Biography: Francis Stephen Castelluccio aka Frankie Valli

Frankie's date of birth has been a subject of debate for some time but it is now considered to be May 3rd 1934, in Newark, New Jersey. The reason that confusion arose was because at the time of the 4 Seasons initial success, it was the custom for popular male singers to appear as young as possible so as to capture the teenage female market. It was felt that 16 year old girls would have no interest in anyone beyond the age of 21. It was claimed that Frankie was born in 1937 which would have made him 25 in 1962 when the Seasons hit the big time with "Sherry", and so one might think that shaving 3 years off his age was a pointless exercise anyway. Whilst to my knowledge Frankie has never been publicly forthcoming about his true age, it was nevertheless a subject of much mockery amongst his colleagues during shows where audiences were often invited to guess how old he really was.

The family name was Castelluccio and it wasn't 'till sometime later that Frankie took the name Valli. He was originally "discovered" by Texas Jean Valli the Country and Western singer who had seen Frankie perform in a school play singing "White Christmas". She introduced him to the publisher Paul Kapp as her brother and thus Frankie Valli was born. The eldest of three brothers (himself, Bobby and Alex), the family lived in Newark's North Ward, in particular in the Stephen Crane housing project. His mother Maria was Italian born and his father Anthony worked as a barber and later for the Lionel Train Company. His early musical influences were quite extensive and broad in range but dominated by jazz. In particular, he was drawn to the 4 Freshmen, a liking that has remained with him to this day, as well as the Hi-Los and Modernaires. He was also very familiar with Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker as well as vocalists Sarah Vaughn, Little Jimmy Scott and Nellie Lutcher. And it is alleged that his high voice was modeled on Rose Murphy, Dinah Washington, and Little Willie John but that should not negate the influence of the R & B records that Frankie listened to by such groups as the Clovers and Drifters.

But it wasn't just records and the radio that Frankie listened to. Pretty well most weeks his mother would take him to either The Adams Theatre or the Paramount Theatre in New York City and on one visit to the Paramount, at the age of 7, he saw Frank Sinatra perform, an experience that was to affect him deeply. In a later interview, he described it as follows; "I looked up, and I saw him coming out on stage, and the way he was lit up, it was like he had an aura around him, and as a kid, I said,
"Wow! Look at that! Someday I'm gonna do this"".

He perfected his art in the usual manner for those days. Street corners in Belleville in Jersey in the 50's would find him and others singing acapella versions of Country and Western songs, as well as rockabilly, pop, and Italian ballads. There were also school bands and occasional bookings in local nightclubs. His first recording was as early as 1953 and under the name Frank Valley when he cut "My Mother's Eyes" for the Corona label. Despite it's relative lack of success, he was able to make further recordings and in '54 he made "Forgive and Forget" and in '55 "It May Be Wrong" although the latter was made under the name Frankie Valley and the Travelers.

The one thing at this time that Frankie could rely on whilst his career stumbled around was support from his parents. In his own words; "My father didn't like me being in this business". Very early on, I was working in clubs and coming home at 3 and 4 in the morning, and he'd say, "What kind of work is this?" But he supported me secretly. He would buy his own ticket to our performances, and people would tell me they had seen him there. And he would always buy our records, even though I gave them to him. "You can't keep giving them away", he would say. "No one will buy them if you give them away"".

There were various changes in personnel in the bands Frankie played in but the most significant one occurred in 1959 when Charlie Calello left and was replaced by Bob Gaudio. Bob had shot to fame at the age of 14 when, as a member of the band The Royal Teens, he had written the massive hit "Short Shorts", covered later in the UK by Freddie and the Dreamers. The Royal Teens and The 4 Lovers had previously met during a joint appearance on The Buddy Deane TV show out of Baltimore. Frankie and Bob were introduced more formally a while later by a mutual friend, the actor Joe Pesci. Pesci has been an enduring presence during the Seasons' career, becoming a close, long standing friend of Frankie's and even today, offering employment to former Seasons' member Tommy DeVito. His goal in his filmmaking career has been to get Frankie's name mentioned as often as possible in any movie he happens to be in!

