Every night, around the globe, a half-dozen touring companies perform “Jersey Boys,” the true-to-life hit musical about the Four Seasons. Audiences everywhere are drawn to the songs and the story of the group that first soared onto the Hot 100 five decades ago, through the talents of frontman Frankie Valli, composer Bob Gaudio and lyricist/producer Bob Crewe.
As “Jersey Boys” continues its run on Broadway, Valli this year is in the midst of a world tour that has taken him (or will take him) everywhere from London’s Royal Albert Hall to Beverly Hills’ Saban Theater, Bangkok and Manila, even Fargo, N.D.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Four Seasons, Valli met with Billboard for an expansive conversation at a coffee shop in Manhattan.
How has “Jersey Boys” affected your touring and your audience?
It’s created a new awareness, especially with younger people. A lot of groups stayed in the same bag. We never did that. The first three records we did — “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” — were all self-contained. [Almost all the instruments and singing were performed by the band.] Then, depending on the song, Gaudio and Crewe were writing so many songs in those days, they weren’t trying to follow a pattern. If they felt a song required a bigger orchestra, we used a bigger orchestra.
The Four Seasons were always thought of as a singles band. It wasn’t until Working My Way Back to You in early 1966 that you had songs and sounds with a kind of FM radio flow.
There’s another album, [1969’s] “The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette,” which was a total departure from doing pop music, but never got any acceptance. It was done like a newspaper; all the songs were articles. It had a sports section, comics, horoscopes…Shortly after that, Jethro Tull did something exactly like that [in 1972 with “Thick As a Brick”]. Rolling Stone said that if anybody else had done The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, it would have been a smash album. It was different. Some of the subject matter [music by Gaudio with lyrics by Greenwich Village folk favorite Jake Holmes] dealt with war, racial tensions and other things going on at the time. We loved it. It was completely different. But we did what we really wanted to do, and if it was a hit, it was a hit. We had a lot of resistance from record companies. That’s why we left Phillips Records. They wanted us to stay in a pop place. We left right after “The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette.” We didn’t want to be locked in to anything.
That would include the version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” credited to the Wonder Who?, which peaked at No. 12 on the Hot 100, right around the time “Rag Doll” reached No. 3, near the end of 1965.
It did create a lot of confusion. We had an album, six Bacharach-David songs on one side and six Dylan songs on the other [“The 4 Seasons Sing Burt Bacharach…Hal David…and Bob Dylan”]. In the studio, I started to clown around with “Don’t Think Twice.” In reality, it was an impression of a very famous black singer, Rose Murphy. She did “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” We played it for a disc jockey in Atlantic City [N.J.], and he said, “Please give it to me. I just want to play it. I won’t tell anybody who it is. I’ll run a contest.” He actually broke it. When the record company found out, they were really pissed. They said, “Now we have to put it out…But we already have a Four Seasons song out, and this will kill it. So we’ll say it’s the Wonder Who?”
On the other hand, you did have your first solo hit with Cole Porter’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in June 1967, which “stalled” at No. 2 for two weeks, behind Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
I always believed a singer should be able to sing any kind of song. If I wanted to sing a Cole Porter song, I should be able to do that. Or “Sherry,” I should be able to do that. Or a Dylan song. I didn’t go to any professional school to learn how to sing. I bought people’s records, listened to them, tried to do what the singer did by imitating them, as close as I could possibly get. We cover every kind of music. That’s important for anybody. We can do anything from working with a four- or five-piece band to working with a symphony orchestra.
You even flourished during the disco era. How did you get to sing the title song from “Grease”?
Barry Gibb called and said, “I wrote a song. I think it’s for you. It’s going to be the title song for this motion picture.” My manager at the time was Allan Carr, who was partners in “Grease” with Robert Stigwood. He called and said, “What do you want to do? Do you want to be in the movie? Or sing the title song?” Well, I had already heard the title song, and I loved it. I called [famed arranger] Don Costa up and told him to come over right away and hear this song. He said, “If you don’t record this song, you’re crazy.” So I said, “What’s the song if I want to be in the movie?” And they said “Beauty School Dropout.” It was done by Frankie Avalon. It never became a hit, but he made a lot of money from it being on the soundtrack. But “Grease” was one of the biggest records I ever had in my career.
Was there ever a time when you weren’t as busy as you wanted to be?
There were a lot of frustrating periods in my life. In 1967, I found out I was losing my hearing. I went 10 years without any help. I had otosclerosis — hardening of the bone in the middle of the ear. [Renowned Los Angeles ear specialist] Dr. Victor Goodhill did the surgery and it saved my life. He went to the bone bank at UCLA and made me a new stapes bone for each ear. He brought my hearing from about 35% in one ear to about 98%, and a year later operated on the other ear and brought it up to 87%. That was a moment of truth for me.
Of course, losing a kid was a very, very tough experience. [Valli’s stepdaughter, Celia, died in an accident, and his daughter, Francine, reportedly died from a drug overdose, both in 1980.] It’s not something you ever, ever get over. It’s just not supposed to be that way.
You’re on the road, and you’re involved with the upcoming “Jersey Boys” movie, to be directed by Clint Eastwood. Why work so hard?
I think [back on] all of the things I did as a kid, how hard it was getting into the business. I did everything in my power…I worked construction. I went to school to learn to be a hairdresser. I worked at a wholesale florist, where I delivered to florists all over New Jersey. I’d come home and go out to work down at the Shore. The early jobs, I remember, were $5, $6 a night. And I lived in the projects right until the time I became successful. It wasn’t easy, but I was really determined.
Just before “Sherry,” I thought that was it. I said to myself, “If this doesn’t happen, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I was at that crossroads of life.
You have to really be in something 100%. Because if you’re not, the day you’re not there may be the day it was important for you to be there, so that it could happen.
Becoming successful is a relentless pursuit. It’s good that it’s that way: When it does come, you learn to know how to appreciate it, and know how lucky you are to be doing something that you love so much.
(Editor/writer/critic Wayne Robins teaches journalism at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y.)