Rolling Stone‘s interview series King for a Day features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and singers who had the difficult job of fronting major rock bands after the departure of an iconic vocalist. Some of them stayed in their bands for years, while others lasted just a few months. In the end, however, they all found out that replacement singers can themselves be replaced. This edition features former Four Seasons singer Gerry Polci.
By the mid-Seventies, the once-unstoppable Four Seasons seemed like they were heading into oblivion. There would always be nostalgic crowds willing to pay to hear Frankie Valli sing early-Sixties classics like “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Sherry,” but the group seemed about as likely to score a new hit as the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, or the Shangri-Las. Then they hired Gerry Polci as their new drummer-singer, and everything changed.
Polci is the primary vocalist on “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” the 1975 single that shot to Number One and became one of the group’s most enduring songs — and arguably their biggest hit in the long run. It’s been streamed more than 373 million times on Spotify, and no other tune in the Four Seasons catalog even hits the 100 million mark. It became so popular that Valli briefly tried to leave the group in the aftermath and let Polci take over as full-time lead singer. (On the song, Polci handles everything except the bridge, which Don Ciccone sings, and the chorus, which Valli delivers in his distinctive falsetto.)
“December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” spent another 27 weeks on the Hot 100 in 1993, when Dutch DJ Ben Liebrand gave it a dance remix, introducing the song to a whole other generation. All in all, the song has spent a near-record 54 weeks on that chart if you combine the remix with the original version. Despite all of that, only true aficionados are even aware that Polci sings the song, or that he exists at all. “It’s the craziest thing,” Polci tells Rolling Stone via Zoom while visiting Manhattan on a trip away from his home in Ocala, Florida. “I was just talking to a promoter. He shook his head and went, ‘I cannot believe to this day that people still think that Frankie Valli sings on that song.’”
Polci grew up in Passaic, New Jersey, just about a 15-minute drive away from New York City. He remembers banging on pots and pans as a five-year-old, but he didn’t get a drum set until Christmas when he was 13. He started playing local gigs a year later as part of a trio, drawing influence from jazz greats like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Louie Bellson.
“We played nothing but Top 40 covers,” Polci says. “And we all sang. We played songs by Chicago, and we’d sing all the horn parts. We also did Blood, Sweat and Tears and whatever other pop songs we could do.”
From the very beginning, Polci had a vocal mic near his drum kit. “I never thought anything of it,” he says. “That’s part of your deal. If you’re in a band, you sing along. When I was with the trio, I sang a lot of leads. I also sang a lot of backgrounds. Playing and singing became very automatic to me.”
It was tough work and a lot of late nights, but his parents never complained. “Some nights I’d come in so late that my dad was just going to work,” he says. “He’d just go, ‘Hey, are you all right?’ They knew I wasn’t going out just to hang out. I was going to work, and doing what I wanted to do.”
On January 24, 1969, Polci saw the Doors at Madison Square Garden. “They opened with ‘Touch Me,’ which was their hit at that time, and I was shocked,” he says. “I couldn’t get over that. I still don’t get over it to this day. Having played so many shows, you don’t throw out your Number One right away. But they did and it was effective.”
Playing Madison Square Garden himself seemed like a distant dream, but he’d be on that stage in just a few years thanks to a local kid named Frankie who his parents knew back in the Fifties.
What are your earliest memories of hearing the Four Seasons as a kid?
Well, I found this out later, because my parents never told me. But my father was born in Newark. He went to the same elementary school as Frankie. In that neighborhood, everybody knew everybody. My parents used to go see the Seasons in nightclubs when they were the Four Lovers.
When I got with the Seasons, it was like I joined the Beatles. My dad was friggin’ over the moon. He knew everybody, and everybody kind of knew him.
Tell me how you got the job.
I did a lot of work in the tri-state area in the early Seventies. I became known. You get a rep and that’s how you get work. I have a cousin who did some production work. He introduced me to this fella named Richie “Duke” Natoli. He goes, “I have a band. I know your cousin. I’d like to meet you.”
