It’s October, and the leaves in Frankie Valli’s manicured backyard are drifting from the trees, exactly as they do in New Jersey. Except Valli’s home is in a gated community in Calabasas, California.
When he moved into the two-story, stone residence—none of that standard So-Cal Spanish-style stucco for him—he had one requirement: “I told the guy I want trees that lose their leaves. He said, ‘It’s going to cost you a lot of money.’ I said, ‘I don’t care about that. I need to feel the change. I’m not really a palm tree guy.” Valli wanted oaks and maples, the shade trees of his Newark boyhood. And he got them, cost be damned.
When you’ve experienced the success of this Jersey boy, the four seasons come to you.
These days he returns to New Jersey primarily to perform, recently at the Borgata in Atlantic City. The lavish casino is a far cry from the old Steel Pier, where in their early days Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons followed the diving horse. “We’d start at 11:30 in the morning, and finish at 11:30 at night,” he says, adding with typical understatement, “Everything got better after that.”
Things have never been better for Valli than they are right now, at age 73. He’s riding the success of the quadruple Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys, the Broadway smash that weaves the story of the group’s high times and sometimes low lives out of their trove of Top 40 hits. This fall he released his first new studio album in fifteen years, Romancing the ’60s. The CD was produced by fellow Four Seasons alum Bob Gaudio, Valli’s business partner for more than 45 years. Together, they own the Four Seasons publishing rights and master recordings, which means more good things for them as new productions of Jersey Boys pop up around the country, and, next March, in London’s West End. “[Our partnership has] lasted longer than any of our marriages, so what can I tell you?” Valli says. “Everybody should start a relationship with a handshake and live a couple of states away from each other.”
Valli—whose stage name began as a tribute to Jean Valley, a female singer he admired—was born Francis Stephen Castelluccio. He grew up in the Stephen Crane Village public housing project, the eldest of three sons. His father made displays for the Lionel train company.
A man of his time, the elder Castelluccio was undemonstrative with his children. Valli has gone to the opposite extreme, and is proud of it. He has 13-year-old twin boys and a 20-year-old son from a third marriage and a daughter in her 40s. (As fans of Jersey Boys know, he lost another daughter to a drug overdose.) “When I’m with my kids I tell them I love them so many times a day. Sometimes they tell me, ‘you just told me that,’ and I go, ‘I know, but I wanted to tell you again.’”
Emotional security and approval was scarce for Valli in his Newark days. As a kid, all he knew was that he wanted to sing—and look good doing it. The sharply dressed mobsters in his neighborhood impressed him. “These guys wore the best clothes I ever saw in my life,” he says. “I used to dream about wearing a suit like that. All their shirts were handmade.”
He emulated the mobsters’ sartorial style but knew better than to follow their path. “I never wanted to be owned by anybody,” he says. “And I’m saying the truth—some of my closest friends were found in the trunks of cars.”
He didn’t always stay on the right side of the law. In his mid-teens, he was arrested for breaking and entering. “I got probation and a great lesson when my parents saw my condition when I was released,” he says. “I had a pretty bad beating [by the police], and I saw my dad cry. That did it for me. I said, ‘That’s it.’”
Music became his salvation. By the time he was seventeen, he was performing for $5 a night at the Club Rendezvous in Kearney as part of the Varietones, a group started by Belleville’s Tommy DeVito. “I worked there for sixteen months and we never got a raise,” he says. “We left there, and the next job, at the Silhouette, was $12 a night.”
The Varietones morphed into the Four Lovers, with Bergenfield’s Gaudio and Newark’s Nick Massi rounding out the quartet. Within a few years Valli was outearning his dad without ever touring outside New Jersey. In 1960, the Four Lovers auditioned for a gig at the Four Seasons bowling alley and lounge in Union. They didn’t get the gig, but came away with a new name. In 1962 they scored their first of eight Number Ones, with “Sherry.”
For the next two decades—as backup singers came and went, leaving Valli the only remaining founding member—the hits kept coming. Valli’s soaring falsetto, instantly recognizable and effortless, branded a succession of catchy melodies and hooks into the frontal lobes of his generation.
Despite their sweet sounds, the Four Seasons were rough-and-tumble guys. Both Massi, who died in 2000, and DeVito served prison time, or as Valli puts it, “went away.” It was that checkered past that concerned Valli when he was approached about licensing Jersey Boys. But he’s convinced, and rightly so, that the show’s success is due not only to the resilient music, but to the play’s frank and accurate depictions of the singers’ lives.
“We hid for so long all these things that were going on,” Valli says. “The world had not really known about it, and we were afraid if they found out, that would be the end.” More than the womanizing, more than the mob connections, Valli feared during the band’s tenure that his arrest record would come to light.
“I mean, you know, how could this little, clean-cut-looking guy, who came from a poor family, be arrested?”
The success of Jersey Boys has given Valli a bigger paycheck for his 70 annual concerts. When he performed five shows at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater in November, he moved one step closer to a new goal—performing a one-man Broadway show while Jersey Boys is still extant in the theater district.
Though Valli has lived in California off and on for 35 years (exclusively for the last 15), the nuances of his Jersey accent remain. He frequently ends sentences with “you know what I mean?” or “OK?”
“I do belong to Jersey,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that in my mind. They have been so loyal and so good to me, how could I possibly belong any place else?”
Along with renewed fame and wealth, Jersey Boys has given him something less tangible but ultimately more rewarding. “I’m seeing an industry that is finally accepting us,” he says. “I’ve always said, ‘I’m a people’s act.’ Show business is a lot of free tickets, a lot of hangers-on. But Bob Gaudio and [Four Seasons’ co-writer/producer] Bob Crewe deserved awards, they really did.”
Surprisingly, the Four Seasons never won a Grammy. Gaudio finally won one this year—for producing the Jersey Boys cast album. Valli remains sore that the Four Seasons were not inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame until its fifth year.
Still, he considers his biggest victory to be the exorcism of shame about his past. “I feel really good that I’ve come to a point in my life where all the things I was afraid anybody would know are now out there,” Valli says, placing his hand over his heart. “It just feels great, and I hope it gives hope to anybody who goes to see this play, to anyone who has ever done anything that they were embarrassed or ashamed of. They still have a shot in life.”Click here to leave a comment