The phrase “I’ve had the time of my life” generally means it’s hard to top what you are enjoying at that moment. For songwriter Franke Previte, who penned the song “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” nothing could be further from the truth. The song, sung by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, was written for the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, and has received numerous accolades: an Academy Award for Best Original Song, ASCAP Song of The Year (for one million plays), a Golden Globe award and a Grammy nomination. It’s played at weddings and graduations, appeared in countless television commercials, a Glee cast rendition, cover versions and an interpolation from the Black Eyed Peas in 2010’s “The Time (Dirty Bit).” Previte’s life itself has been a series of second and third acts, reinventions, an evolution from singer to songwriter, and being in the right place at the right time, but most of all, talent and dedication to his craft.
While it may hard to top the moment of winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, the amiable and affable New Jersey native is quite content to move forward and leverage his good fortune onto others who may not have had the series of serendipitous and happenstance life-changing moments he’s experienced.
Was music a big part of your childhood?
Absolutely. My father sang opera and my mother was a singer. There was always music in my home. I sang a lot when I was a kid. I loved doo-wop and always knew music would be part of my life. My parents encouraged me to go to college, which I did. They said: ‘Get an education and you can be anything you want to be.’ But on the day I was supposed to graduate from college I was on the road with my band Oxford Watch.
One of your early bands, Bull Angus, wound up getting a record deal with Mercury Records in 1971 on the strength of your vocals and the band’s hard rock/prog-rock sound.
Yes, that’s correct. When we were signed, our label guy asked us where we playing so I told him we were playing at Red Hook High School. He said ‘Ok, in one week you’re playing Madison Square Garden with Rod Stewart!’ For two months we opened for Rod, Deep Purple and wound up playing the Poconos Festival in front of 300,000 people.
And then you lost the record deal and drifted around before forming Franke and the Knockouts?
Yes. After many years, our managers had a falling out, and Bull Angus was over. I moved from New York to Indiana before coming back home to New Brunswick, New Jersey. I was selling cars out of my driveway in order to take voice lessons and not have to play in a cover band so I could focus on writing and singing. I was introduced to Art Kass, founder of Buddah Records (Gladys Knight, Bill Withers and more), through an ex-girlfriend who, as it turns out, had married Art! I began writing R&B material. The other artists at the label would always listen to what I was playing for Art and say ‘hey, that white boy can sing!’ But Art was always thinking I was going to steal his wife so it never really worked out. Eventually I combined my rock influence with my R&B skills and went for a ‘blue-eyed soul’ sound.
In the heyday of the ‘70s and early ‘80s scene, there must have been lots of industry legends you encountered?
Oh yeah. I met Tony Camillo, who produced “Midnight Train To Georgia” and all the Buddah stuff out of his basement in New Jersey through Art. And then Bert Padell, the “Accountant To The Stars” who handled Robert DeNiro, Madonna, Luther Vandross and others. Bert took my demo to Jimmy Ienner, who produced the Raspberries, Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad. Ienner’s roots were in doo-wop and that’s what he heard in my voice on the demos, that Italian doo-wop but soulful. He said ‘if you can write three more songs like these I’ll give you a record deal.’ I went home and wrote three more and got the deal with Ienner’s label, Millenium Records. That was the start of Franke and the Knockouts.
“Sweetheart” was your breakthrough hit in 1981. Was that one of the original demo songs?
Actually, I wrote ‘Sweetheart’ right before we went in to record the album. It was a real pop song. Jimmy said ‘it’s not the rock thing you want to be but I can tell you, it’s a hit. If you want to record it, then record it but you might get stigmatized.’ He was right- we released it and it became a hit and everybody took us for a pop band. We’d go out and play these heavier Foreigner-sounding songs and then we’d play “Sweetheart” and our fans would look at us like ‘who are these guys?’ Eventually, in 1984, Jimmy pulled the plug on his label deal and sold The Knockouts to MCA, who wanted the band to sound like Nightranger. We were angry! We didn’t want to sound like Nightranger, there was already a Nightranger! Radio didn’t like our new sound and the band was history.
Tico Torres, the band’s drummer for a short period, went on to join Bon Jovi.
Yeah, he came to me and said ‘there’s this kid Bon Jovi who wants me to play on his demos.’ I said sure, go ahead. Good for Tico.
Having a hit with “Sweetheart” must have established you in some way.
“Sweetheart” got my voice out there and I first became known as a songwriter. Prior to that, it was always about my voice getting me the work. And when “Time Of My Life” came along, the song became bigger than my voice. Having a song play in Everytown USA five times a day, a theater show, the radio, in Europe- you couldn’t have any band tour that much to get that much play.