So I met him. I listened to his music. He was a sax player. It was very interesting stuff, kind of a progressive rock situation. I don’t hear from him for weeks. I get a call back from him. He goes, “Hey. I know you’re interested in being in my band. But would you be interested in auditioning for the Four Seasons? I’m their stage manager and also I play in their horn section. They’re looking for a drummer. Would you like to come down?” I said, “Sure. Of course I will.” I really didn’t go, “OK! All right!” I didn’t do that. It was a gig. I’d been working so much.
I show up and audition. They liked the way I played. Before I did the audition, I got a call from Richie to come down to the Capitol Theatre. They were playing. He said, “Frankie wants to meet you before the audition.”
I went down and we spoke, hung out. He kind of knew my father and things about me. I knew about him and people that he associated with. It was a good rapport, and I got the gig.
How well did you know the catalog at that point?
That’s a very good question. Like the Beatles, there was so much airplay. You can’t help but know the songs. You can’t help but know the genre. My parents didn’t necessarily have the record player going, but they had the radio going. I knew the repertoire pretty well. I knew the songs. I knew the feels. I knew the styles. Jumping into it wasn’t that different.
They were such a massively popular band, with so many hits in the Sixties. Why do you think they never got the same level as critical respect as many of their peers?
I think it’s because the band was more regional, more Northeast. The Beatles could hit L.A. and Florida and all over the world. The Four Seasons’ music was typical of a certain place and a certain era, and it stayed there until the Seventies, which changed it around. Then it was able to hit different areas.
You were hired as their drummer. Did they know about your singing abilities?
I was just the drummer. They found out about it later. I didn’t even sing background vocals for the first couple gigs. It was funny. I went from a wedding where I made $125 and played to 100 people. My first gig was the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. That’s a 4,500-seater. The next gig was in Kentucky. That’s a 10,000-seater. I went right into it. “OK, here we are!”
What did it feel like at those early shows to play songs like “Sherry” and see the whole place go nuts?
They did go nuts. They stormed the stage at the Arie Crown Theater. I was going, “What the heck is going on here?” I was on a four-foot riser. Me and the keyboard player, Lee Shapiro, who just joined too, we were laughing. It was absolutely crazy. It stayed that way for a very long time.
You joined in 1973. Their last big hit before that was in 1967. I’m sure to many people, they were a throwback group at this point.
For most people. That year, in 1973, we still sold out Madison Square Garden twice. That was before the new hits. That was before even “My Eyes Adored You.” On just the history of their music, we were selling out Nassau Coliseum and all those other big places.
How did your life change in those early months? It must have been a whirlwind.
It changed in that it was my primary focus. It became my first and foremost. And the travel.
Were you on a bus with Frankie?
Initially, we traveled commercial, flying. We used to do 100,000 miles a year. It would be torturous at times with airport and luggage. You’d get a rental car or the promoter picks you up in his car. The travel was brutal. You did it day after day after day. You fly into, say, Cincinnati and then have to get up at 7 a.m. because you have a flight to Oklahoma. We always felt they were routing improperly. Many times we were criss-crossing.
Frankie and the guys at the time were good mentors. [Bass singer] Joe Long left in 1976. But he was there before that. And they were just road warriors.
The comeback started with Frankie’s solo single “My Eyes Adored You.” Did you play drums on that?
I did not. That was strictly a studio song. I think it was done on Media Sound on 57th Street. [Bob] Crewe was involved and Charlie Calello did the arrangement. We were around, but the new guys hadn’t recorded with Frankie yet.
Nobody picked that song up at first. [Indie label] Private Stock eventually did. But we worked that tune for a long time. I remember we did one of the worst gigs ever. We did 57 gigs in a month at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. It was the worst! First time we ever did that, and the last time. It was torture.
But we did that song every night. That means 57 audiences heard that song. We just worked it and worked that tune. And then Private Stock picked it up, and it became a Number One record.
That proved a lot. It showed that Frankie could be more than just a throwback singer. He had more to offer.
Yeah. It saved his career. I brought him another 10 years of his career.
How did the momentum start to build towards the Who Loves You record?
It started with just the song “Who Loves You.” It was a one-off with Warner Bros. that we were going to record. It was really a showcase. “Is this really a new venture, or is this just a throwback to the old days?”
Now, the original “Who Loves You” — the way it was originally orchestrated and arranged — was very different from the end result. Lee [Shapiro] had a lot to do with that. He spent a couple years at Manhattan School of Music. He was very versed in theory. He kind of restructured the song so it made sense, since it changed key a few times. I had a lot of input in terms of what I wanted to play.
