Tony DeFranco Opened Up About His Family’s Fame – And Revealed The Moment He Felt It All Slip Away

It’s safe to say that Tony DeFranco has lived a pretty astounding life. One moment he was a regular Canadian kid, helping out his family by performing at weddings. The next, he became a teen heartthrob in crazy demand. Think Justin Bieber, long before the real Justin Bieber became a thing. But if he really was such a star, you might well ask, “Why haven’t I heard of him?” Well, there’s a story there…

So who were the DeFrancos? They were a band from Port Colborne, which is in Ontario, Canada, and most famous for, well, producing the DeFranco family. It was the 1970s and clean-cut teenagers were just the sort of thing that was selling. The DeFrancos were in the right place at, most crucially, the right time.

Tony was the most famous of them all, but there were five DeFranco siblings in total. From youngest to oldest these were: Tony, Merlina, Nino, Marisa and Benny. They all had roles to play in the band, but Tony was the frontman. Well, “frontboy.” And he’d only just reached his teens when the family rose to fame.

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Sure, you get many 13-year-olds who dream of being a music megastar, but actually living that lifestyle is a different matter. There’s a good reason child stars tend to burn out, because a kid’s brain isn’t really equipped to handle suddenly being public property. And Tony’s had plenty of time to consider this in his later years.

And then there’s another problem. If you’re young and suddenly have the kind of riches that come with being extremely successful, people are almost inevitably going to take advantage of you. Tony’s mentioned this in “where are they now” type interviews. He certainly witnessed his fair share of bad behavior.

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If you saw Tony DeFranco on the streets tomorrow, you probably wouldn’t recognize him even you were a Defranco Family fan back in the day. The era when he grinned out from the front cover of Tiger Beat magazine, that’s long gone. So what happened in the end? Where did the stardom go?

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Really, the DeFranco story sounds like something out of a movie. The family consisted of perfectly normal people who just happened to be interested in music. The parents, Antonio and Maria, kept various instruments in their home and they were happy to let the kids try them out. This proved to be a pretty lucrative move.

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Gradually all the family members began specializing in their own music. Merlina had drums, Marisa keyboards, and the two older boys became great on the guitar. Tony was the youngest of the family and not involved at first, but eventually he started singing with his siblings. He even technically got a paycheck, since his mom more or less bribed him to join in.

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An older Tony spoke to the website Do You Remember in 2020, and he did indeed remember those very early days. “[My dad] bought me a set of drums, but I was too little to use them – I think I was four or five,” Tony recalled. “So he gave it to my sister Merlina and she figured it out. We were playing the Niagara Peninsula in Canada, mostly weddings and whatnot.”

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“So then I started singing a song or two during our weddings, park functions, and wherever we were playing,” Tony added. “A gentleman named Ron Myers saw us at a local park and approached my dad.” And that marked the beginning of it all. Myers was a talent scout and he thought Tony had what it took.

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The other important factor was that the DeFranco family had the perfect looks for magazines. Myers posted a photograph of the kids to Charles “Chuck” Laufer, who was in charge of some of the era’s most popular music publications. Laufer approved of the picture and decided he wanted to meet the whole family.

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Tony himself recalled what happened from there when talking to the website Classic Bands in 2007. “[Laufer] flew us out to Los Angeles and we ultimately did an audition for him and he loved it,” Tony explained. “We did three demos that were finished masters that we took to Twentieth Century Records. The president of the label at the time loved it and within six months it was on all the radio stations, taking off.”

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“Taking off” wasn’t even the half of it. When the family released their song “Heartbeat – It’s a Lovebeat” in 1973, it was a huge success. Suddenly Tony’s life had changed forever. He told Do You Remember that at one point he and his family were flicking through radio stations and their band was on every single one. It was a mind-blowing experience.

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The DeFrancos packed their bags and headed for Hollywood. “Tonymania” had begun, and it was going to have both ups and downs. “Everywhere I went everyone wanted a piece of you,” Tony recalled when speaking to the Classic Bands website. “It was basically a magic carpet ride. It was an extreme change.” No kidding.

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A huge following for the DeFrancos sprung up in their hometown of Port Colborne. In 2015 the website Consequence of Sound tracked down some of those fans to ask them about their memories of the band members. And what they had to say about Tony wasn’t necessarily what you’d expect.

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“Tony was very shy and humble,” a former classmate of the DeFrancos revealed. “He didn’t speak too often. If you said hi to him, he would say hi back, but that was it.” Another said, “I mean, he talked, he was very friendly, but he was the shy guy that sat beside me and played trumpet.”

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Stardom tends to be harder for “shy guys” to deal with. “I wanted privacy, which I think is not uncommon,” Tony told Do You Remember. “And as I started getting older where you just go to school and you see how the girls are reacting, you see how the guys are reacting – not necessarily favorably – so you just always felt like eyes were on you.”

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“We were always told that you’ve got to accommodate the fans,” Tony continued. “You always talk to them, you always take a picture, but at some point you want to escape to a room where you could be left alone.” There were incidents when girls would run up to Tony and instantly be “all over” him.

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But things slowly started to fall apart for the DeFranco family. In 1974 the band released a cover version of the famous song “Save the Last Dance for Me” and it was successful. Later on that year, though, the more up-tempo “Write Me a Letter” was a flop. Music tastes were changing, and fast.

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Unfortunately it can only take one flop to ruin a career, and the DeFrancos had had it. Their label brought in a new producer for the band, Mike Curb, who was famous for his collaborations with The Osmonds. He decided the DeFrancos would work better as a covers outfit – but the family strongly disagreed.

