The Four Seasons (Contemporary Musicians)
With their distinctive style of musicerhaps best described as power doo-wophe Four Seasons have enjoyed a long and extremely successful career in popular music. Coming together in the mid-1950s, they had their first major hit "Sherry" in 1962. It was followed by a string of other hit songs including "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," and "Let's Hang On to What We've Got." Along with The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons were the only American group to survive the "British Invasion" of the pop charts in the mid-1960s. Their hit songs have become pop standards and their concert tours continue to attract enthusiastic audiences made up of longtime fans and younger people whose acquaintance with the group comes from "oldies" format radio stations.
The Four Seasons have undergone numerous personnel changes over the years but the essence of the group has remained with lead vocalist Frankie Valli and songwriter/manager Bob Gaudio. Valli and Gaudio own the master tapes of all the group's recordings, the right to use the musical group name "The Four Seasons," and also own the rights to the music and lyrics of all the Four Seasons' songs. These properties have generated millions of dollars in revenue for Valli and Gaudio's joint enterprise, called the Four Seasons Partnership.
The roots of the Four Seasons can be traced to the working class neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey in the mid-1950s when Frankie Valli (born Francis Stephen Castelluccio) joined the Variety Trio, avocai group made up of Hank Majewski, and brothers Nick and Tommy Devito. The addition of a fourth member made the trio a quartet and so the group's name was changed to the Variatones. Though still a teenager, Valli was an experienced singer. In 1953, under the name Frankie Valley, he had recorded a few songs for Corona Records. The son of a barber, Valli had decided to be a singer at age seven. "I was always singing, as far back as I can remember. In those days, big bands would come and play in theaters like the Paramount (in New York) or the Adams Theater in Newark. My mom used to take me once a week to the Adams, so I saw every major big band at the tail end of that era," Valli recalled to Steve North of the TwoRiver Times. Receiving no formal vocal training, Valli honed his voice by listening to records of favorite performers, such as the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo's and the Modemaires. He sharpened his falsetto by imitating female singers including Dinah Washington and Rose Murphy.
The Variatones played at clubs in New Jersey and the surrounding area. In 1956, they were signed by RCA records and renamed the Four Lovers. Their RCA recording of "Apple of My Eye" was a minor hit which earned them three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Despite this notoriety, the group had trouble garnering many fans. "When we went out of town, we used to lie and tell everybody we were playing at the big resorts. Only we were really performing in a bowling alley in Philly, " Valli told John Anderson of SmartMoney. Changes came to the Four Lovers in 1960 when Hank Majewski left the group and was replaced by Nick Massi. In the same year, the Four Lovers were taken under the wing of Bob Crewe, a New York-based record producer. In 1961, Nick Devito resigned from the group and Bob Gaudio joined it. In addition to being a keyboard player and vocalist, Gaudio was a talented songwriter able to supply the group with original material. As member of the Royal Teens, Gaudio had written and recorded the novelty hit "Short Shorts" in 1958. After retitling themselves The Four Seasons, taking the name from a bowling alley lounge which had refused to give them a booking, the group was set with the moniker and personnelalli, Gaudio, Massi, and Tommy Devitohat would take them to the top.
It was at this point, just before stardom, that Valli, who had day job as barber, and Gaudio, who worked at a printing plant, decided to form a partnership. The deal was made while they sat in Valli's parents's apartment in a low-income housing project in Newark. "We said, 'Neither of us know where we're going to wind up, but maybe we should hedge our bets. You get 50 percent of me, and I get 50 percent of you,'" Gaudio recalled to Charles P. Alexander of Time. The deal, which has never been based on anything more official than a handshake, has endured. Despite ups and downs in their relationship over the decades, neither Valli nor Gaudio has seriously considered breaking the arrangement. "That would be like telling your brother that he couldn't come todinner anymore. We're family," Gaudio explained to Alexander.
Major success came to the Four Seasons in September of 1962, when their recording "Sherry" for Vee-Jay Records went to the top of the charts. Originally called "Terry," the song had been written by Gaudio in 15 minutes. The lyrics were concocted merely as a way for Gaudio to remember the tune but producer Crewe and the other group members thought they should be retained. Only change was the girl's name in the title. "Sherry was a non-existent person.... It was just a song and the name made it easier to sing, "Sherrrrry Sherry Baby." It was impossible to do that with the name Linda or Laurie. See, we were creating a sound," Valli told Tim Ryan of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
The success of "Sherry" was quickly followed by another number one hit, "Big Girls Don't Cry," another Gaudio composition. The title phrase was taken from an old movie in which the leading man (sometimes identified as Clark Gable, sometimes as John Payne), slaps the leading lady, then taunts her by saying "Big girls don't cry." Over the next five years, The Four Seasons enjoyed a string of top ten hits, most written by Gaudio. Combining simple lyrics about young romance with a driving, infectious beat, Four Seasons material appealed to that part of the audience which continued to be drawn to the East Coast street corner harmonies of the 1950s and early 1960s. Their hits include "Walk Like a Man," "Candy Girl," "Dawn," "Ronnie," "Rag Doll," "Save It for Me," "Let's Hang On," "Working My Way," "Tell It to the Rain," and "C'Mon Marianne." One non-Gaudio hit was a version of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," which Valli told Ryan was "the most sophisticated song we ever recorded." In 1965, the Four Seasons, billing themselves as The Wonder Who?, released a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," with Valli singing in his highest pitched falsetto. The song went to number 12 on the Billboard chart. Valli abandoned the falsetto in favor of a rich baritone on his solo recording of the romantic ballad "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," which was a hit in the summer of 1967.
