Romancing the 00s
by Jay S. Jacobs
Frankie Valli has been such an in-your-face presence in music and pop culture for so many decades that it is kind of shocking when you realize that his CD Romancing the 60s is his first album of new material in 28 years.
After all, this is a guy who was recording even before Elvis got his start. Valli’s long stint as the lead singer of The Four Seasons created such timeless hits as “Let’s Hang On,” “Dawn (Go Away),” “Working My Way Back To You,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)” Valli and his band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and are also the inspiration for the Broadway smash Jersey Boys. As a solo artist, Valli also has made a huge mark, chalking up smash hits like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “Swearin’ To God,” “My Eyes Adored You” and “Grease.”
Valli’s return to recording comes with Romancing the 60s, his tribute to the hitmakers who he came up with in the music biz. Valli wraps his voice around such classic love songs of the decade as “This Guy’s In Love with You,” “Spanish Harlem,” “My Girl,” “Call Me” and “My Cherie Amour.”
A few weeks before the release of Romancing the 60s, Valli was kind enough to sit down and talk to us about his legendary career.
When you started singing, could you have ever imagined that over fifty years later you’d still be singing as a career?
To be perfectly honest with you, when I first started singing, I did it because I loved it. There were no thoughts about success or anything, I was just happy singing. To look back at it now and where it’s taken me, it’s amazing. I’m very grateful for the success that I’ve had. I appreciate it and love doing it and I’m very thankful for the fact that I’m still able to do it.
Neither of your parents sang – at least professionally. How did you know you wanted to be a singer?
I don’t know. As a kid, I always sang. I listened to the radio and back in the day they used to sell a magazine called Hit Parade and it had the lyrics to all the songs on it. I would listen to a radio station that would play all the hit songs and I’d have the lyrics and I’d sing along.
It was difficult for most artists to balance a solo career and work together with a group for long periods of time – however you were mostly able to do that with the Four Seasons. Was that hard sort of having two careers? How did you decide what songs were good for the group and good for yourself? For example, you tended to use the falsetto less in your solo singles.
Well, in actuality, the stuff I was recording was a little different than we would record as a group effort. I never really found that much difficulty in balancing it. They were two entirely different things. It’s like: how can you talk and walk at the same time? It’s a matter of how can you sing and be an actor? Or have hobbies and do other things in you life? I like singing, so it really didn’t matter whether I was singing with a group or singing solo.
You have a very distinctive singing style with the falsetto. I know that when you started out, it was a big style with doo wop, but your work has long outlived that. Why do you think it works best for you? Is it just the most natural way for you to sing?
Well, I think actually I’m really stronger in the baritone with the vibe range. It’s not that there’s a preference or anything. It’s a stroke of art, falsetto. Or a different flavor. It was terrific to be able to have it and use it, but under normal circumstances, even when I was growing up and I was singing, there was a combination and variation of different kinds of music I was listening to. I listened to a lot of jazz and a lot of R&B. There was a combination. In R&B they were using falsetto, but in most cases they used it as background. We decided to use it in a much stronger way as the lead and became very successful with it.
Your music is now being exposed to a whole new generation of fans now through the musical Jersey Boys. Were you surprised when the idea of a musical came up and by how popular it became? How involved were you with the play?
The musical was an idea that we had for a very long time. We thought there was a story here about the four of us – especially since we all came from rather poor backgrounds. [It’s] a human interest side of guys who grew up in poor neighborhoods, some who had trouble with the law – and went on to become successful. Fortunately for us, we had a great success with it. There’s a human interest side of it and a part of our lives that the public had not really known about.
You recorded the song “On Broadway” with the Jersey Boys on your new CD. Was it fun to work with them?
Yes it was. It was a lot of fun. Something a little different. The idea that the song be called “On Broadway” and they were appearing on Broadway. I think that even as a kid – going to New York City, walking Broadway and the theater district, seeing the marquees of different stars appearing on Broadway was very inspirational.
Romancing the 60s is your first solo album in 28 years. What gave you the itch to record again?
Well, we had a call from a record company who asked if we’d be interested in doing an album. We thought about what kind of an album we would do and the 60s seemed to be a great idea because there were many, many songs in the 60s that have withstood the test of time. It was a good feel for me because I some of them were my favorite songs.
There are so many great romantic songs from the sixties – many that you had recorded – was it hard to pick just fourteen of those for Romancing the 60s?
It really was. We must have listened to hundreds of songs.
Do you think you might be doing more of these albums in the future to cover some songs you couldn’t include?
I’m not too sure. The record business is in a very strange place. I still would like to do more recordings, but I’m not sure whether I want to just go in and record rock and roll oldies. There are a lot of standards. As I said, my main thrust in this business was jazz I grew up listening to as a kid.
That would be another good idea. These are romantic songs of the 60s. Do you think you may do more in this series looking at some of the other sides of that or other eras – i.e. soulful, protest, story songs or like you said more jazz-oriented things?
Well, you get the portfolio of writers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and the Gershwins and Rodgers & Hart – I mean the list goes on.
I noticed that you picked two songs each from the Drifters and Burt Bacharach to record. Were these artists particular favorites of yours?
Yes they were. And the songs were also. It wasn’t just artists. It was songs, so the writers played a very, very important part in that. Burt Bacharach and Hal David are two incredible writers. Carole King. Leiber and Stoller in that period of time that they were writing songs. There was just a slew of really great, talented people that came from that period.
