‘Jersey Boys’ plays the Fox Theatre through Oct. 11, 2015.
WITH HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of professional singers in the world, it’s rare to find one whose voice is immediately recognizable. Born Francesco Stephen Castelluccio in Newark in 1934, Frankie Valli has just that sort of voice — arguably the most powerful falsetto in pop music history. That voice is a big reason why Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons became one of the biggest bands in the world in the early 1960s.
Inspired to sing at age 7 after seeing a young Frank Sinatra perform at New York’s Paramount Theatre, Frankie eventually took his stage name from his mentor, “Texas” Jean Valli. But it wasn’t until he met the Variety Trio — brothers Tommy and Nick DeVito and their bass-playing friend Nick Massi — that Valli began realizing his dream of being a professional singer. By 1953, at age 19, he’d cut his first single (“My Mother’s Eyes”), which billed him as “Frankie Valley.”
Working their way
Trying to follow the group’s trajectory to stardom is a little like watching a drunk bumblebee searching out its hive. Frankie and Tommy were the only constants in an ever-evolving array of lineups and band names — from the Variatones and the Four Lovers to Frankie Valley & the Travelers, Frankie Valle & the Romans, the Village Voices and the Topics. Between 1954 and 1960, the singers or groups has used some 18 stage names.
In 1959, three fortuitous circumstances finally changed the New Jersey group’s fortunes: They started working with producer-songwriter Bob Crewe (who later wrote the No. 1 hit “Lady Marmalade”); they performed in Baltimore with the Royal Teens (“Short Shorts”), whose 15-year-old keyboardist/guitarist Bob Gaudio joined the Four Lovers lineup; and they blew an audition at a New Jersey bowling alley lounge and decided to take its name — the Four Seasons — as their own.
The group had released seven singles on the RCA Victor and Epic labels in the late ’50s with virtually no radio play or record sales. Their first single as the Four Seasons, 1961’s “Bermuda”/“Spanish Lace,” failed to land as well. They made ends meet by working as backup vocalists, and sometimes as leads under different names.
Then, in 1961, Gaudio crafted the song that would launch their careers, “Sherry,” and backer Bob Crewe got the band a contract with Vee-Jay Records, the first white act on the influential label known for recording such legends as Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Butler, the Pips and Little Richard.
Big men in town
The Vee-Jay deal proved to be the final piece of the puzzle: The Four Seasons’ debut album, released in 1962 with “Sherry,” gave the band its first No. 1 hit. Over the next year, the quartet pushed out an impressive string of smash singles that included the Crewe/Gaudio originals “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man”; “Candy Girl,” a cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame”; and an innovative take on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
By 1964 Vee-Jay Records, in a contract dispute with Capitol Records over rights to a boy band from Liverpool, England, was flailing, and the Four Seasons jumped to Philips Records. It did nothing to slow their momentum. That band charted seven Top 30 singles, including “Dawn” at No. 3, “Stay” at No. 16, “Ronnie” at No. 6 and “Rag Doll” at No. 1. The Four Seasons, along with the Beatles and the Beach Boys, became one of the most popular bands in the world.
As for the rest of the story … well, you’ll see the best parts onstage. The 2006 Tony Award-winning best musical is still running. It uses interviews with Gaudio, Valli and Tommy DeVito as source material, recognizing the perspectives of each surviving member in a Rashomon-style storytelling approach.
Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons have been around in one form or another for more 55 years, selling about 100 million albums and earning induction into both the Rock and Roll and Vocal Group halls of fame. Valli, now 81, continues to tour — falsetto intact — under the Four Seasons banner.
Their personal stories were never as well-known as the Beatles or Beach Boys, but the success of Jersey Boys onstage and as a feature film is a tribute to the colossal impact these four rough ’n’ tumble guys from Jersey have had on America’s rock ’n’ roll culture.