To take a few steps back, how did they discover that you had a great voice and could contribute to the vocals in a significant way?
Just through rehearsals. I would start singing parts. Once they saw that I could carry pitch and had some reasonable tone, I started singing high background parts, mids, and lows for all the oldies. I learned all these different ranges. I became the versatile guy since most guys stay in one range. I was able to do all the different ranges during the songs. It caught their attention.
This was when Frankie was experiencing hearing issues due to otosclerosis, prior to his surgery.
Yeah. It was difficult. We certainly couldn’t use his headphone mixes since it was bad. Once he had the surgery, he was pretty much OK.
Back to “Who Loves You,” this was the dawn of a disco era. The thought clearly was that you should be a modern-sounding band.
Yeah. You had the Bee Gees going. You had Fleetwood Mac. I think Bobby [Gaudio], because Bobby wrote the tunes with his wife… He couldn’t go after true hard rock since he’d leave a lot of his fans behind. Because “Who Loves You” is background-vocal-prominent, that sort of kept it in the Four Seasons genre. And the new guys brought in that rock element.
Did it surprise you at first they wanted you to sing on it?
On some other records that weren’t released, we had done a lot of recording. We’d also done a number of TV shows where we had to pre-record. They knew I could sing on tape. When “Who Loves You” hit, Gaudio, who produced it, kind of knew where my ranges were and what he wanted to do with everybody in that respect. And so it wasn’t a surprise that I sang background. The surprise, of course, came a little later.
It must have been a thrill when that song hit so big.
It was huge thrill for everybody. When we toured, we updated the old hits. They didn’t sound like they did on record. We played them live. We were a good, solid, hard-hitting band that played these old tunes, and updated them. It wasn’t just four guys with little background players. We were now singing and playing, like other bands were doing at that time. When we did hit with “Who Loves You,” it made sense to everybody. It fit in with how we were playing the other songs.
Are you suddenly playing to bigger places and seeing younger fans at the shows?
Well, we always played big places for some reason. I don’t know how we did it. When “Who Loves You” hit, now we had a current record. Things changed. Menus get better. Riders get better. The press gets better. Things change when you have a hit record.
Tell me about making the Who Loves You record. What were the goals going into that?
Bobby had tunes that he wanted to do that weren’t necessarily finished. He wasn’t thinking that “Who Loves You” was going to be a one-off. He was thinking ahead to Warner Bros. wanting to make a deal and they were going to have to make an album. He got together with his wife, of course, and they did a lot of writing. They wrote that album pretty fast.
What do you remember about the earliest version you heard of “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)?”
That song has an interesting history in that Bobby and his wife, the late Judy Parker, played the song for us. We hated it. [Laughs.] It just had the dumbest lyrics. It was about prohibition and flappers slipping on the floor. The date was wrong when it ended. We were all going, “There’s no way in the world we’re going to do this. We’re just not going to do this.”
But we’d already cut the rhythm track, and everyone loved it. We were like, “This sounds great, but we’re going to put this song on top of it? No.” We didn’t have a mutiny, but it was like, “That’s not going to work.” The next day, they came back with “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” It was the next day. Then we said, “OK, cool.”
I knew we were going to share leads. I didn’t realize to what extent we were going to share leads. And then they wanted me to sing the title section of it, and then the verses, and different parts of it. That’s the real history of that song.
Do you recall recording the master vocals?
Definitely. It’s hard. It’s interesting since you’re so isolated, but I felt really good that I was on a one-to-one level with Bobby since I respected him as a producer, and it was just me and him.
I was fresh. What did I know? I was brand new. I didn’t consider myself to be a great singer. I concentrated so much on my drumming. But Frankie would say a few things and give a few hints. He never stepped in and went, “This is the way we want it.” It was never like that. I felt very confident. That was a lot of fun in that respect.
It took a little while since I was so new at it, but I got better at it. That happens after spending hours and hours in front of a mic. It was a great experience for me.
What caused the song to just explode from there?
Tunes go through a trial period where they are played in different sections of the country to about 150 people. They get their reactions and radio stations get that information. They’re not going to put on a song that gets killed in those situations. You put on records that have a true shot at getting some airplay. It passed all those tests.
