FRANK’S MUSIC CAREER
Shortly after his emcee appearance at the 23rd Annual Miss Allegheny County Preteen Beauty Pageant, Frank discovered that he might have a chance to turn singing into a new career. It was his work at the pageant, combined with a new fad that was taking over the country that gave Frank a new opportunity.
FRANK: The film Swingers had come out a couple of months earlier, and all of a sudden, the lounge scene was becoming the next big thing. All of these twenty-something kids were hanging out in dive bars, wearing cheap suits and binge drinking. At first, I was upset that all of these young punks were infringing on my lifestyle. But then I realized that with this lounge scene kicking up, so was interest in that kind of music, and a new appreciation in the classic singers – Sinatra, Martin, Bennett. Now, I’m not saying that I sing like Tony Bennett, but I do have a distinctive style, and I thought that I could make something unique and fun.
TED LEOTARDO, VICE-PRESIDENT, TREMOLO RECORDS: I had known Frank from way back. He would emcee some local concerts, and he was part of the improv scene for a short while in the early nineties. I remember, though, that he wasn’t particularly good at it. Wasn’t quick on his feet, couldn’t create a character, which was surprising, since he was an actor ever since he was young. But Frank was a good kid, and whenever I needed something heavy lifted from my car, he would always do it for me. So, I was willing to give him a listen.
FRANK: So, I come to him with this idea to take a modern song – not a brand new one, but one still in the public consciousness – and change it into a lounge song, jazz it up a bit.
TED LEOTARDO: Frank didn’t know this – at least, I didn’t think he knew this – but the idea of taking popular songs and changing their format was kind of a weakness of mine. Back in the seventies, I had always said that Beethoven’s “5th Symphony” would sound great as a disco song. Too bad that bastard from Saturday Night Fever beat me to it. So, I tried to do my own musical transformation of a song by taking this local polka band that I knew named Polka-Motion and having them perform Wagner’s operatic classic “Ride of the Valkyries” – you know, the one that played in Apocalypse Now when the helicopters were flying. But the song was so intense that the accordion player had an aneurysm while playing it. It wasn’t the desired effect that I had in mind. But the music transformation thing was still something that I was interested in doing.
FRANK: Ted was really excited about the idea, but we still needed a song that would work in the lounge style. After going through a list of songs, Ted and I finally settled on Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love.” It was just an issue of getting Debbie to let us perform the song.
DEBBIE GIBSON, SINGER-ACTRESS: I had lost a ton of money on the Kentucky Derby the year before, and I needed a cash influx. One of the jockeys in the paddock – I became kind of a regular fixture in the paddock that year – gave me a sure thing, but the son of a bitch lost a shoe on the last furlong. The deal that they were willing to give me for that lounge guy to release “Shake Your Love” was enough to cover my gambling debts and still give me enough money to enter the World Series of Poker that next year.
Debbie finished 38th in the 2000 World Series of Poker, netting her a small profit.
After three days in the studio, neither Frank nor Tremolo Records’ production crew felt that they were getting the desired effect that they needed for a big hit.
CHAZ ORTEGA, MUSIC PRODUCER: Frank was doing a decent job, but we could never get the song to pop. Something was missing. It was flat. I had suggested that there needed to be a second vocal to contrast Frank’s delivery, but not a female vocal. I can’t say why, but I guess I just felt that the song needed to keep its machismo.
FRANK: I wasn’t too excited about the idea at first – I mean, this was my show and all – but even I realized that during the third day I wasn’t going to be able to do this alone.
CHAZ ORTEGA: We started throwing out names of singers, and for some reason Frank had this fascination with Harvey Korman. He was really determined to sing with Harvey Korman.
FRANK: Hey, I always wanted to work with Mr. Korman. I loved him on The Carol Burnett Show.
CHAZ ORTEGA: Anyway, it turned out that Harvey wasn’t available, as he was doing a one-man show in Branson, Missouri for the next four weeks, so we were back to square one. Suddenly one of the session players says, “Why don’t you just get Screaming Jimmy Leaney to do it? I’m playing squash with him in the morning, and he can use the work.” I swear, it was like a beam of sunlight shot through the entire room.
Screaming Jimmy Leaney was a regular in the Los Angeles comedy scene. He was quite popular despite the fact that his act was limited to two things: being incredibly loud, and being incredibly flamboyant. Reader’s Digest once said of him, “If Rip Taylor, Waylan Flowers and Madame had a three-way, and from that unholy union begat a child with a learning disability, that child would be Screaming Jimmy Leaney.”
