The business minds behind American Idol are not the first to try their hand at manufacturing pop stars. In fact, the process of corporate idol-making is nearly as old as rock and roll itself. The first man-made idols were launched in the late 1950s from Philadelphia, where a handful of enterprising businessmen applied a little creativity and a lot of cold, hard cash to the task of capitalizing on the rock-and-roll phenomenon. The Philadelphia teen idol machine hit full stride on March 15, 1959, when local boy Frankie Avalon hit #1 on the pop charts with his hit song, “Venus.”
The commercial genius of the Philadelphia idol-makers was in looking at rock and roll and understanding it as an economic phenomenon rather than a musical one. Elvis Presley may have combined black rhythm and blues and white country music in a transformative way, but on a dollars-and-cents level, he also revealed the enormous, untapped spending power of America’s teenage girls, some of whom surely cared more about his dreamy good looks than his musical innovations. Enter a clean-cut brigade of pop singers hand-picked to appeal to this market. The music—much of which bore no relationship to rock and roll—was almost an afterthought. As Greg Shaw writes in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, “The machinery was so well constructed that a good-looking teenager could be spotted on the street, cut a record and, aided by a few bribed DJs, within a few weeks have a hit on the national charts—no uncertainties, no risks.”
Frankie Avalon wasn’t the only made-in-Philadelphia idol to prove the success of this machinery—Fabian and Danny and the Juniors took the same route to stardom—but he was the most successful. Transformed from a trumpet player into a crooner by Bob Marucci, head of Chancellor Records, Avalon scored two minor hits in 1958 before shooting to the top of the pop charts with “Venus,” which reached #1 on this day in 1959.