I think the timing helped. It came out in April. It’s a fairly naked track, to a degree. My voice is very naked in that respect. I think it was right at that moment. There was a lot of stuff going on, and the disco thing was getting stronger and stronger. This might have been just the right timing to stick its head through all that chaos.
Do you remember learning that it had gone all the way to Number One?
I do. I also remember the first time I heard it on the radio. I was driving in Vegas. I had lived there for a couple years. I heard it on the radio for the first time. I was like, “Whaaaat?” That was wild. I’d heard “Who Loves You,” of course, but that was a group thing. “Oh, What a Night” was a group thing, too, but having the lead like that was really pretty cool. Learning it was Number One, I still have all the Record Worlds and the magazines that show it going up the charts and finally hitting Number One.
People just presume it was Frankie singing, but if you take a second to listen, the voice is so different.
It’s not even close.
What happened after the song hit big? Did you feel a real shift of energy at the concerts?
It was always really good. We used to laugh about it. We had grandmothers bringing their daughters, and those daughters bringing their daughters. You had this generational thing. Now it became a younger crowd because there was a current hit. The crowds were younger, definitely more energetic, and it was one really good venue after another. There were no clinker venues.
Did you get any offers to make a solo record?
That’s a good question. I was really part of the group even though Frankie and Bobby owned it. It’s not like we were Fleetwood Mac or U2. But we were principals, and we had so much influence in what was going on, and so it felt very good. Nobody ever approached me and said, “Are you interested in a solo deal?” I don’t know why. I wasn’t pushing, either.
You didn’t want one?
I never thought about it until years later. After that, “Silver Star” was a song that came out. That was a Number One record in England and different parts of Europe. It only did Top 40 in the United States. Whenever we would go to Europe, a lot of times people would want to talk to me rather than Frankie since I had those two hits in a row. [Laughs.] That was a little weird for Frank. I don’t know if he could handle that really well.
When you went into the studio with the Four Seasons to record Helicon in 1977, did you feel pressure from Warner Bros. to follow up “Oh, What a Night?”
No. The band didn’t. Bob and Frank might have. They had put out a conceptual album [The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette] in 1969. A writer, I think in Rolling Stone, said, “If this was anybody else but the Four Seasons, this would be a Number One album.” It was such a departure from what they did.
Bobby’s idea of Helicon was, again, a concept album. I sang lead on 60 percent of the songs. We didn’t feel so much pressure since the band felt, “Let’s just put out good stuff, songs we like, and see where it goes. If they like what we did previously, hopefully they’ll like what’s coming up.” I’m sorry Bobby, being in the business that long, felt some pressure though.
What are your favorite songs off that record?
I like “Put a Little Away.” I sang on that one. I sang on “Long Ago” too. “New York Street Song (No Easy Way)” was an interesting, chaotic tune. There were some good points to that album, and some not-so-good points to that album.
Watching it bomb must have been disappointing.
What was more disappointing was the fact that once it was released, we took five weeks off. That, to me, was the kiss of death. Why wouldn’t you be ready to go out tomorrow and promote this record, do the songs in your shows, and promote this record like you promoted the other ones? Why are we taking five weeks off? Why aren’t we doing press releases? That’s what was disappointing.
The fact that it didn’t hit was obvious. Again, there wasn’t a hit on it. There were a couple of songs that could have been at least Top 40, it not Top 20 or Top 10, but there was no way. That’s what was tremendously disappointing. It never had a chance to be successful.
Around this time, Frankie told the press that he was leaving the Four Seasons and you guys would carry on without him. How did you feel about this plan?
Well, again, the way they handled it could have been better. We did one show in L.A. at the Roxy. It was OK. But people were expecting to see Frankie. It was almost too much, too soon. Put a record out or put some sort of promo thing together. We just went out and started doing gigs. It was too dangerous.
I read a review of that Roxy show in The Los Angeles Times. They wrote, “One could only guess about [Polci’s] stage demeanor since he was buried in the back, playing drums while singing. The group should consider hiring another drummer and putting Polci up front. He probably could provide the personality the group lacks at the moment.” That makes a lot of sense. Did they ever talk about having someone else play drums and putting you up front?
No. And I never read that review. That’s interesting. But no…. Levon Helm sang and played.
