Frankie DileoOne of the most colorful characters in the music business, Pittsburgh born and raised Frankie Dileo shuffled off to the big recording studio in the sky Wednesday, a victim of heart surgery complications. He was 63.
Dileo fit the record exec caricature to a T - short (5'2"), portly, and always with a cigar in his mouth and pinky ring on his finger, nattily dressed in Hollywood casual. Hey, he even sported a pony-tail in his hep younger days. But he did more than look the part; he was a powerful deal-maker for many years in the industry.
The East End native (his dad owned a bar in Homewood, and he hung out in Larimer with family) and St.Bede's/Central Catholic gridder was known by his buds as "Tookie." He started off humbly enough as a local rack jobber, the guy that sold and stocked wax at the record shops.
Dileo rapidly worked his way up the ladder, turning that foot-in-the-door opportunity into a gig as a Cleveland-based local promoter for Epic Records, a subsidiary of powerhouse CBS, in 1968.
He pushed tracks by Sly and the Family Stone, The Hollies and Donovan to local radio stations, and was quickly promoted to the company's regional office in Chicago. A year later, he moved on to RCA Records in New York as singles director, and then was recruited by Bell Records. In 1972, he went to Monument Records in Nashville, where he worked on vinyl by Kris Kristofferson, Billy Swan, Boots Randolph, the Gatlin Brothers and Charlie McCoy.
He moved back to Pittsburgh after that job, retired from music and looking for a more normal lifestyle. Dileo paid a fine after being busted as a sports bookie; so much for 9-to-5 work. He rejoined the music industry after a fire burned his Pittsburgh home. True to his shadowy mystique, it's said that his insurance company refused to pay for the damage.
That mystique included allegations of payola passed through indie promoters (the use of indie promoters was a common industry practice at the time, not just a Dileo ace-up-the-sleeve) and nebulous connections to the Gambino family. They were never proven, and the rumors no doubt added to his rep as a major league player in the music world.
In 1979, CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff hired his old acquaintance back to work for Epic Records in New York as Vice President of National Promotion. Overseeing a staff of 65 people, Dileo helped guide Epic Records from the number fourteen label in the U.S. to the number two spot, churning out $250,000,000 in revenues, tripling the label's take.
Epic left its big-sister Columbia Records in the dust. Artists boosted by Dileo's promo department included Quiet Riot, REO Speedwagon, Ozzy Osbourne, Molly Hatchet, Dan Fogelberg, Gloria Estefan, The Clash, Luther Vandross, Meat Loaf, Cyndi Lauper, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Heart, Culture Club and Michael Jackson. He was voted "Executive of the Year" at Epic Records and collected over 80 gold and platinum records credited to the imprint.
Some of it was due to "right place, right time" syndrome, but a lot of his success had to do with his innate sense of what would fly off the racks. For example, he picked a demo by then unknown Culture Club off a pile of records that had been rejected and decided to push it. The band charted in the Top Forty ten times.
He promoted Jackson's killer "Thriller" LP, and was the driving force behind releasing "Beat It" on the heels of "Billy Jean." The other Epic execs thought Dileo was crazy and the move would kill "Billy Jean" on the charts. But in fact both songs ended up Number One and appeared in the Top Ten at the same time. Album sales went through the roof. It went down just as Dileo had predicted.
In 1984, he left Epic to manage the career of Michael Jackson, at Jackson's urging. Dileo produced the movie "Moonwalker," eight music videos including the Grammy winning "Leave Me Alone" and wrote, produced and negotiated three Pepsi commercials for MJ that brought in landmark up-front endorsement dollars. More importantly, he managed two of Jackson's huge concert tours, the Victory Tour with the Jackson family and the megaton Bad World Tour, Jackson's first solo effort.
The 1984 Victory Tour introduced Jackson's single glove and black sequined jacket persona and featured his recently-minted moonwalk steps. It played at 55 venues in front of 2 million fans and grossed $75,000,000, then the largest take from a concert tour in show biz history. The tour also generated some less flattering headlines when Don King got cut in on some promotional duties and sponsor Chuck Sullivan took a bath on the returns (the tour was extended by 15 dates to allow him to recoup some of his losses).
But the Bad World tour was the piece de resistance. It stopped in Japan, Australia, the United States (the tour played at the Arena 9/26-9/28/1988) and Europe. Sponsored by Pepsi and lasting 16 months, the tour included 123 concerts performed in front of 4.4 million fans in 15 countries. When "Bad World" concluded, it had taken in a total of $125 million and became the largest grossing and most heavily attended tour in music history.
But after five years together and following the nerve-frazzling "Bad World" tour, the odd couple abruptly ended their business relationship in 1989. There was no explanation given when Jackson fired his manager through his attorney. Dileo believed that it was a result of some back-stabbing by the suits surrounding Jackson. C'est la vie, that's show biz.
One door closes, and another opens.. A couple of days later, Martin Scorsese called - he knew Dileo after directing Jackson's "Bad" video - not to offer sympathy (he didn't know he was axed), but a job. He wanted to cast Dileo in a flick called "Goodfellas." Presto, the role of Tuddy Cicero was filled, the guy who famously gunned down Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) with a gory head shot in the film. Dileo also had a recurring role as record exec Ricky "Mr. Big" Sharp in the two "Wayne's World" flicks.
Dileo moved on to manage other musicians, including Taylor Dayne, Jodeci, Laura Branigan and Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora while working with Prince on several projects. He founded the Dileo Entertainment Group in Nashville on Music Row, looking for new artists and composers, and dabbled in club and restaurant ventures. He also served as co-president of Savage Records for a couple of years and was on the Val-Comm board.
In 2005, when Jackson was on trial, Dileo returned to lend his support, as he was convinced his old client's naivete was being abused. They had a tearful reunion. MJ remarked that he had nine managers since Dileo was canned, and Frankie was the only one who rallied to his side.
After Jackson's acquittal, they remained in contact, and in the summer of 2009, as Jackson readied his "This Is It" tour, the singer asked Dileo to manage him once more. They were briefly a team again before Jackson died shortly afterward. As Dileo told Gary Smith of People Magazine "Some people collect stray cats; I collect stray people."
Dileo had a laundry list of medical problems, starting with his weight; he once hit 265 pounds. He had diabetes as a result, and that almost cost him his vision. Dileo was nearly blind before a series of operations restored his sight. He was recovering from a heart attack at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles when complications following emergency surgery ended his life on August 24th, 2011.
Frankie Dileo is survived by his wife, Linda, two children, Belinda and Dominic, and a grandson, Frank. He lived not far from home in Wellsville, Ohio, where he could stay in touch with family and friends. Dileo's work may have taken him from coast-to-coast and over the world, but he was always a Pittsburgh guy at heart.