There we were, talking on the phone.
Frankie Valli, the falsetto to die for as leader of The Four Seasons, the pop music legend behind “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll” and a dozen other seminal rock-era classics. The king of New Jersey. And every other sentence coming out of the trans-Atlantic line from Florida was garbled! That silky voice, that has accompanied countless newlyweds on their journey down the aisle with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” sounded like Yoda doing a Marlon Brando imitation.
But do you tell the 83-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee that we have to start over and hope that he’ll pick up the phone again? Or do you make the best of the situation and ward off an unwanted visit by a Jersey Boy who might want to settle matters over wasting Mr. Valli’s time.
Even half a conversation with such a storied cornerstone of the American songbook is better than none. So a potential whack by Silvio Dante was kept at bay as Valli dutifully, if somewhat curtly, answered questions that have been probably asked a thousand times, ahead of the his performance fronting Four Seasons in Israel on July 4 at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv.
“I’ve wanted to go to Israel for a very long time, and I’m happy it’s finally happening,” said Valli, adding “it might be the last time.”
Valli was in Florida, away from his California home, performing two shows with the Four Seasons at the Hard Rock Live near Hollywood.
A writer for the Miami Herald rhetorically questioned how Valli could warrant two nights at the spacious venue while somewhat younger descendants like Rod Stewart, Steve Miller and Peter Frampton only were able to sell out one night.
One thing that Valli – born Francesco Stephen Castelluccio in Newark, New Jersey – has that those others don’t is a hit Broadway musical about his life. Jersey Boys ran on Broadway from 2005 to earlier this year, with a Clint Eastwood film adaptation appearing in 2014.
Interspersed with performances of many of the Four Seasons classics, the Tony Award-winning play featured a loosely based biographical-warts-and-all narrative, told as four separate points of view (four seasons) by each of the members of The Four Seasons (Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio).
Gaudio, who wrote most of the Four Seasons’ hits and went on to a successful production career, spearheaded the idea, but Valli was an enthusiastic supporter.
“It was something I believed in, even if it may not be exactly the way things were,” he said, possibly referring to the band’s roughhewn street beginnings that got smoothed over with sweaters and smiles.
The group’s clean-cut image, combined with brilliant harmonies and arrangements from Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe, resulted in some 30 Top 40 hits from “Sherry” in 1962 through 1975’s “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” As solo artist, two of his songs went to number one – “My Eyes Adored You (1974) and “Grease” (1978) while perhaps his most famous tune “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” reached number two in 1967 (nosed out for number one by “Windy” by The Association.) Valli attributes the success to an ear keen at identifying what’s going to be popular.
“The most important thing is the song – it has to be memorable and as soon as you hear it, you should be able to sing along,” he said. “It should also tell a good story, even if it’s a simple one, and one that people can relate to.”
“It’s always been about the songs. It’s like making a suit – you don’t start using paper, you need quality material.”
When the Four Seasons’ Tin Pan Alley pop sound got drowned out by the burgeoning long-haired rock & roll of the late ’60s, Valli was never tempted to shift gears and join the psychedelic bandwagon. Instead, as his original bandmates left the fold, he added his name to the marquee (a la Diana Ross and the Supremes) and continued to look for material that suited his sensibility.
“I wasn’t all of a sudden going to become something that I wasn’t,” he said. “Look at Sinatra or Nat King Cole. They transcended their times. They knew exactly who they were and didn’t try to be anyone else.”
One area, however, that Valli did compromise in was putting his true love on the back burner – being a jazz singer.
“My pure passion was and still is jazz.
And that’s what I wanted to do, but when I started singing with the Four Seasons, the reaction was so positive that I realized it was having a good reaction. And it was more fruitful doing something contemporary,” he said.
Looking at today’s crop of crooners, Valli said he is most impressed by Bruno Mars.
“I think that he’s probably [one of] the most innovative and creative singers I’ve seen. He’s incredibly talented and a great live performer.”
The stage is also where Valli and the Four Seasons flourished, even when the hits became more sporadic in the ’70s and beyond. With a rotating cast of Four Seasons, Valli has filled stages in Las Vegas, Broadway and the usual array of theaters and arenas whenever he decided to go out on the road. What keeps him going at 83, he said, is a true love of performing.
“I love what I do, and I’m lucky that I can still do it. So why not keep going doing the thing I love more than anything?” he said.
Valli had more to say, but that’s forever lost. Whatever it was, it will probably be better expressed on the stage July 4 in Tel Aviv when he celebrates America’s birthday by bringing smiles to the faces of his fans in Israel.