When Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, it was vindication for a wide and varied career that took the New Jersey born singer from the high-pitched joie de vivre of early doo wop and rock and roll hits, to score unlikely favour with the 1970s Northern Soul scene, before singing the title track for the soundtrack of one of the most successful musical films ever made.
None of this might have happened if seven year old Francesco Stephen Castellucio had been taken by his mother to see another Frankie, with the second name of Sinatra, at the Paramount Theatre in New York. It was there and then that little Frankie recognised his destiny, and decided to pursue a singing career and become a star.
It would be another decade before Valli made his public debut, when he was asked up onstage for a guest spot by local act, The Variety Trio. The band included future Four Seasons Nick Macioci and Tommy DeVito, and once The Variety Trio disbanded, the pair became part of the house band at The Strand, in New Brunswick, with Valli on bass and vocals.
With a surname affectionately poached from Texas Jean Valley, his favourite singer, in 1953 the then Frankie Valley cut his debut single, My Mother's Eyes. Around this time, Valli and lead guitarist DeVito quit the Strand to form The Variatones, with former Variety Trio member Nick Macioci (now Nick Massi) joining on bass guitar and vocals after various line-up changes. In 1959, Bob Gaudio, formerly of The Royal Teens, joined on keyboards and tenor vocals, and by 1960s The Variatones had morphed first into The Four Lovers before finally settling as The Four Seasons, named after a New Jersey bowling alley they failed an audition for.
Working with producer Bob Crewe, The Four Seasons found their trademark sound, and scored their first number one hit in 1962 with Sherry. The song's mix of close harmony and a plaintive yearning was tailor-made for the teen market, and the band followed it up with a stream of million-selling hits, including Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like A Man, both of which were shot-through with their trademark sound.
Between the years 1962 and 1964, only The Beach Boys sold more records in America. Switching record labels, Valli and The Four Seasons maintained their popularity right through the 1960s Beat boom. At the same time, Valli had been recording and releasing solo material with varying degrees of success. It came as something of a surprise, then, when a 1966 single, You're Ready Now, was picked up by UK Northern Soul DJs.
Northern Soul was a flamboyant dance-crazy scene operating in clubs mainly in the north of England, where the focus was on obscure records made by black American soul artists of the previous decade. Valli may have been a familiar name, but his background did him no harm, as the authentic floor-shaker crossed over to reach number eleven in the UK charts.
In 1975, with the Four Seasons still a popular live act, Valli had another change of style with My Eyes Adored You, and then, in 1978, came Grease. The original stage musical of what would go on to become one of the biggest musical film of all time was a loving homage to the era in which Valli and The Four Seasons came of age. The songs may not have been strictly rock and roll, but who better than to sing the theme song to the film than a genuine idol of the era.
Written by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, Grease the song more resembled a kind of disco-lite more than anything. No matter. It was a hit anyway. As for the rest of the Four Seasons, they too had a number one hit in 1975 with a Valli-free December 1963 (Oh What A Night), which also proved big on the disco scene.
Further hits followed, although it was only with the original line-ups' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the world premiere of Jersey Boys in 1995 that one of the greatest vocal groups in American pop history began to receive the respect and acknowledgement they deserved.
There are many today who may only know Valli from his regular appearances as mobster Rusty Millio in acclaimed gangster drama, The Sopranos. While various incarnations of the Four Seasons – with and without Valli – have toured over the years, in it's way, The Sopranos too helped put Valli and the band back on the map. Coming from the tough neighbourhood that they did, it would have been easy for Valli and co to have fallen into real life gangsterism. As it is, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons produced some of the sweetest sounds of their generation, and the world loved them for it.
Commissioned as programme notes for the May 2013 UK tour of New Jersey Nights. ends