Anyone who's ever tried to sing along to "Sherry" knows exactly how painfully impossible it is to imitate the piercing, pretty, and ever-so distinctive falsetto of Frankie Valli. It's that same powerful voice that helped make Valli and the Four Seasons legends in the early 1960s with hits like "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man." More chart-toppers with staying power followed, like 1975's "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," which also had a '90s remix comeback, and Valli's 1967 solo track "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," which Heath Ledger immortalized for a new audience in 1999's teen drama 10 Things I Hate About You.
Little did Valli and the boys know that one day, those songs would be the soundtrack for Jersey Boys, a jukebox musical telling the story of their entire journey. The play is one of the 15 biggest Broadway shows in existence, Valli says. Jersey Boys is also set to premiere as a Clint Eastwood-directed major motion picture on June 10, only three days before Valli himself comes to North Charleston to perform the songs that started it all 50 years ago.
Valli, now 80, remembers the feeling of listening to "Sherry" on the stereo for the first time in 1962. "We were all struggling and working hard, and then to get that opportunity to hear yourself on the radio — it's pretty thrilling," Valli tells us. "I was in New Jersey. I somehow got to hear it and have that thrilling experience. I believe I was in the car."
Nineteen Sixty-Two — back when radio was still a thrill, and music was tangible, a thing you saved your pennies for, unwrapped, and savored. What does Valli miss about those days? Good old-fashioned record shops, for one. "The record business has changed quite a bit now," he says. "We don't have record stores anymore. I miss the days when they had mom-and-pop record stores; they had more of a personal touch. And you got to know the owner, and if he didn't have the record, he said, 'Come back on Wednesday, and I'll get it for you.'"
In the years that followed that "Sherry" moment in the car, Valli went on to fill many a record store with his own music. Throughout the '60s, he recorded more albums with the Four Seasons (Bob Gaudio, Tommy Devito, and Nick Massi) as well as on his own. Both had Billboad chart success nearly every year until the very end of the decade.
In 1966, Valli recorded "You're Ready Now," a solo track that was never popular on the radio in the U.S. Four years after it was released in the States, the single gained enough momentum via England's northern soul movement — an obsession that selective British listeners had, and many still have, with obscure American rhythm and blues records — to hit No. 11 in the U.K. charts. It goes to show that the music business is full of surprises. "It gives you an insight to understand that there is an audience there that still understands and likes what you've done through the years, this body of work that I'm pretty proud of," Valli says.
His U.K. popularity continued in the '70s following "You're Ready Now," and the Four Seasons even released a few records Stateside on Motown. However, those Motown songs were not met with quite the same gusto as tracks like 1978's "Grease," which was Valli's very last No. 1 single.
After that, the industry kept evolving: the music, the mediums, the venues, everything. Valli hasn't forgotten the greatness of the music business in the early years, before the Four Seasons' brand of pure harmonies and sticky-sweet rock 'n' roll began to fade. He recalls the live scene as something far more intimate back in the '60s. That was the heyday of the nightclub, when an evening out included dinner and dancing at the same joint. Once upon a time there were several live-show slots in one night at elegant restaurants where showgirls once danced, orchestras played music, tough guys played cards, and everyone dressed to the nines.
"There were a lot of venues you played where they were clubs, in places like Philly or Chicago or New York," Valli reminisces. "And now it's come pretty much down to a one-nighter business. I miss a lot of the places where there were clubs like in Buffalo — the Town Casino. And the Kleinhans Auditorium. And in New York, they had the Latin Quarter, Waldorf Plaza, and Basin Street [East Nightclub], and on and on. They had jazz clubs in the Village, and then there was Birdland, all of those places have disappeared. So it's a different business in that sense." (Although the original Birdland closed in 1965, it did reopen in a different, nearby location in 1979.)
Exactly which live music venues the cinematic Four Seasons will revisit in Jersey Boys remains to be seen. Even Valli has yet to view the film, but he's seen the Broadway version — now in its ninth season — plenty of times. "Here you are watching the portrayal of your life," Valli says, "and the people that you're involved with, and you have lots of questions, and you say, 'Well, did I really talk like that? Did I walk this way?' It's all of those things." He continues, "But to try to cover the lives of all the people involved in the play in two hours? There's so much more. There could be a second play."
These days, Valli is still going strong. He tours whenever he can, keeping it to three or four shows at a time. He takes his music on the road simply because it's a good time. In fact, touring is as important to him today as it was 50 years ago. Valli says, "It's as though you're going out and visiting friends you've met over the years in different parts of the world."
He adds, "Fifty years have certainly gone by very quickly. When something like that happens, it means you're either having an awful lot of fun, or your memory is gone. My memory is fine, so I guess I'm having an awful lot of fun."