Enter the home of Frankie Valli in Calabasas, Calif. (pop. 20,033), and you'll see little evidence of his accomplishments as a singing sensation who shook up the charts with a succession of hit pop singles spread across the 1960s and '70s. Except for one thing: an elegant trophy from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1990, alongside the other members of his singing group, The 4 Seasons.
"The rest of my stuff," says Valli almost apologetically, "is in a closet."
Even at 74, Valli continues to look the part of the dashing crooner whose piercing falsetto made female hearts flutter with "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Let's Hang On," "Working My Way Back to You," "Rag Doll" and other hits in the 1960s. After The 4 Seasons, he continued solo and remained a radio presence with "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," "My Eyes Adored You," "Swearin' To God" and "Grease," the title track to the 1978 movie.
Although he hasn't had a hit in almost 30 years, Valli's long list of successful singles helped carry his career into a fifth decade "that is, until a Broadway musical took over in 2005 and catapulted him back into the musical spotlight. Jersey Boys, which tells the story of Valli and The 4 Seasons, has received eight Tony Awards, a Grammy and numerous other accolades since it became a Broadway sensation.
The musical, which continues to be a hot ticket on Broadway, was the brainchild of Valli and 4 Seasons partner Bob Gaudio. For many fans who grew up to the sounds of the group, Jersey Boys marked the first time they'd been exposed to The 4 Seasons' surprisingly dramatic tale about the colorful road that took four blue-collar, working-class kids to the top of the charts as one of America's most successful musical acts of the 1960s.
Finding his voice
Born Francis Castelluccio in 1934, Valli grew up in a public-housing project and on the tough streets of Newark, N.J. At an early age, he discovered his singing voice "even though he had to be coaxed to use it. "I always sang," he says. "I was very shy and I would sing in the shower. I had an uncle who'd come to the house and always want me to sing. He would give me half a buck and I'd sit behind one of the living room chairs and sing where no one could see me."
As a teenager, he met Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito and sat in with their band, the Variety Trio. DeVito had a friend, singer Jean Valley, who was so impressed with Castelluccio's voice that she introduced him to a New York music publisher. Thinking a family connection "even a fabricated one "might help the young singer get a foot in the door, Valley told the publisher Castelluccio was her brother. When it was time to sign a contract, she had to confess that they weren't related. By that time, however, the name Castelluccio invented, Frankie Valli, had stuck, and no one wanted him to change it.
Well, almost no one. "My dad was a little upset," Valli recalls. "But when this guy who managed me found out my real name, he said, 'We can't use Castelluccio.'" Too long, too Italian, the manager said. Valli went along, but now has his regrets. "If I had to do it all over again, I would insist on using my name."
Success with 'Sherry'
It wasn't until several years later that Valli struck musical gold when he, Massi and DeVito aligned with Bob Gaudio, a guitarist, keyboard player and songwriter who hit it off immediately with Valli. "I am very focused on music," Gaudio says, "and it struck me immediately that we were birds of a feather."
Over the years, the membership of the group they formed "dubbed The 4 Seasons after a New Jersey bowling alley "fluctuated, but Valli and Gaudio remained at its core. "There was a bond," Valli says, "and it's been that way for over 45 years."
After their success began with "Sherry" in 1962, Valli had trouble believing the hit streak could continue.
"I was afraid I was dreaming," he recalls. "All the guys went out and bought new cars and everyone was laughing at me because I was driving junk. I was afraid I'd wake up one day to find out there was nothing there. I wasn't totally wrong. It could happen. It did happen."
In 1967, band members found themselves on the brink of financial ruin due to mismanagement of income by the group's handlers and DeVito, whose gambling and other debts put him "and the band "in alarmingly deep water with some serious loan sharks. "It started off with certain debts, some of them gambling, some of them real estate," Gaudio says. "The big hammer was the IRS."
"I refused to file bankruptcy," Valli says. "I said, 'Anybody we owe money to, if they'll wait, we'll pay them.' And they waited, and we paid them."
As the group began to deteriorate internally and pop radio cooled on their brand of dreamy, middle-of-the-road doo-wop, Gaudio and Valli struck a lifetime partnership deal. Gaudio quit touring to write and produce, while Valli branched out and forged ahead "both solo and with various configurations of The 4 Seasons "to work every opportunity he could to pay off the debt.
Bring on the Beatles
After weathering a rough spot as the '60s became the '70s, The 4 Seasons returned to the charts with "Who Loves You" and "December, 1963 (Oh What a Night)." "When the Beatles came out, I didn't even care, I was such a fan of The 4 Seasons," says Paul Shaffer, bandleader for The Late Show with David Letterman. "They were always my band. They were one of the few American acts that could compete with the Beatles and share the Top Ten with them."
But Valli's success was again bittersweet with the heartbreaking death of his daughter Francine from a drug overdose in 1980. Jersey Boys covers Francine's death and other subjects that were initially uncomfortable for Valli, who had input into every aspect of the musical. "I had to think a lot about including my daughter's death in Jersey Boys. But I decided that if my talking about it could help somebody "even one person "it would be worth it," he says.
Despite his great musical success, Valli always managed to keep a tight seal on his personal life, including three marriages, three divorces and six children. Single today, he shares his home with son Francesco, 20, and has no plans to remarry. "I'm finished," he says. "I have no regrets with anything, or anything terrible to say about any of the people I was ever with. It takes two to tango in every situation, and you just move on in life.
"I am very thankful for my audience," says Valli, who's seen a tremendous upsurge in his concert attendance as Jersey Boys continues to spur interest and fans seek out the man who sang the hits before they became rousing Broadway showstoppers. "Some performers act as though the audience owes them something. It's really the other way around. You have to be grateful for all the good things."
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