Let’s discuss the writing process for the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”
I got a call out of the blue from Jimmy Ienner in late 1986/early 1987. He said ‘I’ve got this movie called Dirty Dancing and I need you to write me a song for it.’ I told him ‘I don’t have time for it, I’m trying to get another deal.’ He said ‘make time. This is good. It’ll change your life.’ I said ‘you already told me that once and it wasn’t good!’ But he had a good feeling about it. He gave me a short description of the movie and said ‘the good news is you can write the song. The bad news is it’s gotta be seven minutes long!’ So I’m thinking “MacArthur Park” and songs like that. My songwriting partner John DeNicola and I were writing and making demos, trying to get a record deal. I was introduced to John by David Prater, who had a studio in his basement in Montclair, NJ, where I would record demos for $35 an hour. David told me John had a bunch of cool music and was writing with this girl nicknamed ‘Pantera.’ He said there was one really cool song and wanted to play it for me. I said ‘well if I’m going to write lyric and melody to it, I only want to hear the track. I don’t want to hear their lyric and melody.’ That song became “Hungry Eyes.” And of course, it later went on Dirty Dancing and Eric Carmen made it a hit.
Anyway, so I called John and I told him that I had an offer from Jimmy Ienner to write a song for this movie. I said ‘Let’s start the song in half-time, with the chorus up front and then double-time the verses.’ The first thing I thought of was Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.”
There’s a third writer on the song, correct?
Yes. Don Markowitz was a friend of John’s. He had an eight-track recorder at his house and John only had four. So John went to Don’s and then changes were made to the music. Don said ‘how about this change, or this bass line and then you can go to this chord?’ So they formulated the music and then sent me the track. From that, I made further edits and we sent it to Jimmy, who said ‘I like it. Make it a song!’
One day, I was driving down the Garden State Parkway on my way to meet John to finish another song. Now, how I write is through phonetic melody jamming. A G chord will make a certain sound in my mind and an A chord a vowel sound. So I’m listening to the (instrumental) track on cassette and grunting nonsense and started scribbling ‘time of my life.’
Were you given the title?
No. It was all just jamming and grunting to the cassette. The man upstairs wrote that song. I had no idea what the movie was really about, other than the brief description Jimmy gave me.
Perhaps Jimmy telling you ‘It’ll change your life’ had something to do with it?
Maybe. Change your life? Time of my life? Could be. I hadn’t thought of it that way but that could be. It did lead me to winning an Academy Award! (laughs)
What was Patrick Swayze’s reaction to the song?
When I met Patrick at the Oscars, he told me ‘you have no idea what this song did for this movie. We filmed the movie out of sequence so the last scene was the first one filmed. We listened to 149 songs and hated them. We rehearsed every day to a Lionel Richie track. Good song but it wasn’t our song. We all felt the ending wasn’t happening and the movie was going to bomb. Then your cassette with you and Rachele Cappelli singing “Time of My Life” came in. We filmed to that and at the end of the day we all looked at each other and said ‘wow, what just happened? This ending is awesome! Let’s go make this movie!’’ It changed everything for them for the better. The camaraderie that wasn’t there was now there. Without Patrick, Jennifer and the song, you wouldn’t have the phenomenon that it became. Now, because of what this song has done for me and to honor Patrick, I sell my demos on my Facebook page and donate all the money to pancreatic cancer research.
And of course, one of the masters of the duet vocal, Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, was recruited to sing the lead male part.
Kenny Ortega (choreographer) brought it to Bill, who said ‘I don’t want to do any more duets.’ But Kenny begged him, saying ‘please, make this your last one.’ And the rest is history. His voice is iconic.
When was the first time you saw significant money coming in from songwriting?
After “Sweetheart” was a hit on the radio. That song in total has made about $125,000. It was survival money. It doesn’t last long when you are on the road and paying bills.
Even though you had been signed to deals before?
No, I was a stunad! You know, you’re in your 20’s and someone says ‘we’re gonna make you a star, you’re going to play with Rod Stewart. And here’s $50 a week to eat and we own everything!’ You say ‘Ok I’ll sign that deal!’ We didn’t even think about it, didn’t know about it. It was the first big hole I fell in.
Tell me about how the Black Eyed Peas recording “The Time (Dirty Bit).”
I got a call from my business administrator who told me Will I. Am had called and wanted to use the chorus. They had four titles they were going to use and wanted me to pick one. So I picked the Dirty Bit, since it had ‘Dirty’ in the title. But the ‘dirty bit’ is a bunch of information when you’re programming that doesn’t work so you cut it out. I thought he was referencing Dirty Dancing but it had nothing to do with it!