Frankie's meeting with Bob was to have monumental implications for the careers of both men. Bob went on to write the vast majority of hits that the Seasons had and the two of them also formed a partnership almost immediately upon meeting and based purely on a handshake, that continues to this day. Their individual earnings are combined and then split evenly between the two.

Frankie had met the producer Bob Crewe in New York whilst doing the rounds of the music publishers. Crewe was a charismatic and domineering individual. Good looking and artistically talented, he had worked previously as a model and had success himself as a singer with the "Whiffenpoof Song", an ironic title considering his bi-sexuality. But he had begun to make his mark more as a producer and in particular had success with Freddy Cannon's "Tallahassee Lassie". Something about the embryonic Seasons appealed to him and he signed them, principally at this point in time as his studio band. This was a contract that was later to cause many problems, mainly around the issue of money and accreditation on records.

The group worked on a substantial number of records that Crewe produced for other artists and identifying which ones is a subject that still preoccupies the thinking of many Crewe/Seasons aficionados to this day.

In the meantime, the final name change took place when they tried for a gig at a bowling alley in Union, N.J. Knocked back on that score, they nevertheless took the name of the bowling alley and the 4 Seasons were at last born. The group's first record was "Bermuda" released on the Gone label. It totally bombed. "Sherry" came next and how this came about is a matter of some minor contention. Crewe has publicly claimed that it was his idea to use Frankie's falsetto so prominently, having heard him clown around on stage whilst doing a warm up at some dingy nightclub. Bob Gaudio, who wrote the song, might have a different version.  Perhaps one is being a bit picky but Crewe had already worked with Frankie for some time before they came to do "Sherry" and must have known before then just exactly what Frankie could do vocally. And neither was it the only falsetto based song recorded in that session.

It was written allegedly in 15 minutes (the best songs always are) and as Crewe was paying for the session, they sang it down the phone for him to get the go ahead to cut it. I'm not quite sure how one can produce a record remotely but that it seems is what Bob Crewe did as he was credited with being the producer but wasn't there. However, he used the session to get the guys a deal with Vee Jay, a predominantly black label.

But there were a number of points in 1962 that caught the public's imagination. Firstly, what exactly was it that was singing? A man? A woman? A bird? A plane? Maybe one of the Chipmunks? And were this lot black because they sounded sort of black, as no white guy had made this sort of noise before. The first T.V. appearance dispelled that one. And those "bay yay bees" and "yi yi yis" that Frankie phrased on both "Sherry" and "Big Girls" had the majority of the nation walking around mimicking him. Overnight success had taken close to 10 years and they were on their way.

And what about that amazing falsetto? "Falsetto was nothing new" said Frankie in an interview. "Rhythm and blues music was doing it for years. I just developed my falsetto to make it fuller than anyone else's, and doing it on top, making it the lead, was what was different". And that is just about the most expansive I have ever heard Frankie on the subject.

As the Seasons' career progressed, rumors began about Frankie leaving the group to go solo. To the public he didn't seem to need the others as he was the sound and the star of the group and much of the mid to later 60's seemed to be spent in issuing denials of this rumor. But Frankie did commence a solo career whilst still remaining with the group and issued his first single in 1965 called "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine". Whilst it didn't do much for Frankie, it was later to become a hit for the Walker Brothers, a group of 3 Americans who had decamped to London to find success. By this time the 4 Seasons were signed to the Philips label, as coincidentally were the Walker Brothers. The fact that their version was a hit and not Frankie's caused some consternation within the Seasons' camp and allegations followed of dirty dealings by Philips in trying to suppress Frankie's version because it was financially more advantageous to Philips to have the Walkers succeed owing to their less onerous contract with the label as regards royalties.

But Frankie's solo career went on to produce some of the biggest successes for the Seasons organization with hits like "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You",

"My Eyes Adored You" and "Grease". The story surrounding "My Eyes Adored You" is interesting. It was a track Frankie recorded when the group was at Motown but there was no belief or interest from the label in issuing it. When the group left Motown, Frankie bought the master back from them and gave it to Larry Uttal at Private Stock who put it out and it then went on to become the new label's first hit. The point was that Frankie believed in this song that much that he was prepared to buy it back from Motown with his own money.

