By James Turano
Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons never had an autumn. They are of their time, and timeless.
With his early life and crooning career chronicled in the multiple Tony Award–winning and internationally successful stage musical, Jersey Boys—along with a movie version directed by Clint Eastwood—a five-decade catalogue of blockbuster hits, and even a sinister stint on TV’s The Sopranos, Frankie Valli is a well-deserving pop culture icon.
“Grease” may have been “the word” in 1978, but almost 40 years since that number-one nugget, the word that best describes Frankie Valli is “legend.” Armed with an arsenal of beloved songs, the 83-year-old and former Francesco Castelluccio returns to Ravinia on September 8 after last year’s crowd-pleasing (and park-filling) debut performance.
Valli’s defining falsetto flawlessly floats up the musical scale, just like so many memorable Four Seasons songs have scaled the upper reaches of the pop charts, beginning with 1962’s doo-wopping, million-selling, “Sherry.” And a testament to the group (named after a local New Jersey bowling alley lounge) is the subsequent string of number-one smashes and other successful tunes. Before The Fab Four, it was The Four Seasons stockpiling hits, and unlike most post-Elvis/pre-Beatles acts, Valli and The Four Seasons remained popular during the dawn of The Beatles’ arrival in 1964 and the “British Invasion” that followed.
In fact, The Four Seasons regularly went head-to-head with “Beatlemania” and struck gold throughout that mop-topped era with chart chestnuts such as “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Dawn (Go Away),” “Walk Like A Man,” “Rag Doll,” “Let’s Hang On!,” “Working My Way Back to You,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
Noted fan and Beach Boy Brian Wilson respectfully praised them: “In the early ’60s, The Four Seasons were my favorite group. The voice blend was fantastic. It inspired me. I went to the piano thinking I [had to] top their music.”
After The Four Seasons’ initial bursting breakout in the ’60s, they aggressively began working their way back to the charts. By updating their sound, The Four Seasons set a new course with Valli’s “solo” hit, “My Eyes Adored You”—which hit number one in 1975—and the disco-flavored hits “Swearin’ To God” and “Who Loves You.” And in 1978, Valli catapulted to a rarified stratosphere with the classic title song from the mega-hit movie version of the musical Grease.
However, it was in 1976 when The Four Seasons’ fifth number-one song penned the most unlikely chapter of their career. Arguably now the group’s most recognized song, “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night),” unknowingly set a future phenomenon in motion—starting with a 1994 dance remix that energized a new generation of club kids to raise the roof. The resurgence culminated in 2005 with the premiere of the stage musical Jersey Boys, entertainingly re-creating The Four Seasons’ beginnings and featuring a seemingly never-ending jukebox of hits.
Ultimately, the stage show converted audiences around the world into Frankie Valli fans all over again. Though Valli is considering scaling down his future touring, when he takes the Ravinia stage it will be a nostalgic evening of music and memories.
Speaking on the telephone from his California home, Valli reflected on his Jersey boy of a career. Oh, what a night? No. Oh, what a life.
Another “Jersey Boy,” Frank Sinatra, changed your life.
Definitely. Originally, I wasn’t into pop music. I was more into jazz. I was into singers like Mel Torme. But jazz was beginning to disappear. I had to make a living, so pop music was the path I followed—out of necessity. But yes, I saw Sinatra at The Paramount Theatre in New York as a kid and I knew what I wanted to be.
But your signature falsetto is hardly Sinatra-esque.
I’ve always had it. Never gave it much thought. I first sang on demos and sessions and did background, and I thought everyone could sing like that! But I found I could get that high and I liked it, and it helped me and the group stand out.
That was a fortunate discovery.
Yes, because I sang how I felt. I wasn’t a trained singer—thank God!—so I wasn’t taught to sound like everyone else. I always thought, Who taught the first guy to sing? Who taught the first artist to paint, or the first sculptor to sculpt? No one. And so I taught myself. If you’re born with a talent, you know it, and you work with it.
Maurice Williams used a falsetto in 1960 on the hit “Stay.” Did that influence The Four Seasons a few years later?
No, not really. I used the falsetto because those early Four Seasons songs were written to showcase our strengths. I respect the falsetto, but it’s about what’s best for the song. There were many I didn’t sing with a falsetto, like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.”
