The Dirty Dancing Soundtrack… A Spotlight in Queens
Notable Composers Preserve Patrick Swayze’s Legacy
My Michael Perlman
It was once an even more dramatic moment to spot a much-anticipated film on an illuminated movie theater marquee alongside a Tudor or Art Deco façade, when a few theaters served each community. Such was the case in the summer and fall of 1987, when “Dirty Dancing” appeared on the Forest Hills Theatre marquee at 107-16 Continental Avenue. Thirty-six years after its release, this classic is larger than life.
This 1980s coming of age film starred Patrick Swayze (1952 – 2009) and Jennifer Grey (born 1960) portraying Frances “Baby” Houseman, who studied with dance teacher Johnny Castle (Swayze) and fell in love. Set in a Catskills resort in 1963, it explored the themes of first love through dance, as well as class distinctions. The storyline reflected screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein’s childhood.
Ken (Kenjamin) Franklin, a notable NYC music and media agent of RadioActive Talent, Inc., who represents diverse talent, helps the careers of at least 50 influential figures. That includes Dirty Dancing songwriters and friends Franke Previte, John DeNicola and Stacy Widelitz. The soundtrack features some of the best songs of the era, which continues to resonate on the airwaves and in entertainment venues.
The chart-toppers were “She’s Like The Wind,” which Patrick Swayze co-wrote with close friend Widelitz in 1984, as well as “Hungry Eyes,” composed by Previte and DeNicola. Another chart-topper was “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” composed by Previte, DeNicola and Don Markowitz.
DeNicola and Widelitz participated in an in-depth interview, rekindling the magic of music and “Dirty Dancing” as songwriters, while preserving Swayze’s legacy. DeNicola was raised in Amityville and Centerport, and lives with his wife in Upstate New York, where his recording studio is based in his barn. He lived in Astoria and eventually settled in the West Village. As for Widelitz, he was raised in Plainview, and in 1980 relocated to Astoria as well, followed by L.A. and Nashville.
One must wonder how their passion for music originated. DeNicola said, “I don’t remember a time that I didn’t just totally identify with music. It has a special magic. I can remember when I was five and heard ‘Pretty Woman’ and I was just drawn to music. Its guitar lick and the mournful vocals just blew my mind. There’s an underlying connection to women with music.”
His mother played piano by ear, whereas his father installed a bar in the basement, with speakers dominating the space. He reminisced, “I was 5 or 6 and picked up my brother’s Harmony acoustic guitar. I was in the basement and plucking the strings with my right hand, since my left hand didn’t have any clue. I remember hearing my mom telling my dad upstairs, ‘It sounds like he’d be good on guitar.’”
Around age 10, his mother brought him to his cousin’s house. “She was a one-stop supplier of LPs and they said that I can buy three records, so I bought Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced,’ Traffic’s ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ and the first ‘Moby Grape’ record. There was no turning back after that. I never had to think about what I would do with my life,” he continued. He began playing soul and disco in the music scene in cover bands. That migrated to rock, followed by originals.
Widelitz explained his musical origins as remarkably similar. “My father was a big jazz and classical fan, and my mother was a big show tunes and folk music fan. When I was in the fourth grade, I tried to enter the band program. I was assigned the flute, but could not make heads or tails. The director sent me home with a letter to my parents, saying ‘I’m dropping Stacy, as he exhibits no musical ability whatsoever.’ My father picked up an old piano and put it in the basement. I had a cousin who was a child prodigy classical pianist, and he gave me my first piano lesson and ran upstairs to my parents and said, ‘He just went through 10 weeks of this method book in one hour, so you have to give him piano lessons.’”
At 13, he insisted to his parents that he would become a musician. At 15, he would play standards in lounge bands in Long Island clubs and could be spotted at the Leonard’s catering hall. When he was admitted into the Local 802 musicians’ union, it was another case of “no turning back,” and at 19, he composed music and got paid.
“Hungry Eyes” was composed first and DeNicola explained a vivid recollection. “I wrote the music in my Astoria apartment. I just got the new Roland Juno 106 (synthesizer).” He began playing a few memorable notes and added chords. “Within 20 minutes, I had the music part finished. I was recording the tracks at a studio in New Jersey. My co-writer Franke Previte was working in the same studio with musician and producer David Prater, and he heard the track and said that he’d love to work on it to David. I said sure, and Franke took it home and we worked together. He wrote the lyrics and took lots of hints from the chords and the melody.”
