July 28, 2006

Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons are The Jersey Boys

Staff Writer

From 1962 through 1976, the Four Seasons were one of popular music's hottest groups.

These guys from Newark, New Jersey (there were actually eight members through the years because of personnel changes) had 29 singles in those 14 years, most of them in the 60s, that were Top 40 hits.

Five of them hit No. 1, holding the top spot on the charts a combined total of 17 weeks. You probably know them and can sing some of the words - Sherry (1962), Big Girls Don't Cry (1963), Walk Like A Man (1963), Rag Doll (1964) and December 1963 - Oh, What A Night (1976).

In addition, lead singer Frankie Valli had nine additional Top 40 hits, including two that hit No. 1 - My Eyes Adored You (1975) and Grease (1978).

All of this information has become important now, more than 30 years later, because of a hit Broadway musical. It's called Jersey Boys and it just won the Tony Award for best musical of the year.

Other musicals based around the songs of pop artists have tried to make it on Broadway. Shows about the Beach Boys, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel - even Elvis - had minimal success. Only Mamma Mia!, a show featuring the music of the Swedish group Abba, has been a hit. It still runs on Broadway.

But Jersey Boys is a smash.

Not only did the show win the Tony as best musical but John Lloyd Young, in his Broadway debut, won as best lead actor in a musical for his portrayal of Valli. And Christian Hoff won the Tony as best featured actor in a musical for his performance as Tommy DeVito.

The musical tells the story of four guys from Jersey - Valli, DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi - and their rise to fame from the street corners of North Jersey to the biggest arenas in the country.

Actually, the entire story began in 1955 when Valli teamed with Tommy and Nick DeVito and Hank Majewski to form the Variatones. They became the Four Lovers a year later.

Gaudio - an excellent keyboarder, composer and arranger in addition to his singing - was part of The Royal Teens, who had a big hit in 1958 called Short Shorts. He replaced Nick DeVito in the Four Lovers in 1959. Two years later, Massi took over for Majewski and the Four Seasons were ready to make history.

Their name, incidentally, was taken from a bowling alley in Union called The Four Seasons.

The group did a lot of studio work for producer Bob Crewe. In fact, their first hit, Sherry, was a gift from Crewe, possibly a peace offering to Valli. He was upset that Crewe had given Elvis Presley the song Don't Be Cruel to record instead of giving it to the Four Seasons.

In 1965, Massi left the group. Born Nicholas Macioci, he continued to work in music. He was a vocal coach, arranger and engineer at various New Jersey studios. Massi died from cancer on December 24, 2000.

He was replaced briefly by one of the group s arrangers, Charlie Calello, then by Joe Long. Now living in Seaside Heights with his family, Long frequently plays with small bands in clubs near his home just for fun.

In 1971, DeVito retired and Gaudio stopped performing, concentrating instead on writing and arranging. Gerri Polci and Clay Jordan were among those who became part of the group after that.

The music of Gaudio and Crewe fills Jersey Boys from the beginning to the rousing Who Loves You at the end. But, unlike the previous pop music productions on Broadway, this show has a strong story, written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. And pretty much a true story, at that.

As the show says, when talking about the history of the Four Seasons, "You ask four guys, you get four different answers." And this story deals with all four answers, the way it looked to Valli, DeVito, Gaudio and Massi. It tells how four blue-collared kids became one of the greatest successes in pop music history.

Though the excellent story is the big reason why this show has made it and others built around pop music did not, the music is still very, very important.

Young, Hoff, Daniel Reichard as Gaudio, and J. Robert Spencer as Massi do a tremendous job of re-producing the sound of The Four Seasons. Those of us who lived through the 60s and 70s with the group will recognize that it is not the real Four Seasons singing, but they sure do get it right.

During their peak years, The Four Seasons visited this area many times - at the Steel Pier, the clubs in Wildwood and the Smithville Music Fair, among other locations. As a radio host during part of that time, I had the opportunity to interview them. They also frequently would co-host an hour or so of my show and I was asked to emcee a couple of their shows.

The Four Seasons were something special. Their harmonies were great and Valli's lead voice was superb. The musical arrangements were unique and the stories their songs told would hit home.

There was something for everybody in Four Seasons songs. Can we ever forget the barroom scene in The Deer Hunter when the soldiers sing along with Can't Take My Eyes Off You on the juke box - "I love you baby, and if it's quite all right, I need you baby to warm the lonely night" - while playing a game of pool.

And it was Valli's voice that sang the title song over the opening credits of Grease, the most popular film musical of all time.

They are both examples of the impact Four Seasons music had on that generation.

Now that music has been memorialized in a Broadway show. A show that is already selling tickets in August of 2007 and is planning a second production in San Francisco.

In decades to come, high schools all across the country will perform Jersey Boys as their school musical. Their biggest problem might be finding four boys who can do the songs justice. And Jersey Boys also might make the transition to Hollywood.

Right now, you can order tickets to Jersey Boys and listen to and/or purchase the original cast recording online at www.jerseyboysbroadway.com.

Or, you can go see the real Frankie Valli in person Aug. 18 at the State Theatre (www.statetheatre.com) in New Brunswick.

Valli and the Four Seasons were a distinctive voice for their generation. And Broadway's Jersey Boys expands that voice into this generation and those to come.

It's really been some trip for a bunch of guys who started on a Newark street corner.