There was another reason why Frankie started a solo career, which can best be summed up by this short anecdote. The group was touring in the UK in the 70's and they were at the BBC television studios recording a sequence for later transmission. Frankie was going through "I've Got You Under My Skin" and I was watching from the back of the studio floor standing next to their then road manager, a very nice guy called Pat Welsh who spoke with as broad a New York accent as you could ever wish to find. After a few seconds he became quite agitated as he realized he had forgotten to set up the chimes needed for that song, and started muttering, "Frankie will go mad". He calmed down after a while, accepting that there was nothing he could do about it at that moment, and a few minutes later, as if having reflected on the depth and meaning of life, he turned to me and said, "Duh, you know Frankie's a legit singer". It wasn't a question, it was a statement and one I have to say that irritated me not a little. I was running their fan club then and didn't need telling that. Gosh, next he was going to tell me Frankie was an American.

But, my personal vanities aside, the guy had a point. Nobody really knew Frankie could "sing" because of the nature of the Seasons' records. Sure they were vocally demanding and certainly required thought and input from the artist himself, but the requirements were different to the challenges facing him from a more emotionally difficult ballad or classic. Frankie wanted to show the world there was more to his abilities than the work done with the Seasons and a solo career gave him that opportunity

In a career lasting as long as Frankie's has, there have inevitably been low points. For reasons that have never been made precisely clear, but probably as a result of arguments with the then existing Seasons' line up, Frankie briefly disbanded the group in March of 1973 after an appearance at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic N.J.

In 1977 Frankie did indeed "go solo" but the Seasons as an entity were retained. The idea was to see whether the public could stomach a 4 Seasons without Frankie Valli fronting them. They wouldn't and there were some uncomfortable performances for Gerry Polci, Lee Shapiro, Don Ciccone, and John Paiva until the experiment was halted.

Frankie and Bob Gaudio have managed to reinvent themselves a number of times. No artist in the history of popular music has been able to maintain consistent success over a very long period and the Seasons were no exception, though they managed it for far longer a period than virtually anyone else. In different decades they were able to bounce back time and again with Bob Gaudio displaying an unnerving ability to accurately place his finger on the musical pulse of the nation at varying times. "Swearin' To God", "Who Loves You", and "December '63" were some of the records that brought either Frankie or the Seasons back into the limelight after periods of stagnation.á This success in turn caused further interest in their back catalogue as younger music buyers realized that there was more to this lot than what they were currently listening to. The Seasons have not been slow in keeping their old product before the public and although at times the handling of their early material seems chaotic to long time Seasons fans, there is no question that it has been successful in not only keeping the revenue rolling in but also in keeping their name before the record buying public as well. This in turn has led to consistent "sell out" notices at concerts.

And us long term fans are now sitting patiently waiting for the next "go-round" whilst nervously looking at our chronological watches and hoping there's still time before Frankie decides to finally call it a day.

From the perspective of a fan in the U.K., Frankie and Co. owe a great debt to the town of Wigan in northern England. For many years a National joke as a result of the meanderings and strange pronunciation of a particular T.V. rugby league sports commentator, coupled with the town's image as being the epitome of northern working class life, at least as identified by the chattering classes in the more "sophisticated" south, it was nevertheless the centre of a strange musical phenomenon. Disdaining the "clever" advancement in music in the late 60's and 70's, the Wigan Casino eschewed a policy of all-niters with the emphasis on dance and amphetamines. Whilst Motown was not neglected, the main focus was on New York and east coast '64 through to '68 and principally records that had bombed chart wise. Northern Soul, which is now a generic term, was born and many a record that missed first time round, only to be discovered by the deejays at The Casino, were given a second chance. As a result of frequent plays at the Casino, word spread and demand increased for a record that Frankie had cut back in '66 called "You're Ready Now". Not one of his best, it nevertheless completely encapsulated the spirit of Wigan and in the end, Philips UK were forced to re-issue it. It's ensuing success brought the Seasons back to the UK for the first time since 1963 and opened a whole new market for them, taking them into Europe and beyond. Actually, we UK fans owe a great debt to that town too.