“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” was written in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. DeNicola reminisced, “While working with Franke Previte, executive producer Jimmy Ienner called him and said that he needed a song for this movie. As Franke would tell it, Jimmy said, ‘Take the time, since this will change your life.’ I knew it would be a dance tune, so I got a hold of my friend Don Markowitz. He had a recording eight-track tape machine and a drum machine that no one had yet. I went over and we put the music together, and Franke finished it.” There were approximately 150 song submissions. He continued, “They were panicking, since they were getting ready to film the scene and only had a Lionel Richie song placeholder, but they wanted an original. Our song got them excited, and I think it was one of the only duets.”
In Forest Hills, DeNicola could be found playing at the popular nightspot, Heskel’s on Austin Street, where Madonna got her start “It was a cool club,” he said. Additionally, he landed gigs citywide and on Long Island.
Widelitz recalled composing “She’s Like the Wind” in his Orange Street apartment in L.A. “I met this actor who lived two houses away, named Patrick Swayze, who I knew as ‘Buddy,’ which is how friends and family referred to him.” The song was initially written for “Grandview, U.S.A.” in 1984, but the song was not used in that film, which Widelitz calls a blessing. “In April 1984, I was at the piano and Buddy was sitting on the couch with his guitar. He said, ‘I’ve had this idea for a song. I had it for a few years, but cannot get anywhere.’ I knew how innately talented he was.” Swayze sang lines including “She’s like the wind through my tree…” and Widelitz tweaked the lyrics, such as in the third and fourth lines. “Two years later, he called me from the set of ‘Dirty Dancing’ in Lake Lure and said, ‘Hey, I played the song and they want it for the movie.’ A year later, everything exploded.”
Today, Wildelitz remembers Swayze as a most physically talented human being he has ever seen and an image of good health. They are also in support of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, among initiatives to help others facing the illness.
One of the best things is a song that withstands the test of time and remains in public consciousness for 35-plus years, according to Widelitz. “The song becomes an organism outside your own creation. It becomes something you never imagined it would be. I had the privilege to hear how people have been affected by what Buddy and I created, ranging from cancer patients to an Israeli soldier.” DeNicola continued, “To have a song that has been a hit in just about every territory on the planet is humbling. These three songs have somehow grown. The stars aligned.” He cited an enormous quantity of TV shows, movies and commercials referencing it.
Widelitz refers to “She’s Like The Wind” undergoing a second life, particularly in the past three months, where four new covers were released in Europe. It also appears in a U.K. ad campaign.
As for behind-the-scenes, DeNicola admitted that “The Time of My Life” was filmed to the demo version. “When you see Patrick mouthing the words to Baby in that scene, that’s why it kind of looks out of sync.” In the music world, it is called “temp love.” Another intriguing fact is that Widelitz’s girlfriend Wendy Fraser was a singer in “She’s Like The Wind.” When they achieved the first national TV theme for “The Richard Simmons Show,” it prompted their move from Astoria to L.A.
Dirty Dancing is a cultural phenomenon, according to Ken Franklin, and a tributary celebration could rekindle the magic in Forest Hills. “In summer 1987, Forest Hills and movie theaters worldwide began their lifelong love for this film, as well as its soundtrack, selling over 55 million copies internationally.
Franklin explained, “To relive the 1980s and celebrate the long life of these iconic songs, Forest Hills Stadium and the Midway Theatre could have a special Dirty Dancing screening. Prior to showing the film, the three hitmakers are offering an exclusive 30-minute video interview, including a rare appearance by Lisa Swayze, who was married to Patrick for 34 years. All four of them will share many experiences, photos and footage you may not have seen before. As an extra special bonus, I can arrange a live performance by an exceptional NYC-based 80s tribute band performing, perhaps with Franke & Lisa Previte, the 3 Dirty Dancing classics along with other surprises.”
Franklin also envisions the venues getting creative by involving local merchants, such as a travel agency offering a “Time of My Life vacation” and a restaurant serving a “Hungry Eyes dinner special.”
Last August, Washington Square Park had a screening of Dirty Dancing in front of 500 attendees, which could serve as a model for the Forest Hills events. It was moderated by the iHeartRadio personality and program director, who hosts the national “The 80s Show with Jeff Stevens.”