In a culture that still clings to the Horatio Alger myth, rags-to-riches stories are pretty much a dime a dozen. After all, with enough grit and determination, any child in America can grow up to be the President of the United States, a self-made millionaire, or a successful reality-show star.
One such success story is The Four Seasons–four working class kids who started out singing doo-wop on street corners, spent a few months behind bars for attempted burglary and went on to become the chart-topping vocal group whose music and lives are celebrated in the mega-hit musical “Jersey Boys.”
During its decade-long run on Broadway, “Jersey Boys” racked up more than two billion dollars in box-office receipts, won a handful of Tony Awards and inspired the Clint Eastwood-directed feature film of the same name.
It also ensured that Frankie Valli’s piercing falsetto on signature songs like “Rag Doll,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”–all of which reached Number 1 on the ‘60s pop charts–will be ringing in our ears for decades to come.
Subsequent forays into disco like “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”–as well as Frankie Valli solo singles like “These Eyes Adored You” and the work of Bob Gaudio (keyboardist/backing vocalist in the Four Seasons) with Neil Diamond and Barba Streisand–have made it easy to characterize The Four Seasons’ music as a throwback to some bygone era that has little or no relevance to the here and now.
But that would be a mistake. Ultimately, The Four Seasons’ mainstream success is less revealing than the musical risks they took along the way, many of which didn’t pay off. With that in mind, here are four reasons to respect The Four Seasons:
1. The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette: This 1969 album looked and sounded nothing like what the world had come to expect from The Four Seasons. The original cover was a mock newspaper front page with the banner headline “American Crucifixion And Resurrection,” accompanied by below-the-fold stories like “Human Torch Has Misgivings” and “Tomorrow’s New In Brief,” with an eight-page “newspaper” insert inside. Apart from an easily overlooked “the 4 seasons edition” in the upper-right corner of the masthead, the cover gives no indication who the actual recording artist is.
The songs contained within don’t offer many clues, either. Here was a band who just five years earlier had topped the pop charts with “Dawn (Go Away),” which contained wide-eyed lyrics like: “I want you to think what your family would say / Think what you’re throwing away / Now think what the future would be / With a poor boy like me.”
Compare that to the opening lines of “American Crucifixion”: “Unbound slaves stand outside the gate / With lengths of broken chain they wait / Empty stomachs filled with hate / No one told the heads of state / The prince of peace is sleeping late.”
Besides its civil rights and anti-war lyrics, the album also boasted innovative chamber-pop arrangements and gorgeous vocal harmonies that, in their best moments, rivaled The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” Small wonder that Brian Wilson and John Lennon both numbered it among their favorite albums.
2. Chameleon: The Four Seasons signed to Motown for this appropriately titled 1972 album, which took the Motor City Sound in previously unexplored directions. The must-hear track is “The Night,” a bass-heavy single that could practically be mistaken for the German trance band Can, at least until the group’s trademark harmonies barge in at the half-minute mark.
The single never charted in America, but it did become an underground hit in Britain’s Northern Soul scene, where dance-club deejays would tape white labels over their vinyl singles so that rival crate-diggers couldn’t see what they were playing. Nearly three years later, “The Night” reached No. 7 on the UK singles chart. It has since been covered by Lene Lovich, Soft Cell and Pulp.
3. “Watertown”: You won’t find this one on any Four Seasons playlist, mainly because they didn’t record it. “Watertown” was a concept album that Gaudio co-wrote and produced for Frank Sinatra while The Four Seasons were on hiatus. A profoundly moving song-suite with a storyline that I won’t ruin here, it was singled out by “The Paris Review” as Sinatra’s best album, his most enduring contribution to American culture, and his “one chance to be truly felt by listeners hundreds of years from now.” By this point, Sinatra had more than 50 albums under his belt. This would be the first not to make it into the Top 100.
4. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”: The fourth reason to respect America’s best-known white vocal group is that they have, well, soul. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”—a 1967 single written and produced by Gaudio and Bob Crewe that was released under Frankie Valli’s name—has since been covered by nearly 200 artists, from Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin to Nancy Wilson and Lauryn Hill.
So there you have it. If you’re still not convinced that The Four Seasons are worth taking seriously, that’s fine. But you’re missing out.
Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons: The Last Encores
Sunday, November 12, 7:30 pm