The Seasons' business career is littered with mistakes and successes, like anyone else's. But surely the best decision they ever made was right from the start to hang on to their original masters when the opportunity presented itself after a lawsuit with Vee Jay. Since then, they have always owned their recordings and were way ahead of other artists in this matter. It was a decision that has brought them financial comfort in later years whilst many of their contemporaries have struggled.

Frankie has had more than his fair share of pain during his life. He has tragically lost two daughters and is on his third marriage. And that's just what we know about, there's probably a whole lot more distress that's happened to him that's never come out. As a na´ve 19 year old, I met him for the first time in 1971. I remember one long conversation with him in a recording studio in London, which made a deep impression on me. He was very friendly, helpful and polite and gave me much of his time. He wanted to talk. Yet there was something there I wasn't equipped to put my finger on, a sadness in his spirit. He laughed, he smiled, he joked, but there was a reserve. Years later, in a professional capacity, I frequently came across that same "feeling" when talking to other people and I came to recognize it as the tell tale signs of someone who has experienced true pain in their lives. Perhaps even trauma. His first wife, Mary Mandel, he divorced in 1971. He then married Mary Ann Hannigan in '74 and divorced her in '79. But one feels also that these days things are better for him. He appears very happy in his marriage to Randy whom he married in '86 and has a young family who give him an enormous amount of pleasure. And spiritually he seems at peace as well. It's nothing more or less than he deserves.

He's been through the mangler with his health as well. There have been voice problems but the area of biggest concern has been his hearing. In the latter part of the 60's he developed otosclerosis, an incurable ear disease caused by a build up of calcium deposits, which leads to deafness. Not the sort of thing you'd wish upon anyone but particularly not a singer. It got so bad that he couldn't hear himself on stage and it would be like singing in a vacuum. To be able to mount a professional show in that condition, and to carry it off time and again as he did, without any audience awareness, is a tribute to the professionalism of all concerned. Recording sessions weren't much better, with the volume on his headphones set to a level that would not have been tenable for someone with "normal" hearing. When the problem grew to a point where he knew something was wrong, accompanied by Bob Gaudio he toured the national rounds of hearing specialists, only to be turned away time and again and to be told, "Can't help". Eventually they found someone who was prepared to give it a go and after a series of delicate operations, his hearing was substantially restored. But it was a time of great depression for him and the level of distress this affliction caused him and the potential consequences of it for him personally and professionally is not something that should be either underestimated or understated.

To an outsider, there are contradictions in Frankie's attitude to his background. There is no question that he is immensely proud of his ethnic roots and his Italian heritage, no question whatsoever. In the past he has attended meetings for Americans of Italian Descent against Defamation. The Society tries to fight the automatic stereotypical assumption amongst many that if you have an Italian surname, you have connections with organized crime. Yet he has willingly allowed his name to be used in the Sopranos and has made "mob" type movies. One might argue that this perpetuates the stereotype. One might also argue that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to turn their back on their friends or indeed the very environment that they grew up in. Particularly when you come from an ethnic group that suffered bigotry and hostility, and with that, the ties, bonds, and friendships that formed as a result. A "ghetto" mentality is something frowned upon these days but back then, it really was a case of "Us" versus the "Rest" and nobody was handing out charity. You fought for what you got. And those are not memories or feelings one can walk away from later in life, no matter what success you may go on to achieve.

Critical acclaim is not something that has followed Frankie or the Seasons through their careers. Various theories have been espoused but perhaps now is not the right time to re-visit them. But in 1990 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Whoopee. A great honor but nevertheless overdue. They deserved better.

I accept that what I am about to write is subjective. But for me, Frankie Valli is the most talented and gifted popular singer ever to have achieved success. Yes, it is partially the obvious, that amazing vocal range, but it is also his range as an artist. Who else could tackle the breadth of material that Frankie has done over the years and not just do it justice, but take it on to a point that places it artistically beyond the reach of others to imitate? There is much talk these days of Frankie's legacy but for me the deed is already long done and the matter closed. He will never be equaled and he will never be bettered. EVER.

Stuart Miller