Right. But they framed it well and put the spotlight on him.
At the Roxy, it was a smaller stage, obviously. You put me 15 feet back, I’m buried. Then you get sound problems where it’s too loud and the cymbals are going to bleed into the vocal mics… It was never approached to me to come up front.
Why did Frankie want to leave the group behind at this point? He was the face of the group and the voice of nearly all the hits. Why try and make it a separate entity?
I can’t say for sure what he was thinking. I know they wanted two entities… and frankly, two earning entities, where Frankie could do his own thing and not be encumbered by having a group. The group has to have an identity. What they did a poor job at was making an identity for this group where we could do gigs, he could do gigs, and it’s a nice business.
How long were you in the Four Seasons doing gigs without Frankie?
We only did a couple. It didn’t work. Nobody was ready for it.
During those couple of gigs, who would sing the old songs like “Walk Like a Man?” How did it even work?
That’s the thing. We didn’t. We sang new material. They didn’t know us from Adam. It was like, “Where is ‘Walk Like a Man?’ Why aren’t you singing ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’?” Well, because Frankie’s not here. We don’t do that. We’re the new band. “Ohhhh. OK.” [Laughs.]
You quit in 1977?
December 1, 1977.
What happened there?
Well, to be blunt, it was for financial reasons. I felt we were underpaid. I felt that I was underpaid. Having a hit that was a complete resurgence for the band and for his business, and frankly, not being financially rewarded for that. It was a big deal. You’re talking about, I would say, at a minimum, another 10 years of touring you can do off that one song. And he did that. He’s actually done over 30 years off it.
Not getting rewarded for that was a real slap in the face for me. I haven’t told many people beyond my close friends … But I literally asked for more money, and they turned me down. From that point on, I said, “I’m out of here.”
So I left at the end of 1977. I was living in Las Vegas. I moved to L.A. in February 1978. It was well known I had left the group. A month later, I get a call from Barry Manilow’s tour manager telling me Barry wanted to meet me and asking if I wanted to join his band.
What was your role?
I was his musical director. He had four television shows to do, like The Dinah Shore Show … all the talk shows … Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin Show, that sort of thing. I got a rhythm section together and wrote charts and did stuff like that.
He was touring with a 40-piece orchestra and eight singers. He fired everyone. He fired his complete band. He fired his MD. He fired everyone and he had these dates coming up. He said, “I’m scared. I’m chicken. I can’t do it.” And he hired everyone back. Then he went and did his tour.
It was cool. It was a great experience. At that time, he was a really nice guy. He came up the ranks. I’ll never forget being at The Mike Douglas Show. I already knew all those guys since I’d done the shows before. I was like, “Hey, how are you doing?” Then Barry came in and just sat at the piano. As soon as he played one chord, the whole place stopped. Everyone stopped. Sound guys, lighting guys … We just stopped and listened to him warm up and sing a little bit into the mic. When he was done, we all went back. He had a very powerful presence.
You came back to the Four Seasons in 1979. What brought you back?
One, I missed it. I did television work in 1978 and 1979. I did The White Shadow. I did The Rockford Files. I did some other stuff. And it was as boring as boring could possibly be. It was 30 seconds of this, a minute of this, 15 seconds … I was like, “Please get me out of here.” Which was wrong, since since some of those guys are still doing recording sessions now.
It was almost a mutual thing. They wanted me to come back, and I wanted to go back. We just kind of agreed. Frankie had “Grease” out, but his band was a little tepid, so to speak. I’m a loud player. In some ways, he missed it. When I walked in, I said, “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m not just going to be a wuss here like what you’ve been doing for the past year and a half.” He said, “That’s what I want.” I stuck around for another couple of years, until 1982.
You did the Reunited live album in 1981, but why didn’t you guys try to make a new actual Four Seasons record in the early Eighties? There could have been some sort of New Wave period.
We did try. We made a song called “Spend the Night in Love.” It was like the guy who sang “Oh, What a Night” about his first experience, and now he’s a dog. We tried. It was a nice record. But in 1980, I’m listening to the Police, the Clash. And we’re putting out a slick tune that didn’t go anywhere.
Why did you leave again in 1982?