That recording must be a nice unexpected windfall.
Well, thank God. It’s mailbox money that comes to me. It’s all predicated on usage in the song and whether you own your publishing and sync rights. As a songwriter you earn money if you keep your publishing. If you look in the songwriter’s bible it says ‘always keep your publishing.’ Some of us can’t but when I was called upon to write the song Vestron Pictures didn’t think much of the movie. I was offered $1000 each for “Time Of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes.” But, being from the school of hard knocks and being beaten many times, I told them “give me $3500 a song and let me keep my publishing. And they said ‘done!’ Now I had $100 to my name at that point. Dee Anthony (legendary manager of Peter Frampton and more) was managing me at the time. He was away when I cut the deal. So when he got home I told him about the deal and he said ‘You f’in a@hole! We could have sold that publishing and gotten 25 grand each song. Do you realize what you did?’ I told him, guess what, you’re fired!
Are you able to keep track of your streams and other potential sources of revenue?
I have a great foreign administrator. Early on, I was signed in Europe to an admin deal with EMI. In each country they have their own ASCAP or BMI. There’s no way a songwriter can collect from each one. You need a big brother who is connected to all of them and will collect it. And they’ll do it for 20%. But what they don’t tell you is that when a dollar is earned in say, Germany, Germany will take 20 cents and send it to England. England will say ‘I just got 80 cents, let me take 20 cents and send it to the US, who says ‘hey I’ve got x amount of money, let me take 20 percent. And before you know it, half your money is gone. I was fortunate to meet, in another happenstance moment, my current administrator, who represents John Lennon, Foreigner, Meatloaf and others. She told me I was getting triple dipped and promised to make me a member of every musical society in Europe. Then I would only pay 10% and she would takes 10% to administrate it for me. Since then, I’ve picked up 30% more of my money by going with her. She handles all my foreign and sync licensing for movies and commercials. ASCAP monitors radio for me domestically, for performance royalty. Then there are mechanical earnings, which is very little these days because everybody is downloading. Believe it or not, “Time Of My Life” has been played on YouTube and across the Internet a half-billion times and I haven’t seen any money from the plays. It’s a discouraging time at the moment. We’ve got to protect our culture, our art and our music.
What projects have you been working on lately?
I have several projects now. I’m working with a group and put together a show called the Brotherhood. These are songwriters that I know that you should know. Guys like Joe Cerisano. My friends ask me ‘how can I get my songs heard? Nobody is going to come hear us. You come play with us.’ So I decided I would play with them, do my songs and then push them to the front.
Dirty Dancing has been made into a theater show. I understand you have a new musical theater show in development.
Yes. It’s a show called Decades Of Divas. I’ve put together female vocalists here in New Jersey who are relatively unknown but are great singers- Lisa Sherman, Layonne Holmes, Eryn Shewell, Reagan Richards and Jilly Sentino. When I heard each of them sing for the first time, my jaw dropped! I thought ‘How do I not know about them?’ People need to know about these singers. Decades Of Divas gives them a chance to showcase the music and discuss where their influences came from- Billie Holiday, Etta James, Aretha, Janis Joplin and Celine Dion. We’re taking those elements and creating a show that celebrates the divas from the ‘40s to present day. These legendary divas and songs are part of the fabric we, and the generations before us, all grew up with and loved. So the show follows each singer passing the torch to the next. The performers show how they’re influenced by each diva- they don’t just sing the songs and sound like the artist. There’s a theatrical thread throughout. It’s a journey of five singers celebrating the divas who have influenced them.
Is it your goal to take this on the road?
Yes. Our first show is scheduled to debut in New Jersey at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre on November 8. I’m working on getting sponsorship so we can underwrite the cost and take it on the road. It can work in casinos, theaters and similar places. My partners and I have branding ideas for R&B Decades Of Divas, Country Decades Of Divas, etc. I’m also working on a title song that one of the divas will sing which celebrates them and the symbolic passing of the torch. In fact, I was just approached by a label about a possible cast record for this project.
Do you see opportunities for musicians in today’s climate?
The opportunities that we had back in the earlier days is gone. The spec money for recording and signing ten bands to see which one sticks isn’t there anymore. The way for me to help is to be a musician and lend my name and whatever notoriety I have to expose the talent that is around me and give them a stage. If it takes my Academy Award that happened by the grace of God then my luck is with me and I want to pass that luck to people who deserve it.