Retro Dee writes about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s on this site. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every week.
Hi folks, it’s Retro Dee and I thought I’d do something different. So for this post, I’m going to review a book. Well, not exactly a whole book, but a chapter in a book. I’m not the most avid reader, truth be told.
I’m not really sure how to begin this, as I’ve never even written a book review. So here goes.
It was early Summer, 2021 when my Dad was reading the book, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom.
We were still in California and my Dad was spending a lot of time reading outside. I was inside, wrapping up my breakables, preparing for our move to Massachusetts.
One day, I went outside and Dad asked me if I’d ever heard of Frankie Presto. He says I must have, because he was a guitar player in the 1950’s. I hadn’t heard of him, it turns out, and for good reason. But I’ll get to that later.
My Dad said that if I won’t read the whole book, I need to at least read this chapter, because it was about Buddy Holly. Or, maybe more specifically, about The Everly Brothers, Don and Phil.
Warning: Spoiler Alert!
The chapter I’m reviewing tells the story of when Frankie Presto played a fair circuit with The Everly Brothers in California. The book is narrated by someone who presumably interviewed Frankie Presto. So that’s who is describing the life and times of this Frankie Presto person. Frankie Presto is from Spain, and has overcome many hardships to become the successful albeit still mostly “unknown” guitarist of his day.
The manager of the fair that Frankie and The Everly Brothers were playing at, was a fat man with an agenda. He paid each entertainer only after they completed a show. They had to wait in line in a blazing hot tent to get their payment. The fat guy set the tent up with heaters so it would get so hot, the entertainers could barely stand it. At the end of the night the box would have no money left, and often they were not paid at all.
(Now here’s the exact part that dragged me into this book.) The narrator explains the heat in the tent and its effects on Don and Phil Everly, who were sweating through their clothing… their shirts sticking to their bodies. This painted a very clear image in my mind and I won’t lie, I didn’t hate it. So as I’m picturing The Everly Brothers dripping in their own perspiration, the story continues.
The fat guy got to the point where he wouldn’t pay anyone. This was not an uncommon problem in those days, although I began to question why stars as successful as Don and Phil Everly were performing in such a crappy situation. But let’s continue.
So the fat guy wouldn’t pay. And Don and Phil were upset. So Frankie Presto told them not to worry… We’re not sure exactly what Frankie does, but the next thing the narrator tells us, is that Frankie got the money and Don and Phil were so overjoyed and grateful that they hugged Frankie. We imagine Frankie standing there with a sly smile, somewhat like The Fonz might, after he solved all the boys’ problems on “Happy Days”.
But the story gets weirder… The next night there’s a huge commotion at the fairgrounds. The elephants got loose. Elephants? Okay, that’s what the narrator tells us. They cause a stampede and everyone is trying to escape, when who pulls up in his hot rod, but Frankie Presto. He yells to The Everlys to jump in, they do and the car drives off safely.
The next day was February 3, 1959. (I don’t know how I was still believing this story at this point. But I have to admit, I was.) Obviously, that was The Day The Music Died. Frankie was terribly upset to hear about the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. So you can imagine how Don and Phil felt. According to this book, Frankie Presto took a large amount of money and put it in a box and drove down to Pacoima. Then he left the box of money on the porch of Ritchie’s mother’s house.
That’s about it for that chapter. After hearing so many odd things about my favorite stars from yesteryear, I figure that truth is stranger than fiction. And it usually is. But not this time.
My Dad read the whole book. And by the end he made an announcement: There was no Frankie Presto. He’s a fictional character created by Mitch Albom. Funny enough, real stars played along with the fantasy of Frankie Presto, talking about him in interviews. This made anything that I searched for online regarding Frankie Presto seem convincing! For a while there, I felt like I was losing my mind. Is there some kind of Alternative Universe where Frankie Presto existed? Of course not. So reading a chapter of this book took me for a bit of a fool. But it was a helluva ride. Personally, I still like picturing Don and Phil in that hot tent with their shirts sticking to them.
Oh okay, I forgot that this is supposed to be a review. Should you read this book? Sure, if you like to read about guitarists from the 50’s that don’t exist. In a way, it’s like an elaborate form of Fan Fiction, since there are a lot of real stars made into characters for the story. I don’t want to spoil the end, but from what my Dad tells me, it’s not for the feint of heart, nor is it the feel good story of the year.
Despite not being much of a reader, I’ve always respected Mitch Albom since Tuesdays With Morrie. I think if anyone likes his work or this kind of book, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is worth reading. In a way, Frankie Presto is a symbol of all the unsung heroes of the music industry.
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