A Band for All Seasons
As Broadway hit Jersey Boys, revealing the rags-to-riches tale of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, opens in the West End, John Coleman salutes the group’s signature sound & rise to fame from the mean streets of New Jersey.
Why did a quartet of boys brought up on the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey make pop history? It’s not just because Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons sold more than 100 million records between 1962 and 1978. Nor is it simply that the boys had 71 chart hits, including eight Number One’s. Nor is it simply their unmistakeable sound – those tight doo-wop-inspired harmonies supporting lead singer Valli’s soaring falsetto. If the story of the music is appreciated alongside the story of the boys themselves, then two key themes emerge.
First there’s the extraordinary range and scope of their catalogue of pop, beginning in the early 1960s with anthemic hits like “Sherry”, “Rag Doll” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, right through to last year’s dance remix of “Beggin’”, which shot to the top of the UK dance charts. It’s a vast catalogue that never dates, and one that has influenced numerous other recording artists. There have been some 200 cover versions of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for example, from a smooth Andy Williams take and Nancy Wilson’s jazz version, to Lauryn Hill’s hip-hop makeover and indie favourites Manic Street Preachers. Among the dozens of tributes collected for Jersey Beat, the newly released Four Seasons boxed set, Barry Gibb describes how “Frankie Valli has become one of the hallmark voices of our generation. From the deepest emotions of his real voice to the power of his falsetto, he created a style that we all still strive to emulate.”
But the quartet’s image also played a part in the Four Seasons’ rise to success. Their sartorial elegance, coupled with a slick (some might say cheesy) performance ethic could give the impression of lacking the cool edge of other Sixties groundbreakers like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Looking “safe enough for the parents”, however, was always at odds with the boys’ seemingly dangerous streetwise background which, in turn, fed their musical roots.
Valli (born Francis Castelluccio) grew up in the tough neighbourhoods of Newark, New Jersey, where two of the original Four Seasons – guitarist Tommy DeVito and bassist Nick Massi – did time for small-scale robberies. But the original trio chose a life in pop over a life of crime and began their musical journey together in the early 1950s using various guises, most notably performing as The Lovers (they had a minor hit with “You’re the Apple of My Eye”).
Their neighbourhood connections with petty criminals and the Mob are something the boys always, wisely, played down publicly (though it’s now highlighted on stage in Jersey Boys), yet that’s precisely why their music throbs with the streetwise world of bad boys from the wrong side of the social tracks. It’s no “accident” in the back of a car that Four Seasons songs provided the soundscape for the TV’s The Sopranos. Tony Soprano often name-checked Valli and the singer himself even guest-starred – as Rusty Millio, a mobster who met a sticky end during a gun battle.
There weren’t too many choices for kids such as Francis Castelluccio growing up in housing projects like Stephen Crane Village in New Jersey. As Jersey Boys book writer Rick Elice puts it: “I’m sure that if you looked across the Hudson from New Jersey you’d see Manhattan in the same way that Dorothy sees the Emerald City. You have to get there because you think that everything in your shitty little life will be ameliorated. Getting there through education wasn’t an option for Frankie and his pals because they didn’t even go to school. You could join the army, otherwise you got mobbed up, or you could become a star, if you had talent and stuck at it.”
Enduring overnight sensations
The Four Seasons’ unique musical talents also grew out of early Fifties R’n’B. The boys were deeply into vocal quartets of the day like The Clovers and The Drifters, while Valli honed his vocal skills by imitating their melodic, blues-tinged, black doo-wop sounds and broadened his range by referencing soulful singers such as Dinah Washington and the crooning Frank Sinatra (one Jersey boy who had already entered the pop hall of fame; the Bon Jovi boys and Bruce Springsteen were to arrive much later). But the journey across the Hudson was never smooth. It took until 1962 to score their first Number One with “Sherry”, an overnight sensation written by keyboardist-producer Bob Gaudio, who by then had become the fourth Season (producer, arranger and lyricist Bob Crewe completed what was to become the winning team).
