Monday, April 23, 2012


A couple of weeks ago, my sister took my parents into New York City to see the Broadway production of "Jersey Boys" - which (if you've been living under a rock for the last four years) is the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.

I am a BIG Four Seasons fan. I almost HAVE to be. I was born in Newark, NJ. Everyone from that area (everyone I knew) talked about them. I constantly heard their songs on the radio. Their records were everywhere - in my dad's closet, at my aunt's house, in local garage sales and flea markets, they're even in old family photos. In fact, the Philips Records logo was one of the first ones I can really remember becoming fascinated with.

Unlike most folks, I don't have to look through the glass wall that Broadway provides for the tourists to get into the "real" story of the Seasons. I grew up with it all around me. I have been to Stephen Crane Village (on the Newark/Belleville border - where Valli was from) on numerous occasions - it's a slum, always has been a slum, and always will be a slum. I know the exact spot where the "Lookin' Back" LP cover was shot (down on the old Newark City Subway tracks, just past the Grafton Avenue bridge). Hell, Frankie Valli himself used to fill up his car at my dad's old gas station on Union Avenue in Belleville (using his credit card that said "Seasons' Four, Inc." - my dad used to save the receipts for my mom). Whenever I go to Tony's Barber Shop in Belleville, there's always at least ONE old paisan talking about Frankie - "VALLI? DAT GUY'S SO CHEAP, HE'S STILL GOT HIS FRIGGIN' COMMUNION MONEY!!!"

Another connection I had to The Four Seasons was more personal - one of my aunts was married for a time to one of the cousins of Nick Massi, original bass player for the Seasons until he left abruptly in 1965. My aunt's husband was a good guy, but he was definitely one of those Nicky Newark types - with the leather jacket, perfect Italian hair (exactly like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever) and the Joe Pesci-style voice, constantly saying things like "I know a guy dat can take carradat faw ya" and "You tink you know dis guy? You don' know dis guy! Dis guy'll KILL ya! He'll hitcha wit' a friggin' BAT!" Anyway, one night, when I was about 17, my aunt came over with her husband, and he saw that I had some Four Seasons records out. He never really mentioned records or music in conversation (so of course we had NOTHING to talk about), but he looked at the LPs and said, "Oh, you like dese guys? You know dat I know dese guys, right?" At first I thought he was bullshitting me, but then he said, "yeah, Nick Massi, dat's my cousin, his real name's Macioce" and told me about the family. Then he pointed to Tommy DeVito and said, "you tink you know dat guy? He's just a singer, right? No, you don' know dat guy, dat guy's a gangster!! He'll rob ya as soon as look at ya!!"

I don't know if Tommy DeVito's a gangster or not (I've never met the man personally), but I do know quite a bit about the Seasons' history. Frankie Valli started out as a solo, waxing his first record for the Corona label in 1953 ("My Mother's Eyes") and then hooking up with NJ lounge group The Varietones. They changed their name to The Four Lovers, and signed with RCA Victor in 1956. They had a hit almost immediately with "You're The Apple Of My Eye", but the six follow up singles (and an LP, "Joyride") stiffed, and RCA dropped the group a year later. After making one more single for Epic in 1957 (a record so rare that mint copies go for about 1500 bucks), the group dropped their name and played the NJ club circuit under various other names (The Four Passions, Frankie Valli and The Romans) and recording the occasional single ("Come Si Bella" as Frankie Valle and The Romans on Cindy, "Please Take A Chance" as Frankie Valley on Decca).

Their fortunes changed in 1961 when a friend of the group's, Joe Pesci (yeah, that Joe Pesci), introduced them to Bob Gaudio, who had recently left The Royal Teens (of "Short Shorts" fame). Gaudio was working with successful producer Bob Crewe, making records for Crewe's Topix label. Gaudio introduced the group to Crewe, who was knocked out by their sound, and used them as backing vocalists on records by Hal Miller and The Rays and Turner Disentri (who was really Bob Gaudio). Unfortunately, Topix Records went bankrupt in mid-1961, and Crewe became an independent producer, a la Phil Spector.

By now the group had renamed themselves The Four Seasons, after a Union, NJ bowling alley where the group tried - and failed - to get a job as the house group for the alley's lounge. Crewe, having no established acts to work with, decided to record a single by his favorite backing vocalists. The result, "Bermuda"/"Spanish Lace", became the first-ever Four Seasons single. Leased to George Goldner's Gone label and released in December, 1961, the record died a quick death, and little wonder - the record owed less to the doo-wop-meets-Phil-Spector sound that the group would become known for than to their earlier, Italian-lounge sound. It's also the ONLY Four Seasons 45 (besides the Warner Brothers hits of the mid-70s) where Frankie Valli's storied falsetto is not used. The only thing that makes this recognizable as a Four Seasons record is Crewe's fill-it-up-to-the-brim production style.

Eight months after this was released, the group put out their second single, "Sherry", and we all know what happened next. But this first single remains buried in the recesses of time, a fascinating document bridging the gap between The Four Lovers and The Four Seasons.

The Four Seasons - Bermuda (Gone 5122) - 1961

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