Wednesday February 27, 2008
As the story of Sixties pop sensations the Four Seasons heads for the West End, lead singer Frankie Valli talks to David Gritten.
For those too young to recall, it is hard to convey how huge the Four Seasons were when they first emerged from New Jersey in 1963 - between the end of rock and roll's first flush and the "invasion" of America by British groups. Read more...
Quite simply the Seasons - their driving, insistent records powered by Frankie Valli's ferocious falsetto - overran the American hit parade. Their first three singles, Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like a Man, all raced to number one in the Billboard chart in rapid succession, making the spot their own for 11 weeks out of 14.
Their record label, Vee Jay, had also secured US rights to the Beatles' early releases and drummed up a PR campaign pitting them against each other in a "battle of the bands". The Beatles won, but the Seasons weren't remotely finished, and the hits kept coming: Dawn, Rag Doll, Let's Hang On, Working My Way Back to You.
"You know what happened?" Frankie Valli tells me. "We never went away. We maintained a presence through the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, all the way up to right now."
He's right, of course. Huge hits such as Who Loves You and December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) came along later. Valli recorded solo, and enjoyed enduring success with the title song to the film Grease, and his cover of Can't Take My Eyes Off You.
The brilliance of lyricist Bob Crewe (who was never part of the group) and composer Bob Gaudio (who was) ensured that the Four Seasons' catchy, distinctive sound has stayed part of the soundtrack to the lives of baby boomers, and even those of their children.
It's no surprise, then, that their songbook would transfer to the stage. But Jersey Boys is no routine "jukebox musical", a few hit songs thrown together to hang on a threadbare plot. It opened on Broadway in 2005 to outstanding reviews, and won four Tonys in 2006, including best musical.
It has performed exceptionally at the box office ever since. One of the most remarkable facets of the show's success is the amount of repeat business it attracts. "I think each time you see it, you come away with something different," says Valli.
This may owe much to the structure of Jersey Boys, which examines the group's rise from blue-collar obscurity to international stardom through the eyes of each of its members: Valli, Gaudio, Tommy de Vito and Nick Massi.
Each has things to say about the group's mercurial rise, the shifting allegiances between the four men, and the pressures that fame and fortune inevitably bring. As the show's tagline proclaims: "You ask four guys, you get four different answers."
I meet Valli and Gaudio in London. Valli, 70, is small, dapper and tanned, with an expansive showbiz-veteran manner. Gaudio, five years younger, is languid and thoughtful in conversation.
The two men recall the show's beginnings. It was co-written by screenwriter Marshall Brickman (who collaborated with Woody Allen on Annie Hall), but originally devised by veteran stage director Des McAnuff, who staged it at La Jolla Playhouse in California. It was scheduled to run for six weeks but lasted four months.
"After we first saw it, we felt it could get to New York, and that we had a real good chance of a success," says Gaudio.
"We never expected it would be as big as it is," says Valli. "But, because the play is done from four different viewpoints, there's an awful lot to absorb. Each character has that opportunity to narrate what he thought and felt.
Each of us was interviewed separately, and it's not hard to see how four people in that situation could see things a little differently."
Of course, such internal pressures have affected every major pop group in the past 50 years: consider the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, just for starters. "I think it's outside influences that are always circling a group," Gaudio says.
"We've all been influenced by people we've been with. And that's unfortunate, sometimes."
Indeed. Jersey Boys touches on the unwelcome influence of organised crime on the group's fortunes. It's no surprise that a quartet of Italian-American boys would be favourites with the Mob.
"Where I grew up, in New Jersey, there was a lot of organised crime activity," says Valli. "It was a part of life." Gaudio adds: "I don't think anyone who was in the entertainment industry in the Sixties can say they've never rubbed shoulders with the Mob. They owned every other club you played in."
There's a telling scene in Martin Scorsese's film Goodfellas, when Karen, a young woman with whom mobster Henry Hill is conducting a stormy courtship, yells at him: "You got some nerve standing me up. Nobody does that to me.
Who the hell do you think you are - Frankie Valli or some kind of big shot?" And Valli even seemed to embrace this connection, taking an acting role as mobster Rusty Millio in the great TV gangster series The Sopranos.
Its lead character Tony Soprano boasted that he and Frankie Valli used the same florist, while the mother of a Sopranos character died after a night out to Jersey Boys.
Still, despite all the dubious influences on them, the Seasons survived - with a vengeance. In retrospect, that 1963 battle of the bands organised by Vee Jay should have buried them.
The Beatles were young, new and fresh, while the Seasons, with their smart Italian suits, neat, swept-back hair and doo-wop influenced vocals, already seemed hold-overs from the previous decade.
Yet Gaudio insists they broke new ground. "Frankie's voice was unusual, so new things developed out of necessity. You didn't usually write something for a voice with that strong a falsetto.
He's not a Brian Wilson or a Smokey Robinson, so you can't have a soft rhythm track and the supporting voices have to be stronger. That's how our sound developed. It's the main difference between us and the Beach Boys - our records have more punch."
The baby boomers who go to see Jersey Boys often return bringing their kids. "I see whole families in the audience," says Valli. "That just knocks me out."
Steven Spielberg put it best. He has optioned the film rights for Jersey Boys, but told the group he would be happy to wait until the play has left theatres before shooting it. Gaudio recalls: "He told us it could be five years or 10 - but people will still be responding to the Four Seasons."
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