few people knew who Valens was back in the late 60s and early 70s, when he scored a string of minor hits with cover tunes on the small Sunburst and Jettison labels and filled nightclubs and concert halls in Las Vegas and other towns.
He was never a major star, but he had enough fame to be uncomfortable with it and concedes that it was hurtful when it stopped.
"I became an accountant and disappeared from the music scene," he said, "I didn't even want to talk about it."
After growing up a preacher's kid in Kansas City, Valens intended to become an account when he left home in the mid-60s for New York City's Pace University. As he tells the story, Valens was introduced to show business through a classic accident.
"About 1967, I was going to school and working a part-time job at a sporting goods store, where a guy heard me humming a tune," Valens said. "He said he was a manager of a band called Eminent Domain and that were looking for a singer. He wished to get someon who could sing 'Unchained Melody.' I went home and played the record, tired it out and when I was done with the song at the audition, everyone was crying."
The Kansas City preacher's kid joined the band and recalls that "we were playing right away." Within a short time they were picked up by the independent Sunburst label, where he was listed under a new name.
The manager didn't like my real name, which is Frankie Piper," he said. "I had just heard a tribute to Ritchie Valens, and I just loved his music, so I chose that."
The name change has always caused some people to confuse him with Ritchie Valens, the Mexican-American rock 'n' roll pioneer who died with Buddy Holly in a 1959 plane crash, but he admits that his real first name has been just as problematic. He's sometimes confused with Frankie Valli of Four Seasons fame, or such singing Frankies as Lyman, Laine and Avalon.
The music Valens made with Eminent Domain in the late '60s was clean-cut pop, with his biggest sellers being such 50s romantic standards as "Smoke Gets In You Eyes," "Donna," and "This Magic Moment." Despite the band's wholesome music, however, Valens was uncomfortable with some of its more up-to-date habits.
"All of the drugs were coming on to the scene, and I didn't like what was happening to the band," he said.
A more serious moral issue led to a dispute between Valens and the band's manager, and although he would only explain the sensitive nature of the incident off the record, Valens blames the resulting split for the sudden and precipitous drop in his popularity in the early 70s.
After that, Valens plugged along with a series of lesser bands.
Frustrated by his declining career, and still uncomfortable with the moral values prevalent in the music business, Valens decided to move to Colorado and use the accounting degree that he'd finished while on the road.
During this time, he didn't discuss his past with anyone, including a woman he had fallen in love with at his church and would eventually wed.
"My wife didn't know about it for the first two years because I was so hurt I didn't want to talk about it," Valens said. "Then one day I played her a Frankie Valens album, and she said, 'Hey, that sounds like you.' I said, 'It is me." She said, 'But the name on the label is Frankie Valens, not Frankie Piper,' and I said, 'Well, I have to tell you some things.'"
After being laid off from his accounting job, Valens wanted to resume his musical career with his piano-playing wife, but he recalled that "she was bore and raised in the church and was not comfortable with the secular world." So, the two formed Frankie Valens Ministries and began playing a limited schedule of church gigs with gospel music and the occasional secular oldie.
"it's very innocent music, and I'm not adverse to playing it. You have to live in this world, and you to bring the people out," Valens said. "At some of the churches, you'd be surprised. They ask me to do some of the old songs."
After moving to Wichita two years ago, Valens began to play at secular venues with the help from the local Bravohorn Productions company. He also cut an album of oldies - going all the way back to "Unchained Melody" - with local musicians, including Tim Raymond, who has worked with such contemporary Christian music stars as Carman.
As difficult as it seems to be for Valens to step back into the spotlight, he offers a simple reason for doing so.
"I'm a singer," Valens said. "I really enjoy singing, more than accounting or anything else."