And on “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” you don’t even sing the lead.
Right—there are three singers on that song. There were several songs I didn’t sing lead on, and I was OK with that. Who cares who’s singing? We were a group. On the early Bee Gees songs, Robin sang lead. And later, Barry did. You give each song what it needs.
Were you afraid the public wouldn’t accept you without the falsetto?
No, because I knew I could sing without it. A song like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” wouldn’t work with a falsetto. But, definitely, you can get stereotyped. That song sat around for two or three years. It finally broke in Detroit. A radio station program director there told us, “I don’t hear it.” But he came to our show and saw how crazy the audience reacted, and they’d never even heard it! [Laughs] After the show, he told us, “I still don’t hear it, but I’m going with the public’s reaction.” And it became an instant hit. Back then, radio airplay was how a song became a hit. Today the business is so different.
How do you approach a song when you’re first presented with it?
I read the lyrics and try to understand what the writer is trying to say. I imagine how I would feel if it happened to me, even if it never did. I try to put myself “there”—with my own experiences or searching to understand those feelings.
Is it true that “My Eyes Adored You,” almost slipped through the cracks?
Yes. We were on the Motown label and we’d recorded several songs, but the label’s people didn’t think the songs were R&B enough. I understood that, but I knew it was a good song. We bought it for maybe $4,000, which was how much it cost to record. Later, my lawyer was at a party for a new label, Private Stock. He played “My Eyes Adored You” for the label’s owner; he heard it one time said, “That’s my label’s first number-one song.” And it was.
Why have The Four Season maintained such popularity through five decades?
We never stayed in one place. We took chances. Some groups never stray from their sound. Like the Rolling Stones—all their music is a blues/rock sound, but that worked [for them]. We were into different bags—pop, R&B, working with symphony orchestras. Plus, I never believed in being political. I’ve always looked for songs that connected one-on-one. I’m not a political expert. I’m a romantic at heart.
Do you think that’s why it took so long for The Four Seasons to get critical respect?
You know, we were never popular with the critics who wanted music to change the world. The Beatles moved that way, but it wasn’t who we were. And the West Coast music people didn’t like us—they liked The Beach Boys. It was the East Coast, the Midwest, and our peers who liked us. I read John Lennon once said I was his favorite singer. Barry White said that, too. That’s special. But I’ve learned you need industry people on your side.
One “industry person” in your corner was fellow falsetto Barry Gibb.
I was offered to either appear in the movie Grease and sing “Beauty School Drop-Out,” or sing the title song. My manager, Alan Carr, who coproduced the movie, told me Barry wrote the title song and wanted me to sing it. I’d known Barry from the road and always admired him. He sent over the demo of “Grease” and I knew I wanted to sing it. It’s a great song.
Did you expect Jersey Boys to become the game-changer that cemented your legacy?
Who can ever know? Jersey Boys did bring us a new respect because it presented our music in such a way for people to enjoy it and appreciate it. That show took 10 years to happen. We had lots of rejections. But when the public loves you, they don’t care what your politics are, what race you are. They just love you.
And have you finally discovered if big girls do cry?
Everybody cries. It gets us through our lives, the good times and the bad. It’s good to cry, and I applaud anyone who isn’t afraid to cry—because it’s what connects us and makes us feel.
Any particularly fond memories of the Chicago area in your career?
Chicago played a major role in our story. We were on Vee-Jay Records in the ’60s, which was based in Chicago. We played Chicago many times over the years, and we always got good radio airplay there. I remember Dick Biondi—oh, he was a big supporter from the beginning, back when DJs had the power to choose and break a song. Chicago audiences always treat us in a special way.
What about where you’re from—New Jersey—why has it bred so many legendary singers, like you, Sinatra, and Bruce Springsteen?
It’s the Jersey tomatoes! It’s the Garden State—things grow there. I don’t know … I do know there’s an energy in New Jersey and New York City. It inspires you. I’m a dreamer. If you follow your dreams, work hard, and don’t let others destroy your dreams, you can make them come true. Maybe we were all big dreamers who just happened to be from New Jersey.
James Turano is a freelance writer and a former entertainment editor, feature writer, and columnist for national and local magazines and newspapers. He has written official programs for eight Elton John tours since 2003, and is also a Chicago radio personality and host, heard regularly on WGN Radio 720AM.