Out here on the West Coast, you people don't know from Italians. Oh, you may know some guy with dark hair whose last name ends in a vowel, but chances are he's as much a mayonnaise aficionado as any Smith or Jones on the block, and when he's feeling particularly ethnic, he probably dines at the Olive Garden, slathering blue cheese dressing all over his salad.
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, I knew from Italians. Several of my friends had scary fathers who looked and acted like Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos. They wore stained wife-beaters, their garishly decorated homes smelled of garlic, and they had Sinatra records playing day and night upstairs—and upstairs was always off-limits to kids.
Downstairs was another story, though. In basements throughout upstate New York in the mid-'60s, records by the likes of the Four Seasons, Dion, Lou Christie and the Young Rascals were being worn out by teenagers sporting skin-tight clothes, pointy-toed shoes and ridiculously big hair.
And now, almost 40 years hence, I am here to put forth the proposition that Italian-Americans have been shortchanged in the music history books. Everyone talks about the contributions African-Americans and Hispanics and Jews made to rock & roll, but Italians may have had more pure style than all of them. Well, okay—not the blacks. But I digress.
Frankie Valli agrees with me, and of course he ought to. This man, oozing olive-oil charisma and lan, led the Four Seasons on to immortality and a 1990 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction with such spaghetti-soul classics as "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Dawn," "Candy Girl" and "Rag Doll."
"I personally think it was blacks and Italians where rock & roll started—that's where doo-wop was derived," says Valli. "The doos were the black guys, and the wops were the Italian guys. Every street corner in the neighborhood I grew up in, there was a black group, an Italian group, or a mixed group of blacks and Italians, hanging out on street corners, singing doo-wop."
Valli sang in a piercing falsetto so impossibly loud and showy it sounded as if his testicles were about to pop out of his eye sockets, while the Seasons provided lush background harmony and goofy dance steps. The equivalent out here was the Beach Boys, but the music those Wilson brothers chirped out was decidedly more suburban and less manly than the Seasons' switchblade symphonies—no matter what dorky West Coast rock critics assert to the contrary.
"The Beach Boys were the West Coast influence of music, and we were the East Coast," says Valli. "They were very whitebread."
Valli adopts a pinched, nasal and perfectly unpleasant vocal tone and starts to sing, "Now East Coast girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear. . . ."
No longer able to contain himself—and no doubt plotting Brian Wilson's assassination in the back of his mind—Valli erupts in a fit of cruel, Italian-person laughter. Suddenly remembering to be politically correct, he gathers himself.
"Ahhh, but they were terrific," he says unconvincingly. "Some of their harmonies on songs like 'Good Vibrations' and 'Don't Worry Baby' were very jazz-influenced. The Four Seasons was a different thing than that, though. It was kids from the ghetto, from the wrong side of the tracks."
Those early Four Seasons records had an incalculable overall influence on pop music. The hard 4/4 beat was appropriated by Motown, Bob Gaudio's opulent production and arrangements were certainly noted by the Beatles and George Martin, and the Seasons' 1965 hit "Let's Hang On" was among the first singles from a popular band to employ fuzz guitar in its overtly psychedelic intro.
"It was a combination of a lot of things," says Valli. "Berry Gordy expressed to me several times that he copped his whole thing from the Four Seasons. But there were unique situations out there. There were a lot of special people out there back then, breaking new barriers, and every one of them sounded different."
Burned out by 40 years on the road, Valli recently took a year and half off—the first extended break of his career—to reassess his priorities. And upon evaluation, he decided to come home to where it all began.
"I went back to all the original records and listened to them again," he says. "What happens when you're out on the road for many years is you start to sing the songs differently than when you recorded them because you're looking to get off, too. After I listened to the old records and recordings of newer shows, I just felt like there were a lot of cases where we weren't in the pocket anymore, and I wanted to get back there. Then I decided to delete all the special material and album cuts that we'd been doing. If people are coming to see Frankie Valli, they're coming to hear all these songs that we made famous. So that's what I'm doing—a show that's nothing but hits, arranged and performed the way they were recorded originally."
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Among the songs you'll hear at the show will be all the expected Four Seasons hits plus Valli's familiar solo material: '60s pop classics such as "Working My Way Back to You" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," plus somewhat less-wonderful '70s disco fare such as "Grease," "Swearin' to God" and "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)." Hey, a guy's got to make a living, right?
Meanwhile, it seems that things really have come full circle for Valli. No longer the dapper young singing idol, Valli revealed that he'll be featured in the finale of this coming season's Sopranos, playing a scary old guido of the sort whose homes once hosted teenaged parties with Four Seasons' records blasting from the basement.
"They'd offered me to be in The Sopranosas Frankie Valli several times, and I said I'd rather not—what would that do for me?" he says. "Everybody already knows I'm a singer. Al Martino was in The Godfather—did that do anything for his career? So the role I'm doing is a New York boss, and of course the Sopranos is a New Jersey crew. We have some conversation. At this particular point, I can't say much more than that."
Frankie Valli performs at the Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella, Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Sat., 8:30 p.m. $48.50. All ages.