I was done with the traveling and all that stuff. It kind of got old. We were just doing what we’d always done. I didn’t think there was going to be any changes, any room for improvement, and I left again.
What did you do from 1982 to 1988, when you came back yet again?
I was in L.A. I did more studio work. I got more into doing commercials, which were at least longer stretches of playing. I did a lot of demo work. I put groups together. I had one group together with three other guys called Twenty Times. I loved that band, oh my goodness. We worked really hard at getting a record deal, and it just didn’t happen. Atlantic was going to pick us up, and that didn’t happen.
Why did you come back to the Four Seasons for one last stint in 1988?
Again, I kind of missed the road. I kind of missed that whole thing. It’s different when someone else is singing the hit song as when the guy that sang the song is in the band. It’s just a different vibe. It’s as simple as that. I stayed for another year and a half. Then that was it. Then I was done.
When did you marry Frankie’s daughter Antonia?
That was 1990.
What was it like having Frankie as your father-in-law? That’s a pretty different dynamic than boss.
Well, he wasn’t all that enamored with it, by any stretch of the imagination. That was only because I’m a musician. Where am I going in my life? [Laughs.] But where was he going in his life? That was kind of weird. He wasn’t all that jazzed, but that didn’t matter at that point.
Tell me how you started your career as a teacher.
I went back to school in 1992. I had two years already in, since I left school early when I was 20 and joined the Seasons a year later. They accepted those two years. I did three full-time, 18-credit semesters. I worked four nights a week. I worked a lot. I got my teaching degree in 1995 and started teaching middle school band. I was the assistant director for the high school marching band in New Providence, New Jersey.
That’s such a radically different lifestyle than being a touring musician. You can go home every night.
Totally. And I still worked weekends. I always worked. I never stopped playing. I did a lot of stuff locally. That was pretty crazy. And “Oh, What a Night” was a Top Ten record in 1994. They redid the rhythm track, updated it, with the same lead vocal, same piano, and it became a Top Ten record again. At that point, it became the longest-running record on the Billboard Hot 100. Fifty-four weeks. It was beaten out a little while later by, I think, “Who Let the Dogs Out.” We beat out “White Christmas.”
But then the Baha Men came and took you out. Man…
That’s the business.
Did your students know much about your musical background?
They absolutely thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. How are we getting a guy that just had a Top Ten record the year before, and he wants to come work with us? So yeah, they were overjoyed. I was very fortunate to land in a place where their whole thing was academics, athletics, and the arts.
It was a small town of maybe 7,500 people. The parents were very much into having their children do a lot of different things. We had a really, really good football team. We had this great marching band. There were only 600 kids in the high school, and we put between 130 and 140 on the field. That’s out of 600 kids! That’s including color guard, but even so. They’re showing up for marching band.
It was outstanding. The parents were totally into it. I was able to teach privately. I taught all the drummers in the middle school. “If you’re going to be in the drum line in high school, you need to start now.” That was always a lot of fun. I enjoyed that very much. I enjoyed the rigors of it. I was up at 6. It was at the school at 7:30. I did my thing every day. I enjoyed that a lot.
Jersey Boys opened on Broadway in 2005. All of a sudden, the critics were embracing this catalog after years of essentially ignoring it. What did that do to the legacy of the Four Seasons?
It was nostalgia on steroids at that point. It was just the right timing. I was shocked, frankly. I was shocked. I was also shocked that certain tunes were used in it. “Oh, What a Night” was used in it. That song wasn’t anywhere near the Sixties. That was done in the Seventies. But the popularity was quite amazing. I found it very interesting. I never went to the play.
I didn’t want to. I just didn’t want to. I know that’s weird. [Laughs.]
Your daughter was in it at one point, playing her own grandmother.
Much later on, yeah.
Did you see that?
I did not. No. I wasn’t living in the area during that time.
Did you see the movie adaptation by Clint Eastwood?
Parts of it. It was very bad. It was pretty horrible. Clint did it in 40 days. It was like an afterthought. He was working on something else while he was working on that, or he seemed to be. It was a shame. There was also a lot of poetic license taken there.
What led to the formation of your band the Hit Men?
