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POP MUSIC | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

They're working their way back

The 4 Seasons, those gaudy Jersey poets of the '60s, made a magical mix that endures.

June 17, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

SO long, Jersey boss; hello, "Jersey Boys."

Tony Soprano and company checked out last week, but Frankie Valli and his musical muscle, the 4 Seasons, are looming large on the cultural landscape, sustaining the Garden State mystique as the subject of "Jersey Boys."

The Broadway musical biography of the 1960s vocal group won four Tony Awards last year, including best musical, and a touring company started packing the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles earlier this month. The show also has a pending date to settle in next year at a new Las Vegas theater.

On the first Friday night of the Ahmanson engagement, most of the audience members appeared to be in their 40s and 50s, meaning they could have grown up listening to the 4 Seasons.

They talked eagerly before curtain about the songs listed in the program. They stomped, clapped and sang along when the actors performed "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man," and a few echoed them off-key in the men's room during intermission.

The buzz is definitely on.

Another listen to the songs

JUST one question: Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons? Ya gadda be kiddin'. (Sorry, that Jersey thing.)

Sure, they had an instantly identifiable sound and a lot of hits -- pop-music statistician Joel Whitburn ranks them fourth among 1960s record-makers in chart performance, behind only the Beatles, Elvis Presley and the Supremes.

But are these florid yet fundamental cries from rock 'n' roll's dead zone of the early '60s really the stuff of a Broadway-level musical? Do they have the narrative content to carry a story, or -- like ABBA's in "Mamma Mia!" -- the musical richness to make the story not so important?

Probably not, on either count, but the makers of these so-called jukebox musicals -- a booming genre bemoaned by serious-theater people but loved by audiences -- know that it's not just the songs, it's how the songs fit into the story.

Once we have a rooting interest in Frankie, Tommy, Nick and Bob, something like the primal intro of "Sherry" does more than tickle the memories, it launches us with them on the path toward stardom. Valli's solo hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" isn't just a quirky ballad, it becomes a triumph of artistic instinct over business calculation.

Nostalgia is also a big part of it, but it registers as more, largely because few among the living have ever heard, say, "Sherry" played live through high-quality gear. When that happens in "Jersey Boys" it's a revelation, redefining the song as a garage-rock precursor, with the guitar and handclap interlocking in a primal and aggressive hook.

It could be enough to inspire a visit with the original records. And whaddya know? Rhino has just put out a boxed set of three CDs and one DVD. Funny how things work out.

The 4 Seasons sprang from the same surroundings that nurtured other Italian American street-corner harmony groups in Eastern urban centers. Like Dion and the Belmonts, the Elegants, the Duprees and their brethren, they were steeped in African American doo-wop and R&B and also tugged by the traditions of American pop standards.

The 4 Seasons' producer, Bob Crewe, had had early success with R&B groups the Rays and Billie and Lillie and later would co-write LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade." "Jersey Boys" alludes to instances of the 4 Seasons' records being mistaken for the work of a black group, but whether or not that actually happened, the fact is that their first Top 40 hits were also successes on the R&B chart.

Three forces ultimately set the Newark quartet apart: chief songwriter Bob Gaudio's knack for crafting original, even eccentric material while staying in the commercial mainstream; producer Crewe's effective studio touch; and, indispensably, Valli's searing, unearthly falsetto. (He still unleashes it today, typically playing casinos and wineries but also occasionally in theater shows, like one coming up July 21 at the Kodak in Hollywood.)

Those ingredients combined in the early hits to create a sense of yearning and uncertainty that tempered the slicked-back, finger-popping swagger. Their first four hits, including "Candy Girl" in 1963, were a spirited part of the great pop-music mosaic that persisted even in the disparaged desert between prime Elvis and early Beatles.

In that strange time, music on pop radio lacked the urgency teenagers had experienced with rock 'n' roll's arrival in the mid-'50s. With Elvis not the same after the Army, Buddy Holly dead, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry exiled and the Brits not yet ready, it's no wonder a lot of kids drifted over to the folk scene. But while old-school crooners and creaky orchestra leaders were able to top the charts in the early '60s, you could also hear the likes of Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke and Johnny Cash. Motown was surfacing, and the girl groups, some powered by the eye-opening symphonic sound produced by Phil Spector, were bringing a new attitude to pop.

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