The musical partnership of singer Frankie Valli and songwriter Bob Gaudio in the Four Seasons has been one of the most successful during the pop era of the ’60s and beyond. The staying power of the group’s hits has been affirmed by the lengthy run on Broadway of “Jersey Boys,” the musical that recounts the act’s rise. Celebrating five decades of their songs, Gaudio recently spoke with Billboard about the Four Seasons and the group’s impact.
Did you think “Jersey Boys” would be as big as it is?
This has been far beyond any expectations for me. The original inspiration for me was watching the movie “The Deer Hunter” and seeing how [director] Michael Cimino used “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in the pool hall scenes. That was a moment for me and instilled a belief that our music might have other places besides radio. Given that we were not in with the MTV crowd, this [musical] seemed like an interesting possibility. It wasn’t as easy as it might seem. It was a long time coming. It took seven years, and to work on something for that long-it was beyond astounding to find out that we would be that successful.
So where do the Four Seasons stand now?
Frankie is always touring. I don’t know how he does it. God bless him. I can’t handle the road anymore. But he is out there and it’s his life. I’m minding the store with “Jersey Boys” and the film [version]. Clint Eastwood is directing the film. We start production in the next couple of months.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did producer/lyricist Bob Crewe enter the picture?
He had success early on — “Silhouettes” [a doo-wop hit recorded by the Rays in 1957] and “Lucky Ladybug” [a hit in 1959 for Billy & Lillie]. I learned a lot from Bob. I wrote “Sherry” by myself and then, from “Big Girls Don’t Cry” on, we collaborated very often. He came up with some great titles like “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.” We have inspired each other over the years. He was a big part of our careers, to say the least. He was the Fifth Season. I learned from a master, and in his time and maybe in tomorrow too, one of the greatest. Look at his track record. How do you follow that?
The sound on the Four Seasons records is just as impressive. Dennis Diken, the Smithereens drummer, once noted how everything, even the guitars, reinforced the rhythm.
Everything is working on the rhythm and groove. If you were really to pick apart the difference between us and the Beach Boys, there is a different sense of rhythm. They are lighter in the rhythm department and a little heavier in the vocals and harmony. We were very drum-oriented. [Drummer] Buddy Saltzman played on most of our records. We loved rhythm and basslines and drum licks, and it was very featured stuff in a lot of our records that we have done, like the opening of “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
What was the first record you produced for the Four Seasons? “The Chameleon” on Motown or “The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette?”
It was “The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette.” At the same time as that, I did the Sinatra album “Watertown.” It was not one of our biggest sellers, [and] Watertown was not one of his biggest albums. I ran into John Lennon in L.A. not long after we made [“The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette”] and he said, “You know, that was one of my favorite albums,” and I said, “OK, it was worth making.”
Even without all of your other accomplishments, just working with three of the greatest singers — Valli, Sinatra and Neil Diamond, for whom you did six albums including “The Jazz Singer” — your place in history would be assured.
And there is a [Barbra] Streisand album in there somewhere, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” which I produced. [And for Michael Jackson] I did a couple of Broadway things, like “Corner of the Sky,” which is from “Pippin.” I also produced Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye when I was at Motown for a couple of years.
On 1972’s “The Chameleon,” one standout is “The Night,” which Lene Lovich recorded.
That song did very well for us in Europe. It was top five in England, but it was never released [stateside] as a Four Seasons single. It’s like “Beggin’,” which was top 20 but not a big hit for us. And then Madcon comes along and bingo. [Norwegian dance/hip-hop duo Madcon rerecorded “Beggin'” in 2008 and the single hit No. 1 in markets across Europe.]
You accomplished something that few acts in the ’60s did: You own your record masters.
It was a bit of a lucky break, because Vee-Jay Records was verging on bankruptcy and they owed us some money. We had a choice of going after the money or take the masters. We chose the masters. What we did next was even more important — moving to Phillips and letting them lease our masters. And when we left, we got back all the masters we recorded for Phillips. It created quite a catalog and we still have it. We own the masters and license them.
When you say “we,” you mean the handshake?
Frankie and I. Just like it is in the show. We are partners. It’s 50/50 in publishing, touring, everything.
You had a dry spell for a couple of years until “Oh Who Loves You” in 1975, where you managed to marry doo-wop and disco, particularly on “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).”
I was with Motown for two or three years. I love Berry Gordy; we had a nice rapport. But something was eventually not feeling right and they very graciously let me out of the contract. The cage opened and off I flew and “Who Loves You” came along at the time. “My Eyes Adored You” had been recorded at Motown and they didn’t think it was a hit record. We bought that master back, so we had that, “Swear to God,” “Who Loves You” and “Oh, What a Night,” which I guess you could call a comeback. To have that kind of success at that time, with four records, is pretty exciting.
Despite being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and with all of the success of “Jersey Boys,” you’re never mentioned in the same breath as other iconic songwriters, even though you deserve to be. Yet, what would the ’60s be without your songs? Are you happy with your legacy?
Anonymity is a blessing. It is the reason why I elected at some point in my career not to be a performer. I’d rather be in the back or on the sidelines. I have never strived to be anything further than that. As long as I am able to do what I want do, and that’s make music.