SCREAMING JIMMY LEANEY: WHEN I WAS GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO SING “SHAKE YOUR LOVE,” I SAID TO THEM, “BRING IT ON, BITCHES.”
FRANK: I have to admit that I wasn’t overly excited about the choice, as I was still reeling from the fact that we couldn’t get Harvey Korman out of Branson. But the others saw something in Jimmy, and I felt like I had to trust their instincts.
CHAZ ORTEGA: When we brought Jimmy in and ran through the song, we told him just one thing – be like Fred Schneider (of the B-52s), but more flamboyant. He just smiled and said, “I CAN DO THAT.”
Once Screaming Jimmy came on board, things moved quickly. The song was completed that day, although not without problems.
FRANK: We had to do our vocals separately. He was just too loud.
CHAZ ORTEGA: I remember doing Screaming Jimmy’s vocals, and I kept saying “Turn it down…no, lower…lower…”
SCREAMING JIMMY: I HAVE MY OWN STYLE, AND IT SOMETIMES TAKES PEOPLE TIME TO APPRECIATE MY CHARMS.
FRANK: It was tough, it was tough. But I have to say this – once I heard the final product, I knew that we had something big. It was like, with all due respect, listening to Sgt. Pepper for the first time, except it was a novelty song with an overly flamboyant guy screaming the background vocals.
Once the song was completed, everyone realized that they had to get this song out quickly. As singles were being pressed, a music video was conceived and produced within two weeks.
FRANK: I’m not sure why they chose an all-girls Catholic school as a location to film the video. It just didn’t seem right to me. But they said they knew what they were doing. They also had Screaming Jimmy in pajamas with ducks on them and, I don’t know what you call them, footies? With the feet in them? I don’t know.
While the video received several complaints from the Parents for Music Research Coalition (although, in a published report, even they were not sure why, saying they “didn’t get it, but something just had to be wrong”), it still received a healthy run on music television, specifically VH-1. With the combination of the video and some steady play on adult contemporary radio (one radio station received 42 requests for the song in an hour’s time, all by a guy named “Rashaun”), the song reached number 32 on the Billboard Top 40. In the next few weeks, appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Rosie O’Donnell Show only helped their stock. But it was an appearance on another show that put cracks in their foundation.
FRANK: We did this appearance on Antiques Roadshow, on PBS. The whole freaking time Screaming Jimmy, every time something new comes out to show, he’d go, “MY GOD, THAT THING’S JUST SO OLD!” And every time he’d say it, he’d start cracking up hysterically. Okay, Jimmy, I get the joke. Now shut the hell up. But I will say this; that show is the reason that I now have such an interest in Hummel figurines.
After eight weeks together as a singing duo, the tension between the two was too much, and their musical partnership was over.
While the song gave both men some notoriety, only one of the two was able to capitalize on their sudden fame.
FRANK: I wanted to continue with the music thing, but, as with most trends, my luck was short-lived. I wrote this song on a cocktail napkin called “Hot Ass Baby,” and I got it recorded, but the kids weren’t going for it.
CHAZ ORTEGA: I think that Frank realized that without Screaming Jimmy in the fray, we were back to square one. “Hot Ass Baby” had some potential, but Frank has the kind of singing voice that isn’t meant to stand alone.
TED LEOTARDO: Frank originally wanted to do “Hot Ass Baby” as another duet, but once again he couldn’t get Harvey Korman, and that’s when he decided to do it on his own.
FRANK: Damn, that Harvey Korman is harder to find than the Lindbergh baby.
SCREAMING JIMMY: SOME PEOPLE AT MIRAMAX SAW OUR MUSIC VIDEO AND GAVE ME A CALL TO AUDITION FOR THIS PART MOVIE WITH MARISA TOMEI AND MIRA SORVINO. I SAID THAT I COULDN’T TURN DOWN THE OPPORTUNITY TO WORK WITH TWO OSCAR WINNERS, EVEN IF THEY WERE MARISA TOMEI AND MIRA SORVINO. AND I GOT THE PART!