It took some time for success to sink into the minds of the Four Seasons. Valli, for example, continued living with his parents in a Newark housing project. "I don't think I really believed the success until about 1964. I drove an old car until that year; I was afraid to buy a new one.... Ithought someone would pinch me and I'd wake up from this wonderful dream I was having," Valli told North.
Though the Four Seasons had withstood the British Invasion of American pop music led by the Beatles in 1964, by the late 1960s their popularity began to wane. In response to this drop in public favor, the group made some false moves, most notably a socially conscious concept album called The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. Released in 1968, the album featured an eight-page newspaper insert. The experimental album received a good deal of publicity but sold poorly. By the early 1970s, the Four Seasons were at a low ebb with Valli as the only original member still performing with the group. Gaudio, who had taken over management of the group in the late 1960s, stopped performing in 1971. Gaudio's retreat from the stage annoyed Valli. "Frankie felt like I'd deserted him. It was our toughest time," Gaudio told Anderson. In 1972, the Four Seasons signed with Motown Records' California-based subsidiary MoWest and released the album Chameleon which drew little attention.
In 1975, their contract with MoWest having expired, Valli and Gaudio took Valli's solo recording of the song "My Eyes Adored You," to Private Stock Records. Written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan, the low key romantic tune put Valli back at the top of the charts. It was quickly followed by another Valli solo hit, the disco-influenced "Swearin' to God." Meanwhile, Gaudio recruited new personnel for the Four Seasons, including John Pavia, Lee Shapiro, Don Ciccone, and Gerry Polci, and signed a contract with Warner-Curb Records. In the autumn of 1975, the revised group had a major hit with "Who Loves You?" In the spring of 1976, the Four Seasons enjoyed an even bigger success with "December '63 (Oh, What a Night)." Written by Gaudio and his future wife Judy Parker, the song was a bouncy coming of age ditty that played on the nostalgic view many people in the 1970s had developed towards the 1950s and early 1960s. In an unusual turn, lead vocals on the recording were done by Gerry Polci, instead of Valli.
As a solo artist, Valli had the biggest hit of his career with the title song from the movie Grease in 1978. Written by Barry Gibb of Bee Gees fame, the disco-style song detracted from the early 1960s setting of the film and was not a part of the stage musical on which the film was based. Nevertheless, the Grease title song was a tremendous success in the summer of 1978, as was the movie itself. Although Gaudio had nothing to do with the Grease recording, Valli kept to their agreement and split the profits from the song with him. Similarly, Gaudio shared his earnings from outside projects with Valli.
Notable among Gaudio's other projects is the soundtrack to Neil Diamond's movie The Jazz Singer in 1981.
Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons are a popular attraction in nightclubs and other live entertainment venues. Though he likes the challenge of new material, Valli understands that audiences come out to hear the hits. "If I went to see someone I had admired all my life, I'd feel disappointed if I didn't hear certain songs ... a lot of people come to our shows to forget about what's going on. It's kind of like therapy," Valli told Winnie Bonelli of the Passaic Herald & News. Reissues of Four Seasons recordings enjoy steady sales with many purchases being made by people who weren't alive during the group's heyday.
"Apple of My Eye," RCA, 1956. "Sherry," Vee-Jay Records, 1962. "Big Girls Don't Cry," Vee-Hay Records. "Rag Doll," Philips Records. "December, 1963 (Oh What a Night)," Warner Curb Records, 1975, rereleased, 1994.
Helande, Brock, The Rock Who's Who, 2nd edition. New York: Schmirmer Books, 1996. Rees, Dafydd and Luke Chapman, Encyclopedia of Rock
Stars, New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1996. Stambler, Irving, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, revised edition, New York: St. Martin's, 1989.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 5, 1998.
Passaic Herald & News, July 10, 1992, p. B1-2. People, July 27, 1992, p. 122.
SmartMoney, February 1997, p. 79-81. Time, May 11, 1987, p. 54.
Two River Times (NJ), September 2, 1992, p. 1-2.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, www.rockhall.com.
Additional information provided by International Creative Management, Inc.