Monday, May 6, 2013

The Four Seasons

Their first wave of success can be traced back as far as 1956. That and the fact that to date, they have sold over 100 million records (let's just pause while we try to envision one million of, envision that a hundred times...ok, enough, my head is beginning to hurt...) says that these guys are the most long-lived and successful male vocal group ever. They are The Four Seasons. Make no mistake people, they came, they saw, and they kicked ass.
The group was formed by Francis Castelluccio, or as we now know him, Frankie Valli, as The Variatones with brothers Nick and Tommy DeVito on guitars and Hank Majewski on bass guitar in 1954. Several name changes later, they became The Four Lovers in 1956. In 1958 the group started working with producer Bob Crewe doing mainly session work. In addition to this they worked the club circuit and pretty much any gigs they could find. They found themselves at a show in Baltimore supporting The Royal Teens who had a major hit at the time called "Short Shorts". The song was co-written by the Royal Teens' guitarist, the then 15-year old Bob Gaudio. A year later, Gaudio would join The Four Lovers replacing Nick DeVito.  

Around the same time bassist Majewski left to be replaced by Charles Calello, who hung around until 1960 when he left to be replaced by Nick Massi. The first turning point for the group came later that year when they failed an audition to work at a New Jersey bowling alley. To quote Bob Gaudio, "we figured we'll come out of this with something, so we took the name of the bowling alley. It was called The Four Seasons".
Under Crewe's direction the group recorded a Gaudio composition called "Sherry" and solicited different labels for its release. The song made an impression with the people at Vee-Jay Records, who signed the group and released their first album in 1962 with "Sherry " as the single. It turned out to be not only their first hit, but also their first #1 release.

The group by this time had comfortably settled into their unique style and sound. The major identifying factor of this sound was the one-of -a-kind voice of Frankie Valli. Valli posessed a tenor voice with a distinctive falsetto that was described as stratospheric by some, shrill by others. At any rate, his voice along with the group's doo-wop influenced harmonies and the well-crafted pop songs written by Crewe and Gaudio were embraced by record buyers as evidenced by the string of hits that followed "Sherry", including the two follow-up singles "Big Girls Don't Cry" and Walk Like A Man", both also going to #1.
During the period of 1962 to early 1964 the group was rivaled only by The Beach Boys in terms of record sales in the U.S. What set them apart was the fact that with their first three singles on the Vee-Jay label, they became the first rock group to have three consecutive #1 hits on the Billboard charts. Despite the Four Season's commercial success however, Vee-Jay underwent financial problems that caused royalty disputes with The Four Seasons that ended up with both parties in court in 1964. A settlement was reached in 1965, but after several big-selling albums and little money from Vee-Jay, the group left to sign with the Phillips label, distributed by Mercury Records. When Vee-Jay finally went bankrupt in 1966, the Four Seasons' Vee-Jay catalog reverted to the group and was reissued by Phillips. This made any Four Seasons record with a Vee-Jay label valuable collector's items.

Even while going through legal battles and a change of label, The Four Seasons kept making hits without missing a beat, their popularity undiminished. Nor did the onslaught of the British Invasion affect their star power. They were in fact the only rock group to have a #1 Hot 100 hit before, during and after The Beatles had their Top 100 #1 hits. In the March 21,1964 edition of the Billboard Top 100, it took no less than three Beatles songs on the charts at the same time to keep The Four Seasons' hit "Dawn (Go Away)" from the #1 spot.

The group consistently churned out many more top 20 singles all the way up until 1969 when their popularity faded due to rock fans' interests shifting to harder edged rock, deeper RnB, and socially conscious lyrics. The group struggled through leaving the Phillips label, a one-off single with Warner Brothers Records and a frustrating period with Motown Records with one tanking single after another. The group started to bill themselves as Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons, but even this did not improve their status, though Valli had begun recording as a solo artist in addition to working with the group. Finally, two things happened that broke the Four Seasons' losing with Warner Brothers...and the Disco Era.

"Who Loves You", a huge dance-floor hit, went to #3 on the U.S. charts and was a top 10 song in the U.K. At the same time in 1975, Valli had a #1 song with "My Eyes Adored You", a ballad that was certified double platinum. The group by this time had added two more lead singers, Don Ciccone and Gerry Polci. This eased the vocal load on Frankie Valli, who was suffering from a gradual hearing loss (this was later corrected with surgery). Valli followed up with another big hit, capitalizing on the disco craze with the dance number "Swearin' To God" peaking at #6 on the Top 100. The group itself opened 1976 with another disco-ready song, "December 1963(Oh What A Night)", which became the Four Seasons' fifth #1 release. This song had Polci singing the verses with Valli singing the bridge part and background vocals. The song was co-written by Gaudio and his future wife at the time, Judy Parker.

After 1978 and Valli's #1 single "Grease" from the soundtrack of the movie of the same name, The Four Seasons' top 40 hits were now behind them. They did however, remain a popular touring act with Valli remaining the only constant among changing personnel.
The group was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990 and The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame In 1999.
In 2005 Jersey Boys, the four-time Tony Award winning play chronicling the group's carreer opened on Broadway and is still hugely popular with productions in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Not bad for a bunch of guys from Newark.

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