Well, Lee Shapiro had asked me for a number of years to regroup with Don Ciccone. I wasn’t all that fond of Don. I had a love/hate thing with him. I knew the guy really well. Because I knew him really well, I didn’t like certain aspects of his personality, and blah blah blah. I didn’t think it would be a good thing for me to be in a band with him again, but Lee tried for a number of years.
Then Jersey Boys came out. After a few years, we were like, “It’s obvious this has legs. There would be credibility in having a group that is playing a number of the same songs, but also other songs that other people had hits with.” That’s where the term “The Hit Men” came from.
The original lineup was me, Lee, and Don, and a bass player who has passed away, Larry Gates. That was the original four. Then we brought in Jimmy Ryan. He was with Carly Simon for a number of years. He played on a lot of records for people in England and here.
We got a song list together and said, “Let’s try this.” We put together a few shows that we paid for, not expecting to make any money on them. We just wanted to see the reaction, and it was a very good reaction. We decided to nurture it. Lee is a very good businessman. We got a manager and an agent. We started developing the brand. We turned out to be a pretty good band.
Then Don left. He got married and didn’t want to tour anymore. That kind of freed us. We brought in Russ Velazquez, who is a studio singer. He had worked with a number of people. It kind of freed us to open our repertoire more and play more of the hits. We did Seasons records, of course, since we had a lot of history with that. But it developed into a really good band. I did it for seven years.
You were teaching this whole time?
Yeah. I would teach all week. I’d bring my suitcase to the school on Friday, leave at 3, drive to LaGuardia Airport, get on a plane, and work the weekend, be back by Monday morning. There were points I did 60 days in a row. I was tired, but it was good. I eventually had to decide which of the two I wanted to do since I was conflicting. We turned down maybe 30 percent of the work because I was teaching. We couldn’t take gigs at certain points.
What’s filled up your days these past few years, since you retired from music around 2015?
Well, personally, I was not in a very good marriage. Thankfully that’s been rectified, so to speak, very thankfully. I enjoyed Florida, but I rekindled a very close friendship in Manhattan. It’s someone I’ve known for 22 years. I visit 9 or 10 days a moth. That’s been a really uplifting and great thing to be involved in, to say the least. I have a cute little dog. I keep busy with a few things.
A promoter called me recently. “Why aren’t you onstage?” We’re going to have discussions in terms of possibly putting a show together. I felt very stifled in Florida. I’m now unencumbered, legally and creatively. I feel very good about that.
How often do you see Frankie these days?
I don’t see him at all. I haven’t seen him in a long time. The last time was probably 2016.
Are you amazed he’s still touring at 88?
Yeah. I am, very much so. Just getting up and getting on planes at that age is admirable.
I watched some recent video. Do you think he’s singing live?
I’m sure a lot of it is pre-recorded, like a lot of artists. It’s his voice. But to do that night after night at his age… Tony Bennett does sing, but he’s such a rarity, to sing the notes he sings.
Frankie’s signature songs were tough for a 20-year-old. He’s pushing 90.
Exactly. They are real hard. “Candy Girl” has some of the highest notes you’ll ever hear on record.
How many times in your life do you think you’ve sang “Oh, What a Night”?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. It feels like thousands of times.
Do you still enjoy singing it?
I do. I do. I don’t know why. I just do. I don’t get tired of it.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
I really like online tutorials for drumming, and I want to make my own. The learning curve is considerable to do it the right way on YouTube. It’s not impossible, but a little bit daunting, which is fine. I have the knowledge to do it, although since I thought about it, I see video after video by various drummers. But we all have things to give. I don’t worry about that.
This idea of possibly getting back onstage is an interesting thing. I try and be a healthy guy. I lift, and we walk considerably in Manhattan. We do over 14,000 steps a day, which is crazy. I do the vitamin thing and all these different things. I really want to be healthy, and have a good quality of life.
Do you ever think about writing a memoir?
I think it would be interesting. I don’t know who would want to read it.
I’ll wrap in a second, but I think a lot of people in your position would be frustrated that they sing these super-famous songs and they don’t have much name recognition. Does that ever bother you?
Sometimes. Although I really don’t need that recognition to feel good about myself. I guess it’s gotten to the point where I find it a little humorous that still, after all these years, it’s still confusing for people. But it’s not something that I really dwell on.
Most people just assume that Frankie Valli is the lead singer of the Four Seasons, and that’s it.
And that’s all right.