So why has the team’s music remained so vibrant over the decades, and why has the Frankie Valli sound transcended the vagaries of musical fashions? The answer lies partly in the sheer quality of the songs, written, arranged and produced mostly by Gaudio and Crewe. Add to this their innovative chord changes and catchy rhythmic shifts, then pile on Valli’s distinctive falsetto vocals and harmonics that drip with attitude, and you have pop music that exudes a truly ageless quality.
Thrilling Four Seasons harmonies might resonate with early Sixties Beach Boys sounds, but Valli’s team retained a street-orientated edge to their pop symphonics. When the Seasons’ backing vocals counterpoint Valli’s crystal clear top notes on “Sherry”, they could easily be a bunch of hoodlums echoing the emotional mini-dramas and the wrong-side-of-the-tracks attitudes of their troubled youth. While the Beach Boys were celebrating sun, cars and (by 1966) the mind imagery of psychedelia, the Four Seasons were keeping to the real world. In “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man” and “I’ve Go You Under My Skin”, it’s all about those important things in a regular Jersey boy’s life, such as falling in love, the break-ups and the broken pride.
Dennis Diken, musicologist and drummer with the 1960s-influenced Smithereens (another New Jersey band), once put it this way: “Their records evoke the feel of New York City. You can picture the buildings, feel the rhythm of people walking the street and riding the subways.”
Hearing it a different way
“There weren’t any formulas to these records,” explained Gaudio during a fly-in visit to London with Valli for the launch of Jersey Boys. “’I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ was fully orchestrated on paper before we recorded it, but that was never the norm for us. We would usually do the rhythm tracks and work out the vocal parts first, then everything would just come around that.”
Looking back to recording this particular hit, Valli readily acknowledges Gaudio’s artistic influence on the group through his inspired arrangements and production techniques. “It was great to be with creative people who didn’t stay in one place. We were always changing and never really paying much attention to what radio was playing. Bob and the creative team were always looking for something different.
“We had just done a date in Florida and were invited to see Sinatra who was playing there. Afterwards Bob called me and said he had this great idea for a new record – ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. I thought he’d lost his mind. ‘But that’s the Sinatra song we’ve just heard,’ I said. Bob replied, ‘Yeah, but I hear it a whole different way’.”
High-reaching angelic vocals
As for his own wholly different angelic vocals, Valli says Gaudio also played no small part in stretching those high tenor tonsils to the limits: “Never having any musical training, I just thought everybody could sing that way. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realised that not everyone had such a wide range. It was Bob who was very quick to push me up to even higher notes many times when we were recording.” These days, Valli still sings for an hour a day, even when he’s not working. “As you get older you lose a couple of notes on the top, but you gain a few at the bottom. Now I can do Barry White.”
The Four Seasons’ journey still seems unstoppable. A recent dance remix of “Beggin’” attracted more than half a million hits on YouTube. Yet, as Jersey Boys makes clear, the band’s career was full of ups and downs. After the Beatles arrived, interest waned and the group disintegrated. A 1969 concept album, the underrated Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, made little impact and they had to wait until 1970 for further success with “You’re Ready Now”, which was, and still remains, massively popular on the UK Northern Soul scene, along with their 1975 hit “The Night”. Over in the US they rode out the disco era with “Who Loves You” in 1975 and scored a Number One in 1976 with “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”. And the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons signature sound continues to influence contemporary artists, such as the Scissor Sisters, whose “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” finds lead singer Jake Shears celebrating the Valli falsetto.
With an album out last year, Romancing the ’60s, and plans to embark on a UK concert tour, Valli has clearly not yet reached the winter of his 54-year recording career. As the Valli character says near the end of Jersey Boys: “Like that bunny on TV with the battery, I just keep going and going and going.”
Jersey Boys opens on 18 March 2008 (previews from 28 February) at the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre. A version of this interview appears in the March issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!