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Curb also wanted the DeFrancos to adopt a style akin to The Osmonds’, and Tony hated the idea. In 2016 he told the Niagara Falls Review, “We started losing that sound we had on the first couple albums, which I thought was a pretty unique sound… I fought it. I said, ‘This doesn’t work for me.’ I think I was viewed as a trouble-making kid.”

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Trouble-making kid or not, things were coming to end for Tony and his siblings. The family suddenly began to be excluded from the studio, only being invited in to sing along to tracks that’d been laid down in their absence. And perhaps worst of all, the DeFrancos weren’t being paid properly either.

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And even decades later, the money issue is still a bugbear for Tony. “A lot of people back in the day signed terrible contracts, including us,” he admitted to Do You Remember. “It was so prevalent back then that it was considered normal. What’s funny is that we supposedly had the top attorney in the industry looking out for our best interests, but he also represented the people we signed with!”

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The final nail in the coffin came when Chuck Laufer tore up the band’s deal. Unsurprisingly, Tony was asked about ditching the others and striking out on his own. And even more unsurprisingly, that caused friction between him and his siblings. Perhaps it was fortunate for him that he never did embark on that solo career in the end.

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“I did try to continue it, but the industry was changing so quickly, from disco kicking in to whatever followed,” Tony told Do You Remember. “The truth is, most people are one-and-done and that’s it. How many artists can you count that have hits decade to decade to decade? In any case, that’s my sob story.”

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And dealing with suddenly returning to the normal world was also difficult for Tony. “Everybody’s your friend, you can do no wrong and suddenly you can’t even get arrested,” he explained. “Everybody is just saying, ‘You’re damaged goods. You were a teen idol. You’re bubblegum.’ And I was lost, frankly, trying to figure out where to go next, what direction to pursue. And that feeling lasted more than a few years.”

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That didn’t last forever, thankfully. Tony began looking for another career. He started off overseeing studio sessions, but over time found that he couldn’t stand to be around some of the people involved. So he decided to switch lanes completely and became a real estate agent.

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Tony proudly recalled, “I decided, ‘If I do this, I can only believe and trust in myself. How hard I work in this business will come back to benefit me and I’m not depending on somebody else to show up to an appointment, to speak for me, to behave inappropriately or be an idiot. It’s just me.’ And over the years, it’s been good to me. I’ve done very well in real estate.”

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The ex-pop star isn’t kidding. His official work bio reads, “After several years of success in music, Tony gained an interest in real estate. He quickly learned the same dedication, discipline, and determination required as a musician translates into the real estate business.” Oh, and it also mentions the realtor awards he’s won.

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The end of the bio states, “In his spare time, Tony enjoys joining friends for a round of golf, practicing photography, and spending time with his wife in their Thousand Oaks home.” Wife? Yep, Tony is married to Stacy Erin Meyers, a writer and illustrator. And they have three kids together: two girls and a boy.

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Tony has spoken about what his kids know – or don’t know – about his past as a teen idol. In 2016 he told the Niagara Falls Review newspaper that his youngest son had an interest in music, but didn’t want to pursue it as a career. And Tony’s stage clothes even got repurposed as Halloween outfits for the children!

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And despite those moments of tension in the past, Tony maintains good relationships with his siblings. In 2008 he spoke to the website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict and was asked about the other DeFrancos. “Well, we’re an Italian family,” Tony replied. “All families have arguments and issues, but we’re close.”

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“We’re all within one hour of each other,” Tony continued. “My brother Benny, my sisters Marisa, Merlina and their families, my mother, they all live out about forty-five minutes from where I live here in Thousand Oaks. My brother Nino is local. No one is in the entertainment industry, although Marisa continues to sing.”

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The interviewer then asked, “Have you ever sold a house to a fan?” Tony answered, “People have known who I was and we’ve talked about it and people get a chuckle out of it. But anybody who is a big time fan, I don’t know. That may be difficult to work with.” The ex-star does have an Instagram account, though.

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Granted, Tony’s Instagram posts are mostly pictures of lovely houses, as befits a guy in his line of work. But every so often he posts something about his past. In May 2020 he put up an old photo of himself with the caption, “Who’s this guy? Going through boxes and came across this photo. I remember turning 15 and my hair transformed into serious curls.”

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The comments section on that post exploded into confessions of teenage love for Tony. A fan wrote, “I saw you when you and the family played a gig at the Boulevard Mall outside back in 75, you were my mad crush for years.” Another admitted, “Had posters of you all over my walls in my room.”

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Sometimes Tony even runs into the kids of people he used to work with! In 2019 he posted, “So this lovely woman taps on my shoulder… and tells me her father was the recording engineer for my records back in the 70s. She even shared these great photos of me in the studio with her dad.” A blast from the past for the ex-teen idol.

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So all in all, Tony has no regrets about his crazy teenage life. He’s actually in demand as a singer today, believe it or not. Although he hasn’t performed with his siblings since a Los Angeles show back in 2000, Tony still has a good set of pipes. In 2014 he performed the national anthem at a MLB game, and he’s had a few other proposals as well.

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Tony told Do You Remember that he was proud of his success, saying, “I’m a member of a pretty small club in some respects. How many people can say they have had a hit record? Then the second club is how many people can say they were a teen idol, which I think is even smaller? I don’t have any negative feelings about it anymore.”

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“I don’t dwell on what could have been,” Tony added. “I think it was like a magic carpet ride and it was a lot of fun.” Based on his Instagram account, he’s just chilling and loving life right now, and happy to joke about his time as a teen idol. It’s nice to see someone come out of childhood mega-fame unscathed.

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