Straight Out of Newark

The New York Times
October 2, 2005 Sunday

IT'S a long, long way from Newark to Broadway.
Just ask Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

You remember the Four Seasons, right? Their sound, the wail of Frankie Valli - "She-e-e-e-e-e-ry baby" - layered over solid three-part harmonies, was the music of the streets of urban New Jersey and New York. It was the sound of the projects of Newark and the poor Italian neighborhoods of Belleville. The tight living quarters shooed the singers out to the streets, to compete with the hustle and buzz of people, traffic and trains. They searched for the quiet night to harmonize under streetlights, on street corners, under bridges, in hallways. Their songs were sharp and quick - just like you had to be in the rough parts of town.

And starting next month, those days will be resurrected at the Virginia Theater on Broadway in "Jersey Boys," a show that takes the Four Seasons back to their Essex County roots and promises to tell their unknown story - the bright lights, the seedy alleys; "Jersey Boys" begins previews on Monday.

The Four Seasons broke onto the music scene in 1962 with "Sherry." Quickly following that first song came hits like "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Rag Doll," bursting from car radios and diner jukeboxes everywhere.

On the surface, Mr. Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi looked like nice, clean-cut boys; but they struggled with the bare-knuckle realities of living in tough neighborhoods. While so many other bands of the time projected a street-tough image, the Four Seasons cleaned themselves up to land in the living rooms of mainstream America along with groups like the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

But when we hear the Beatles, we can still picture trembling girls yowling through their concerts. And when we listen to the Beach Boys' carefree songs, we imagine archetypal California blonds "cruising the strip" or "shooting the curl."

But who listened to the Four Seasons? Rick Elice, who along with Marshall Brickman wrote the script for "Jersey Boys," explained in a recent interview by quoting lines from the play: "They were the factory workers, the truck drivers. The kids pumping gas, flipping burgers. The pretty girl with circles under her eyes behind the counter at the diner."

And judging by a recent sold-out performance in the Bronx by Mr. Valli, who is now 71, those fans are still around and still come out in force.

But at a time when some rock musicals on Broadway close almost as soon as they open ("Lennon" and "Good Vibrations") what separates "Jersey Boys" from the others? For one thing, the show isn't just a flimsy narrative to showcase songs. The play is about the Four Seasons - their real lives. For another, the book was written by serious writers. And what was the attraction to the Seasons' tale? "It's a classic American story," said Mr. Brickman, who wrote the screenplays for Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." "It's rags to riches, and back to rags."

Between Sinatra and Springsteen - those two singing icons from working-class New Jersey - there were the Four Seasons. And the Seasons might just have the more compelling story to tell. "On the way to church you could stumble over three or four crap games," remembered Tommy DeVito, 77, one of the group's founders. Sitting in the Waldorf-Astoria in a polo shirt and leather loafers, he was describing his neighborhood in Belleville in the 1950's when he, his brother Nick, and a friend named Nick Massi first formed the Variety Trio, then the Varietones. "We used to perform in dives and pool halls."

"The neighborhood was tough, but you never had to lock the door," Mr. DeVito said in a raspy voice, commenting on the neighborhood's ability to self-rule - and the presence of the mob.

Mr. DeVito soon met a young singer from Newark named Francis Castelluccio, who was making the rounds at various bars trying to land singing gigs. Already sniffing out fame, Mr. Castelluccio had changed his name to Frankie Valli.

When Tommy's brother left the Varietones, the band was introduced to Bob Gaudio, a tall, thin, contemplative guy from Bergen County. Originally from the Bronx, Mr. Gaudio had, at age 15, written the hit "Who Wears Short Shorts," which he made up while driving with friends along the main drag in Bergenfield. With Mr. DeVito on guitar, Mr. Massi (who died in 2000) on bass, the voice of Mr. Valli and the songwriting and keyboard playing of Mr. Gaudio, the Varietones became the Four Lovers.

Coffee, Eggs and Harmony
Driving through Stephen Crane Village - one of Newark's first projects, built in the 1940's - you notice that it's still an ethnically mixed neighborhood. Alley-size roads wind throughout the village-like complex. The two-story brick buildings still open up to long front yards, though now they are enclosed by chain-link fences. There are still clotheslines in front of the houses.

Frankie Valli grew up here, and it was in his tiny kitchen that the band practiced late at night over cups of coffee, eggs and fresh-baked bread.

Frankie Valli, a guest star during the most recent season of "The Sopranos," remembered his hometown fondly in an interview at Sterling Studios, above Chelsea Market, in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago.

