1960 to 1963 is a mini-era in the time we often like to focus on here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure, that being 1954 to 1963. The popular music being made for the kids at this time seemed to change from the harder, blues-R&B-based rock & roll of the Fifties to a cleaner, more innocent sound. Predominantly, these were the years of the vocal groups and group singing itself had pivoted away from the unadorned street corner doo-wop we know and love to a more polished sound. Harmonies, catchy melodies and often orchestras could be heard on records by groups from Motown and Phil Spector’s stable of artists. Perhaps the most successful purveyors of this sound at this time was Newark’s the Four Seasons.
The Four Lovers had been a group of singers and musicians who had had minor success on RCA Records in the late 1950’s. With only one successful single – “You’re the Apple of My Eye” (1956, #62 Pop) – the group was let go by RCA. The group stayed together, performing live and backing other singers. It was hard for me to understand at first but this vocal group was comprised of four singers, yes, but each member also played an instrument. The lead singer was Frankie Valli (b. 1934) who was joined by Bob Gaudio (b. 1942) on keyboards, Tommy DeVito (1928-2020) on guitar and Nick Massi (1927-2000) played bass. Performing and recording using upwards of 18 different stage names, the group continued plugging away until 1958 when Valli met Bob Crewe. Crewe (1930-2014) was a multi-talented record man who had co-written and produced one of the greatest doo-wop platters ever made, and one of my favourite songs ever, “Silhouettes” by the Rays. It was at this time that the group auditioned for a job as the house band at a Newark bowling alley. When they failed to land the gig, the group was dismayed but decided to keep going and make one last push for the big-time. They signed a deal with Crewe to help write and to produce their records and they adopted the name of the bowling alley where their failure had sparked their determination; “The Four Seasons”.
The team got right to work. Crewe and Gaudio collaborated and came up with the song “Sherry”. For his part, Frankie Valli approached the head of Vee-Jay Records who agreed to try the band out. When execs at Vee-Jay heard “Sherry” they signed a deal with them to release their records, making the Four Seasons the first white group signed to the label. In the fall of 1962, “Sherry” became a huge hit and has become an iconic record of the era. The group’s first nationally released single, it went right to the top of charts the world over, landing in the top spot of Billboard’s Pop and R&B charts; it stayed at #1 on the pop listings for five weeks. The song was inspired by Bruce Channel’s hit “Hey! Baby” and first sported the title “Jackie Baby” in honour of Jackie Kennedy.
Vee-Jay Records had also landed the rights to distribute the Beatles’ records in America. When orders for product by the Fab Four began flooding in, Vee-Jay was inundated and descended into financial distress. Subsequently, the label fell into litigation with the Four Seasons who weren’t being paid royalties by the label. Eventually, the Four Seasons took their business to Philips Records, a division of Mercury Records, where the group would have the bulk of their hits.
The Four Seasons became the rare act that was able to place their first three charting singles at the top of the Pop charts. In fact, it can be said that these songs rank among the most adored and recognizable songs of the golden era. Their second release came shortly after “Sherry”. “Big Girls Don’t Cry” hit the racks in October of ’62 and was written by the Bob’s, Crewe and Gaudio, and both had a different recollection of what film it was in which they heard the title spoken. Seems it was Slightly Scarlet (1956) starring John Payne and Rhonda Fleming. Like “Sherry” before it, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” topped both the Pop and R&B charts. The third single in this trio is “Walk Like a Man” released at the dawn of 1963. Featuring a great, strutting opening that indeed suggests walking like a man, this tune was also penned by the team of Crewe/Gaudio and features a sparkling vocal arrangement. Perhaps this record sounds so good even today because producer Crewe, feeling the group were really on to something, was determined to get it right; not even the threat of death was going to make him halt the session. In fact, firemen had received an emergency call that the studio above the one the Four Seasons were recording in was on fire. Smoke and water began to seep into the studio where “Walk Like a Man” was being created but Crewe barred the door to keep firemen out. Seems he was justified as the boys scored a rare third consecutive #1 Pop hit and another endearing and enduring recording.
The group would score a #3 hit later that summer with “Candy Girl” before things cooled at Vee-Jay and the boys awaited a change. Their next hit would be recorded while still at Vee-Jay but withheld while disputes raged. But the Four Seasons were able to recreate their initial chart run at Vee-Jay with an equally impressive opening salvo at their new home, Philips. “Dawn (Go Away)” was a #3 Pop hit early in 1964, remembered by many as the year of the Beatles. In fact, while “Dawn” was in the Top Ten, only songs by the lads from Merseyside ranked above it on the charts.
“Ronnie” (#6 Pop) followed and then the boys vaulted back to the number one slot in the summer of ’64 with “Rag Doll”. Yet another Crewe/Gaudio composition, the lyrics were inspired by a windshield-washing street urchin that Gaudio had encountered. Interestingly, the B side was Crewe/Gaudio’s “Silence is Golden”, a song that would later be a hit for the Tremoloes (#1 UK, 1966). And how about this; in 2010, the listeners of radio station WCBS in New York City voted “Rag Doll” the greatest song of all-time!