Well, speaking of great songwriters from that time, the new CD – as much of your work – was produced by Bob Gaudio. The two of you have been working together for since the early 60s. Why do you think the two of you get along so well working together and how does he bring out the best in you?
I think because we have a mutual respect for each other and for each other’s ability and talent. Bob Gaudio is in that category of some of the best writing that I’ve seen. That’s what brought us together right from the beginning.
Last year Rhino released a box set of your music with and without the Four Seasons. How gratifying was it to see your whole career laid out like that and get some exposure for some songs people won’t necessarily find on the hits albums?
It’s always gratifying. One of the hardest things for me is the fact that we have in the course of years from ’62 – with all the albums that we’ve recorded, there’s so much material that the public is not aware of. I would like to one day take some of the obscure [songs] and put an album or two like that together. Because some of the songs that never had a chance, I think, are as good as some of those that made it very big.
That box set also had a DVD, which showed that the Four Seasons were into filming music videos – for stuff like “Who Loves You” and “December 1963” – long before MTV. Have you always been interested in the visual aspect of music?
Yes we were. The problem we had in most cases was that we were never locked into a major record company who had the money to spend to do those kinds of things. So there wasn’t as much of that… and maybe that was good. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that the play was so successful, because there wasn’t that much that anybody knew about us except the music.
Speaking of “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” several years ago that song returned to the top of the charts in a remixed version. How much of a surprise was that? What did you think of the changes the mixers made in the songs to make it more dance-oriented and “modern?”
You know, I’m a firm believer that a good song is a good song, no matter when it’s done. I mean, the Lauryn Hill version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” is another great example. Songs can be done lots of different ways and by different people. The secret is to take a song and make it yours.
It’s interesting with your album of all covers that many of your songs have been recorded by others – obviously beyond the Jersey Boys, for example like you said, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” became a hit for Lauryn Hill, “Working My Way Back to You” for the Spinners and “Let’s Hang On!” for Barry Manilow. Is it interesting to you to see how other artists interpret songs that you are best known for recording?
It’s more interesting to see how big the hits become, because we’re involved in the publishing, so it’s very fruitful for us. It’s nice to see that people think that some of your work was that important and some of the songs you recorded were that important that they would like to cover them.
We mentioned Broadway a little earlier with Jersey Boys, but you are sort of represented on Broadway with another show as well. When you were asked to record the theme for the movie Grease did you have any idea that it would still be a cultural milestone three decades later? What was it like to work with the BeeGees on the song at the height of their popularity?
Well, the BeeGees were one of my all-time favorite groups. Barry Gibb wrote “Grease.” The first day I heard it, I felt it was a hit song. It feels terrific to have been able to be attached to a major motion picture like Grease and have the title song become a number one record.
You have done some acting over the years – most significantly on The Sopranos. What was that like? Would you like to do more?
Well, it was a lot of fun and certainly I’d like to do more as an actor. Unfortunately because of my performing schedule, it’s been rather difficult for me to really zero in on becoming an actor. But, occasionally, if an acting role comes about, I certainly would be thrilled to read for it.
Was The Sopranos role written specifically for you, or how did you get it?
Originally I auditioned for The Sopranos and didn’t get a role until four years later. Then I got to do seven episodes. I don’t know what the thinking behind it was. I know when I auditioned for [Sopranos creator] David Chase – who did a brilliant job with The Sopranos – he said the part I auditioned for; he didn’t feel was right for me. But he said “I really like your character and I’m going to find something for you. Or write something for you.” I thought he might possibly just be stroking me. Four years later, I got a call.
You’ve sort of, inadvertently apparently, become involved in the current Presidential race. Your single “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” was used on a McCain video against Obama – which was quickly pulled. Had they used the song without getting permission?
You know, I still haven’t made up my mind, until I see some Presidential debates. But, they did that without permission and that’s why it was taken off. Usually I really don’t get involved in politics. What I do for a living is entertain people. I’m not an expert on politics, although I may have a point of view. I do try to sort it out and try to figure out who the best is. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are Republican, Democrat or whatever they are. You try to find the people that you think would do a good job.
Radio has become so regimented over the years. When you were coming up, radio stations would play all types of music – rock, soul, country, jazz, doo wop – and that just doesn’t happen anymore. Do you think that can hinder newer artists from finding an audience?
I think it hinders radio. To have a broad scope of music and play something for everybody would be the way – if I had a radio station, that’s the way I would run it. Frankly, radio is falling apart, because it’s not doing that. Why would you want to listen to a station that played one particular kind of music all day long? And let’s not lose sight of the fact that it was called Top 40 radio and it played 40 records. Now they play the same ten songs or twelve songs over and over and over again.
You’ve had such a long and popular career – looking back how would you like people to see your work?
Probably as a guy who loved what he did and cared enough about his art to really want to do a good job and never take [fans] for granted.
Are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
Well, I find that the music business and the acting business and the theater business are all basically the same. There’s politics in every form of life, I guess. Being in the right place at the right time and having the right people like you or hanging out with the right people has an awful lot to do with successes. It’s not always an individual’s talent. There are probably more talented people – who have never really had an opportunity – than those who have made it.
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 25, 2008.