"There were a lot of reasons why Newark will always be special to me," he said, his voice firm though soft. "There was a place called the Adams Theater, where I used to hear so much great music." His gestures were understated, and he acknowledged people with a nod, or simply a look.

Mr. Valli was unsure of his chances in music before the band hit, and had been studying to become a hairstylist. But he and Mr. Gaudio went knocking on the doors of music producers in Midtown Manhattan. By chance they ran into Bob Crewe, a producer and songwriter who had worked with Mr. Valli before, and who also happened to be from Belleville. In time, Mr. Crewe matched his lyrics with Mr. Gaudio's music, and produced several of the Seasons' records.

The Seasons had a producer, but they had yet to have a hit. They continued to play throughout New Jersey - but before things got better, they had, of course, to get worse. "We had auditioned for a gig at a bowling alley and cocktail lounge in Union - and were turned down," Mr. Valli said, explaining how they came up with the name of the band. "As we were leaving we looked up at the name of the place, the Four Seasons."

Finally, in 1962, the Seasons managed to get a show at the Sea Breeze nightclub in Point Pleasant. They had just finished their last song, but the crowd wouldn't let them leave. "They had run out of their songs, but then Frankie picks up some maracas and does a great imitation of 1940's singer Rose Murphy in a falsetto," Mr. Crewe recalled. "It was so clear, so crisp." That night Mr. Gaudio went home and wrote a song with that falsetto still ringing in his ears. "Sherry" took all of 15 minutes to write. It surged onto the charts, and hit No. 1.

Mr. Gaudio and Mr. Valli knew there was a match between them - the music with the voice. From then on the two agreed to work together, having a financial interest in each other's success.

"We were 50-50 partners on a handshake," said Mr. Gaudio, who is 62.

The Four Seasons, who are members of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, recorded on Vee-Jay, a rhythm-and-blues label (upon first listening to the Seasons, many people thought they were black). The Beatles, too, had recorded some of there first songs on Vee-Jay, and in 1963 the label's executives came up with a double record called "The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons," which paired songs like "Please, Please Me" with "Walk Like a Man," and "I Saw Her Standing There" with "Sherry."

Even those who didn't grow up with these bands have visual images of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. John Lennon sings into his mike while Paul and George face each other, singing harmony. Ringo happily shakes his head to the rhythm. Mike Love, Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys line up behind a surfboard with Southern California's sunny beaches in the background.

But the Four Seasons? Unless you were a teenager in the early 1960's, you might only know that they wore suits. Or did they? Did they play their own instruments? We know their songs, at least many of them, yet are surprised when we hear that along with "Big Girls Don't Cry" they also sang "Dawn," Rag Doll," "Stay," "Let's Hang On," "Working My Way Back to You" and Mr. Valli's solo efforts of "My Eyes Adored You" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

Despite the number of hits, few people today have a solid image of the Four Seasons. "No one really wrote about us like they did other bands," Mr. Gaudio said.

Then, in 1969, the Seasons came out with their departure album, "Genuine Imitation Life," recorded with big-band instruments found in a dusty closet of a recording studio.

"It was one of the few times we were treated kindly by Rolling Stone magazine," Mr. Gaudio said. The critics might have loved the album, but the radio stations didn't know what to do with it.

After that record, the Four Seasons all but disappeared from the public eye. Then, in 1975, they released "Who Loves You" and their biggest hit to date, "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)."

When asked what it was like having the Four Seasons' story arrive on Broadway, Mr. Gaudio said, "It feels like coming home to a different neighborhood."

Old Songs, Old Friends
Working at Sterling Studios last month, where the Broadway cast recording was being mixed, Mr. Gaudio looked up to see Mr. Valli walk in. They embraced as do friends who speak regularly but don't see each other often. It was honest and sincere - as strong as that word and a handshake four decades before.

"Want to hear it?" Mr. Gaudio said. It was the first time Mr. Valli had heard the cast.

"Sure," Mr. Valli said.

Mr. Gaudio played a couple of cuts, including "Walk Like a Man" and "Sherry." The show's producers hadn't gone for a stereotypical Broadway send-up. The group sounded like the Four Seasons themselves.

"Hey, that kid's got a voice," Mr. Valli said. He looked around at the modern studio. "Wouldn't it have been nice to have a mixing room like this?"

"Yeah, and a nice view to go with it," Mr. Gaudio said.

Out of the west-facing window, they gazed at the New Jersey skyline.