Ah-ha! It’s Leah!
Beaver County Times
By Scott Tady, Times Entertainment Editor

CHIPPEWA TWP. — Leah, it’s been a long, long time, you’re such a sight, girl.

Ah, Leah Frankford.

Her blond hair chic, her eyes still a captivating blue, the Darlington woman inspired rocker Donnie Iris to write a song a long time ago.

The song is western Pennsylvania’s favorite homegrown rock song, “Ah! Leah!”

Leah Frankford, owner of the Painted Rose floral shop, is the "Leah" that inspired Donnie Iris' classic rock song "Ah! Leah!"

“He always used to say he really liked my name,” said Frankford, now in her 50s and the owner of the Painted Rose floral shop in Chippewa Township.

For 18 years, she wondered. Was she that Leah? The one whose name sparked the song that ignited the career of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers?

Ten years ago, Frankford got her answer. Indeed, hers was that name, though the song’s lyrics weren’t about her.

On Saturday night, thousands of fans will sing “Ah! Leah!” along with Iris and the Cruisers as they co-headline the Homegrown Hoo-Ha 2 concert at the P-G Pavilion in Burgettstown. Many will sing that line about Leah “looking better than a body has a right to.”

Reminiscing today, Frankford said, “I was taken aback a little by the words at first, but that’s what gets people to pay attention. I didn’t date him. People don’t believe me, but it’s true.”

In 1967, Frankford and a few of her girlfriends at then-Northwestern High School began following the local rhythm-and-blues band the Jaggerz, featuring Iris, an Ellwood City native, on guitar. A year later, the girls mustered the courage to meet the band after a gig in an Ellwood City dance hall.

Frankford thought Iris was nice. But she was interested in Jaggerz drummer Jimmy Pugliano.

They clicked. Frankfort and Pugliano dated in the summer of 1968, shortly after she graduated from high school. Several times backstage, Iris told Frankford he liked the sound of her first name.

Her name came to the rescue in 1980, when Iris and the Cruisers’ co-writer Mark Avsec were struggling to finish the song they hoped would get them on the radio.

The song had started out as an anti-war anthem.

“It just didn’t come out right,” Iris said. “The track was the same track as ‘Leah,’ and we had all the music down, but we didn’t like the hook.”

The chorus sounded like a Gregorian chant.

“And it just so happened it sounded like we were saying the name Leah,” Iris said.

That made Iris remember the Leah who dated his Jaggerz buddy.

“I don’t know how long they dated, and I didn’t know her that well, but I knew she was a very pretty girl,” Iris said. “Somehow, it just evolved into a song about a girl whose name was Leah.”

In early 1970, Frankford moved to Florida and lost track of the Jaggerz right about the time they scored a U.S. chart-topper with their pop hit “The Rapper.”

The band split up in the mid-1970s, right about the time Frankford moved back to Beaver County. She got married and raised two daughters, and hadn’t seen or spoken to Iris in years when “Ah! Leah!” exploded onto the airwaves in 1981.

Initially released by a small Cleveland label, “Ah! Leah!” became an instant smash on Pittsburgh radio. MCA Records signed the band and re-released the song nationally while sending Iris and the Cruisers on a whirlwind tour.

“Ah! Leah!” entered the Billboard Top-40 chart on Feb. 7, 1981, peaking at No. 29 during its six-week tenure. A year later, the band scored two more Top-40 hits, “Love is Like a Rock” and “My Girl.”

“Ah! Leah!” — with its ferocious guitar riff and Iris’ mighty vocals — remains the rocker’s signature song and a local radio staple.

Still a popular concert draw in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, Iris also runs a mortgage business in Aliquippa. His girlfriend, Melody, handles mortgage titles, through which she made friends 10 years ago with a loan officer, Julie Yanssens of Columbiana, Ohio.

“By a weird chance, (Julie’s) mother is Leah,” Iris said.

Once the coincidence was revealed, Iris and Melody forged a close friendship with Yanssens and her mother, Frankford.

One of the first times they all got together, Iris told Frankford, “You know I wrote that song because of your name.”

“I know,” she responded. “You used to tell me all the time you liked my name.”

Lots of other people do, too, thanks to the enduring popularity of “Ah! Leah!” Frankford began realizing how popular her name had become at her daughter’s softball games, when she would hear parents calling out to their daughters named Leah.

“I swear this valley is full of Leahs because of him,” Frankford said.

Iris has met many of those Leahs.

“All the time,” Iris said. “It’s a great tribute. It’s always nice to hear that song touched people the way it did.”