During their nearly 40-year career, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons have sold over 100 million records, making them the most long-lived and successful white doo-wop group. Lead singer Valli (whose three-octave range and falsetto are the group's trademark) has also maintained a successful solo career.
Valli, sometimes billed under his real name and later as Valley (after Texas Jean Valley, a country singer who had encouraged him as a child), began singing in his mid-teens with the Newark vocal groups the Romans and the Varietones. The Varietones, which included Hank Majewski and the DeVito brothers, eventually became the Four Lovers. The Lovers' "You're the Apple of My Eye," a tune songwriter Otis Blackwell gave them in exchange for their not recording "Don't Be Cruel" (which he then gave to Elvis Presley), was a hit in 1956, and they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The Four Lovers became the Four Seasons (named after a Jersey cocktail lounge) with the addition of Bob Gaudio, formerly of the Royal Teens and composer of their hit, "Short Shorts." As the group's chief songwriter, Gaudio changed the Four Seasons' repertoire and sound, which were later refined by producer Bob Crewe. After a single "Bermuda," flopped, they again became the Four Lovers and returned to the clubs. They also served as Crewe's production group, arranging, performing, and providing instrumental and vocal backing in singles Crewe produced for other singers. This arrangement continued until 1962, when Valli, desperate over the group's lack of success, nearly quit the band. Then the group recorded a song by Gaudio, "Sherry." After the song was featured on American Bandstand, the Four Lovers became the Four Seasons once again, and within months "Sherry" hit #1.
The follow-up, "Big Girls Don't Cry," also went to #1, and over the next five years (until Valli's first solo hit, "I Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" in 1967), the Four Seasons had 50 hits, including "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (in an arrangement later imitated by Bruce Springsteen) (#23, 1962); "Walk Like a Man" (#1), "Ain't That a Shame" (#22), and "Candy Girl" (#3) in 1963; "Dawn" (#3), "Girl Come Running" (#30), "Let's Hang On" (#3), and "Working My Way Back to You" (#9) in 1965; "Opus 17 (Don't Worry 'bout Me)" (#12), "I've Got You Under My Skin" (#9), and "Tell It to the Rain" (#10) in 1966; "Beggin'" (#16), "C'mon Marianne" (#9), and "Watch the Flowers Grow" (#30) in 1967.
The group left Vee-Jay over a royalty dispute in 1964, and by 1965 was recording for Philips, continuing its string of hits, which ended abruptly with its excursion into psychedelia, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. (It had also recorded several singles, including a cover of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" in 1965 under the pseudonym the Wonder Who.) As the 1960s closed, the group's popularity waned. By the time it signed to Motown's Mowest subsidiary, in 1971, Valli and Gaudio were the only original members left, and a $1.4 million debt had taken its toll.
In 1972 Crewe, whose independent label had folded, joined the group at Mowest. But even with the Crewe-Gaudio-Valli team intact, none of its singles hit. The release of a 1972 LP, The Night, was canceled, and the group toured supporting the Four Tops and the Vandellas. Valli's 10-year-old hearing problem (diagnosed as otosclerosis, excessive calcium deposits in the ear) became critical. (Faced with the possibility of going deaf, Valli underwent surgery in 1976.) Meanwhile, Gaudio retired from performing to concentrate on writing and producing. In 1973 one Gerald Zelmanowitz testified before a Senate subcommittee that the Four Seasons had ties to organized crime, a charge he later retracted,
Valli signed a solo contract with Private Stock in 1974 and soon had several hits, including "My Eyes Adored You" (#1, 1975), "Swearin' to God" (#6, 1975), and a cover of Ruby and the Romantics' "Our Day Will Come" (#11, 1975). The Four Seasons had almost ceased to exist, but in 1975 they made a comeback with one of their biggest-selling singles "Who Loves You" (#3), followed the next year by "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)" (#1, 1976). Shortly before a 1977 tour, Valli announced —with some bitterness —that he wound never work with the Four Seasons again, although he and Gaudio have retained co-ownership of the group and its name. But despite Valli's solo success ("Grease" hit #1 and sold over 7 million copies), the Four Seasons re-formed in 1980 with Gaudio, Valli, guitarist Don Ciccone (former lead singer of the Critters and a Season since 1974), keyboardist Jerry Corbetta (ex-lead singer of Sugarloaf), guitarist Larry Lingle, and drummer Gerry Polci (who had been singing with the group since 1973).
In 1984 Valli and Gaudio formed FBI Records, and the Four Seasons teamed with the Beach Boys for the single "East Meets West." Valli has appeared in the films Eternity and Modern Love. In 1990 the original members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Thanks to the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the Four Seasons' "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)" reentered the Hot 100 and became the longest-running single in the chart's history, with over 50 weeks total. The group, which now fluctuates around Valli (Gaudio no longer performs live), remains successful on the oldies circuit.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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