WASHINGTON — He’s arguably the most famous falsetto in rock ‘n roll history.
Now, music legend Frankie Valli croons into our area for three nights of shows, starting on Thursday night at the Hippodrome in Baltimore, then continuing Friday and Saturday at Warner Theatre in D.C.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun,” Valli told WTOP. “I’m sure they’ll have as much fun as we do.”
As you watch the 82-year-old legend perform, you’ll remark at how little his falsetto has changed.
“You may lose a note or two, one way or another, but you make up for it in different ways,” Valli said. “If you’re born with blue eyes or brown eyes or green eyes, they stay the same color right to the end.”
Audiences of all ages have come to appreciate his timeless music.
“We’ve been able to bridge generations [and] ‘Jersey Boys’ had an awful lot to do with that,” Valli said. “People are going to see ‘Jersey Boys’ and find out they didn’t realize we had as many hits as we did.”
Yes, Broadway’s “Jersey Boys” has cemented Valli’s life story as a piece of pop culture, chronicling his rags-to-riches rise from the street corners of Newark, New Jersey, where he honed his singing style.
“I guess I was a dreamer, one of those kinds of kids that used to imagine becoming successful,” Valli said. “I did a lot of street-corner singing, and I came from a relatively poor environment. Dreams is the thing that got a lot of us through in those days. … I had never really taken any professional [singing] lessons. I just thought everybody could do what I could do. It’s like talking! That’s just what I thought.”
His life changed when he met future bandmate Tommy DeVito.
“Tommy DeVito and I were basically from the same neighborhood,” Valli said. “He was with a trio called The Variety Trio. They’d work local clubs. I’d go in the club and they’d call me up to sing. At one point, he offered me a job [and] we became The Four Lovers and we had some regional success.”
The Four Lovers originally consisted of Valli (vocals, drums), DeVito (lead guitar), Henry Majewski (rhythm guitar) and Nicolas DeVito (bass). Together, they played “The Ed Sullivan Show” three times, exposure that introduced them to producer Bob Crewe, who signed the group to a contract in 1958.
Along the way, bassist Nick Massi joined the quartet, along with keyboardist and songwriter Bob Gaudio, who had just penned the smash hit “Short Shorts” for a young group called The Royal Teens.
“I met Bob and I found he was from New Jersey,” Valli recalled. “He was writing songs, he played me some songs, and I liked the songs he was writing. [So,] I told Tommy DeVito that I thought he’d be great in the group. Tommy was against it [initially], so I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
One night, the group was leaving a gig at a bowling alley, when Valli got an idea for a name change.
“We were not having any success yet, we were just recording,” Valli said. “We auditioned for a club that was also a bowling alley called The Four Seasons. We didn’t get the job, and on the way out, I looked up [at the sign] and said, ‘What a great name for a group.’ Then it just went away, then finally we decided when we recorded ‘Sherry’ that we were going to change the name to The Four Seasons.”
While “Sherry” (1962) remains one of the group’s biggest hits, the song didn’t catch fire right away.
“We went in and recorded it, and we felt that we had something,” Valli recalled. “We finally did get it released, and it wasn’t an instant hit. It took about six or eight weeks before we could get any major radio play. But once it did get it, it just shot right through and became a No. 1 record.”
It sparked three straight No. 1 hits with “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (1962) and “Walk Like a Man” (1963).
“Crewe and Gaudio were writing [and] we were just doing songs because we liked them,” Valli said, declining to pick a favorite of his early hits. “They’re all favorites, like your children, you know?”
Other hits followed: “Stay” (1963), “Rag Doll” (1964), “Bye Bye Baby” (1965), “Working My Way Back to You” (1966) and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” (1975), which initially had a different title.
“It originally was about Prohibition,” Valli said. “I went to my partner Bob and said, ‘This lyric, nobody is gonna understand it. Kids are not going to understand Prohibition.’ We almost took it off the list of songs we were going to do, because there was such discussion on the lyric. Bob went home that night and rewrote the lyric and the lyric was, ‘Oh, what a night, late December back in ’63,’ and it was a hit.”
Valli also spun off into solo efforts, including such smash hits as “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (1967) and “My Eyes Adored You” (1974). Suddenly, Valli’s fans began noticing more of a big-band sound.
“[Breaking off solo] was something we had always planned we were going to do,” Valli said. “It was the kind of music that I was originally interested in doing. At the outset, from the beginning of when we started recording, I didn’t really want to do pop music. I was more into jazz, and songs like ‘My Eyes Adored You’ and ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ and “Swearin’ to God’ were more big-band oriented.”
The gamble paid off, as Valli’s big-band crooning sparked major pop-culture moments. Long before Heath Ledger sang “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on the bleachers in “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken sang it at a pool hall in “The Deer Hunter” (1978).
“We were really thrilled when that happened,” Valli said with pride at the Best Picture Oscar winner.
That same year, Valli recorded the title theme for “Grease” (1978), written by Barry Gibb, who had also just penned the soundtrack for a different John Travolta movie: “Saturday Night Fever” (1977).
“Barry Gibb called and said he wrote a song that was right for me,” Valli said. “It was going to be the title song for a movie. He sent it to my house, I listened to it, I loved it, we went in and recorded it. I’m sure if he knew it was going to be as big a hit as it was, he probably would’ve kept it for The Bee Gees.”
While “Grease” was a musical classic, Valli couldn’t have predicted his own life story would become one of the biggest Broadway hits of all time. Featuring a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, “Jersey Boys” (2005) won four Tonys, including Best Musical, sparking an era of jukebox musicals.
“I thought it was terrific,” he said. “Except I thought it was strange watching somebody play me. It was a little bizarre, but I got used to it very quickly. I was there when they auditioned John Lloyd Young.”
Young returned for the 2014 movie version. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film got mixed reviews.
“Clint Eastwood is a sensational director, but there are a lot of things about the movie that I did not agree on,” Valli said, declining to elaborate on flaws. “It’s past, I’m not looking to dance on anybody.”
Eastwood isn’t the only movie “tough guy” that Valli has encountered over the years. In fact, Valli knew future Oscar winner Joe Pesci (“Goodfellas”) way back in the early days coming up in Jersey.
“Joe Pesci is another guy that lived in the same neighborhood, that’s where we knew him,” Valli said. “He was pretty much the same. Becoming successful as an actor didn’t really change him as a person.”
Valli doesn’t appear to have changed either, even after decades of success beyond his wildest dreams.
When WTOP congratulated him on his upcoming 83rd birthday, Valli jokingly corrected the record.
“No, 38,” Valli said with a laugh.