The film, a small-budget project called Jersey Girls Who Smack Their Gum While They Talk, only had moderate box office success, but Screaming Jimmy’s role as Bertrand, an overly flamboyant pet shop store owner, won over critics in several liberal free weekly newspapers and made him a counter-culture superstar of sorts. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who was ready to take a major gamble with a controversial new script but was having trouble finding a lead for the film, thought that they had hit paydirt.
AUSTIN KIMBRITTAN, FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT OF PRODUCTION, METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER: Screaming Jimmy was a unique talent, and with him coming out of nowhere to such acclaim in both music and film, it was like we had found lightning in a bottle. We felt like we had our man.
SCREAMING JIMMY: I WAS ECSTATIC JUST TO BE CONSIDERED FOR A LEADING ROLE, MUCH LESS TO GET THE PART. BUT I PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE REALIZED THAT I WASN’T READY FOR SUCH A LEAP, THAT I WAS MOVING TOO FAST.
The Southern Dandy had Screaming Jimmy starring as Darnell Le Fay, an overly flamboyant Confederate Civil War general. The film, which also starred Martin Short as General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, went through many problems during its shoot, including a plague of locusts which halted production for two days. Once principal photography was completed, however, the studio was still optimistic. Then, two weeks before the film’s scheduled release, controversy reared its ugly head…
NEW YORK POST HEADLINE (JULY 13, 2000): SCREAMING JIMMY CONFESSES – I’M STRAIGHT.
MAXINE SILVERMAN, DIRECTOR OF PUBLICITY, METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER: When it came out that Screaming Jimmy was not gay, that he had a wife and kids that lived in Encino, we knew that we were in big trouble. We even considered pushing back the release, but then we decided that to go with the “even bad publicity is good publicity” angle. We were wrong to go that route.
AUSTIN KIMBRITTAN: It was as if you were a football coach, and you had Michael Jordan on your team, and just before the first game Michael says, “Hey, hold on, I’m not a football player. I can’t do this.” (Long pause) Wait a minute, that didn’t come out right…
SCREAMING JIMMY: I was shocked that anybody even thought I was gay. It’s not like I told anybody that. I even used to bring my wife and kids onto the set, several times. BUT WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?
MAXINE SILVERMAN: We just thought that they were friends of his, that they were somebody else’s family.
The film, which had a budget of over $62 million, grossed only $7 million worldwide. The New York Times called the film “a steaming pile of monkey dung. It is the closest that I have ever come to having my eyes and ears bleed while watching a film. I feel sorry for the parents of every person that worked on this project.”
MAXINE SILVERMAN: The problem was, we were so focused on the controversial nature of the film and the issues of Screaming Jimmy not being gay, we didn’t bother to notice that what we had was a really, really bad film. But that’s what you get when you have a gay Civil War film written and directed by a Spanish guy with only one name.
TOTINO, WRITER-DIRECTOR OF THE SOUTHERN DANDY (through a translator): I stand behind my work. No comment.
Screaming Jimmy’s career went into sudden decline for several years. He tried a comeback one year later, removing the “Screaming” moniker and working as a traditional comedian, but to no success, causing him to bring his persona back.
CHAZ ORTEGA: Taking the “Screaming” out of Jimmy Leaney is like taking the filthy whore out of Madonna. I mean, come on, what’s the point?
Only recently has Screaming Jimmy found new success, co-hosting a television series on the Lifetime network entitled When Facelifts Don’t Work.
SCREAMING JIMMY: IT’S A FUN LITTLE SHOW. BASICALLY WE TAKE THESE UGLY WOMEN AND WE GIVE THEM PLASTIC SURGERY, BUT WE ONLY USE DOCTORS THAT OPERATE OUT OF STRIP MALLS. OUR BUDGET IS VERY LIMITED SINCE WE ARE BASIC CABLE. ANYWAY, WHEN THE WOMEN ARE DONE WE LOOK AT THEM AND GO, “NO, THAT DIDN’T TURN OUT RIGHT.” THEN WE SEE HOW THEY REACT. IT’S FUNNY; THEY ALL END UP LOOKING LIKE MELISSA RIVERS. IT’S A CAUTIONARY TALE, REALLY.
FRANK: I felt bad for Jimmy. Despite our issues during those few months he wasn’t a bad guy. Besides, if it wasn’t for “Shake Your Love” I wouldn’t have my pool. Above-ground, mind you, but it’s still a good pool.
(To see Chapter 15, click here)
(To see Chapter 15, click here)