Over the next few years, the Four Seasons would maintain their successful run, placing five songs in the Top Ten of the Pop listings including 1966’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (#9) a standard that the Four Seasons presented in a stunning arrangement. Then in 1967, Frankie Valli had a solo smash hit with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, a gorgeous song that hit #2 and has become a contemporary standard.
Personal aside: I first heard “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” when I was a teenager. I was enamoured of the gentle verses but was jarred when the horns came in for the chorus and felt the way the lyrics were handled at this point in the song contrasted too much with the heartfelt verses. My buddy Ryan and I got a copy of the song on cassette and went about making an edit of sorts that contained only the verses on a loop. “You’re just too good to be true…pardon the way that I stare…” over and over. I thought I’d play it for a girl I liked at the time, Crystal, but was too chicken. Just as well; the song was 20 years old at the time. Who knows what she would have thought.
And here’s my chance to talk about that song’s arranger, Artie Schroeck. Jersey boy Schroeck (b. 1938) had been a musician and composer who had worked with Gene Krupa, Louis Prima and Lionel Hampton before going to work as a staff arranger. I make mention of him because of his accomplishments in this area. It’s a rare feat when you can take an established tune and give it a sparkling new arrangement while not losing the integrity of the original composition. There’s a separate post in here but I’m thinking of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. The original version by Gladys Knight and the Pips was simply an energetic R&B tune but when Marvin Gaye later covered it, he accentuated one particular riff in the original and made it the heartbeat of his legendary version. Herb Alpert took “What Now, My Love? (Et Maintenant)” and made it sound like no other version with his bouncy, popping horn (and it’s my 23rd-favourite song). Which brings me back to Artie.
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is a standard among standards. The Cole Porter tune may have had its most magnificent interpretation when Frank Sinatra recorded it for his seminal Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! album of 1956 (that recording is my second-favourite Frank tune). Schroeck came up with a celestial treatment for this song and the Four Seasons executed it brilliantly. Schroeck’s chart featured a dramatic pause in the action and he decided to pick a brief snippet of lyric – “Never win, never win…” – that would be repeated to lovely effect. Incidentally, Artie Schroeck also did a fine job arranging “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and would later go on to win multiple Clio Awards for his commercial work. He co-wrote the delightful “Lovin’ Things”, a hit for the Grass Roots and “Here’s to the Band” that Sinatra recorded late in the game. Artie Schroeck has relocated to Las Vegas where he still works with his wife, Linda November, who earned some fame singing over 22,000 advertising jingles including meowing her way to a bundle in residuals from Purina for her Meow Mix commercials.
All this brings to mind the fact that there is an interesting connection between the Four Seasons and Frank Sinatra. In 1969, Bob Gaudio prepared a handful of songs with Sinatra in mind and hoped to interest the Chairman in making a record. Frankie Valli approached Frank and sold him on the idea. Charles Calello – with Artie Schroeck, arranger for the Four Seasons – arranged and orchestrated the songs that would become Sinatra’s most underappreciated album, Watertown. But now back to the boys.
Frankie Valli’s solo success did not necessarily herald the end of the Four Seasons as the group, including Valli, continued to record up until the end of the 1960’s though their singles made no impact on the charts. Then in the mid-1970’s, the hits returned with records being released by Frankie Valli and by the Four Seasons. Valli had solo hits with “My Eyes Adored You” (#1), “Swearin’ to God” (#6) and “Grease” (#1) with the Four Seasons’ name adorning “Who Loves You” (#3) and the enduring “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” (#1). These last two were written by Bob Gaudio with his future wife, Judy Parker (1938-2017). Parker had been a minor actress who can be seen in Winter A-Go-Go (1965).
The Four Seasons, then, were perhaps the predominant vocal group of the first half of the 1960’s. Their biggest rivals were the Beach Boys and this may be the first instance of musical competition between East Coast and West Coast sounds. In fact, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys inserted an homage to – and a playful dig at – his Eastern counterparts in “Surfers Rule”. The Four Seasons responded in kind with a B side and album track, “No Surfin’ Today”. The two groups would actually combine to record “East Meets West” in 1984.
As we look at the numbers – as we always do here – we see that the Four Seasons began their impressive chart run at the very tail end of the golden era, the years we deal with often, 1954 to 1963. Up until the close of ’63, the group had charted 9 singles placing 7 in the Top 40 and four in the Top Ten, including the aforementioned three chart-toppers. But if we look at the entire career of the Four Seasons – and if we include “Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons”, “The Four Seasons featuring the ‘Sound’ of Frankie Valli” and “Frankie Valli” – we find 65 chart singles, 39 Top 40 hits with 19 landing in the Top Ten and seven topping the charts. The group has been such a force through the years that a telling of their story was warranted. Jersey Boys was a very successful Broadway show before becoming an excellent film directed by Clint Eastwood.
While the bulk of their hits may have come later in the decade, the music of the Four Seasons has come to exemplify the very essence of “oldies”. For many of us, they are the go-to group when the desire is to recapture and fully experience again the feeling and the mood of a simpler time.
10 from the Four Seasons/Frankie Valli
- Big Girls Don’t Cry
- Walk Like a Man
- Let’s Hang On!
- Working My Way Back to You
- Opus 17 (Don’t You Worry ’bout Me)
- I’ve Got You Under My Skin
- Can’t Take My Eyes Off You
- My Eyes Adored You
- December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)