By John Schauer
Frankie—to my parents’ generation, that meant “Sinatra.” To my generation, it meant “Valli & the Four Seasons.” Although as with so many other things in life, I was a bit late in coming to this party.
During my first two years of high school (we’re talking the early ’60s) I was pretty much a classical music snob. The early-’50s rock I had heard as a child seemed to me then (and still seems to me now) to be musically simplistic—only a few chords over repetitive rhythms. I remember one day in my Latin class when two of my classmates—a cheerleader and the class clown—had been talking about hit records of the day before the instructor arrived. Suddenly they both broke out into “Walk Like a Man.” I didn’t know the song, much less the group that had recorded it: The Four Seasons, for whom it was their second number-one hit. My friends’ rendition struck me as rather absurd; if you’re going to be all macho and “Walk Like a Man,” why would you sing in high falsetto?
It was only later that I came to appreciate that falsetto, a trademark technique of the Four Seasons’ lead singer, Frankie Valli, whose growing renown eventually led to the group being billed as “Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.” And with good reason. Valli, I have become convinced, possesses one of the most phenomenal voices in the history of popular music.
Mind you, I’m talking here not just about his superb musicianship—there have been many fantastic singers in the realms of rock and pop, stars who can thrill you and knock you out of your seat—but specifically about his vocal instrument. To qualify as a truly great voice, in my opinion, its sound must be distinctive enough to be instantly recognizable, but also sensuously alluring to the point that alone it can generate excitement. There have not been all that many, by my count. Dusty Springfield and Johnny Mathis are among the first to spring to mind, and Frankie Valli is right up there with them.
Valli’s sound defined the entire group, throughout a string of half a hundred hits. The Four Seasons without Frankie Valli would be like Big Brother & the Holding Company without Janis Joplin. What finally engraved Valli’s vocal royalty in granite, however, was his single “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” It flooded the airwaves, and I didn’t know anyone at the time it came out who wasn’t absolutely crazy about it. And it prompted me to go back and reevaluate Valli’s earliest hits with the Four Seasons. By this time, my musical mind was more open and, consequently, completely blown.
When Billy Joel paid tribute to the unique sound of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons with his 1983 hit “Uptown Girl,” the homage to the original group’s style was so on point it made me run out and buy Joel’s recording. Perhaps surprisingly, I never was able to get through the film made of the stage hit Jersey Boys, which is about Valli’s early days in the music industry and the formation of the group. I’m not terribly interested in hearing someone else who kind of sounds like Frankie Valli, or even someone who sounds very much like Frankie Valli. Why not go back to the source? Those original Four Seasons recordings have never gone out of my personal playlist.
So maybe it’s time for me to admit publicly to those students from my high school Latin class: I was wrong. And Frankie Valli is one of the greats.