by Kirk Woodward
[I hadn’t expected Kirk to return to Rick On Theater so soon after making such a terrific contribution as “The Red Letter Plays, Continued” (1 November), my friend’s “continuation” of my reportage on the Signature Theatre Company’s revivals of Suzan-Lori Parks’s two Scarlet Letter-inspired plays, In the Blood and Fucking A. (My reports were posted on 12 and 17 October, respectively.) But, lo and behold, here he is again with a consideration of Frankie Valli in concert—some 55 years after he fronted The Four Seasons (as chronicled in the recent juke box stage musical Jersey Boys and the 2014 film adaptation). In “Frankie,” Kirk focuses on Valli’s musicality, his singing and his stage presence. It’s not so much a review as a personal appreciation from a long-time fan—though Kirk sees Valli’s flaws as a performer as well as his many strengths and assets. Like all of Kirk’s posts on ROT, “Frankie” reveals some profound points about rock and pop performance and the effects of longevity on our veteran musical performers.]
Enjoy ‘em while we’ve got ‘em . . . .
Sometimes an appearance by a performer comes with a question. Lawrence Olivier had memory trouble for a while – would that keep him from remembering his lines in The Merchant of Venice? Richard Burton had back trouble – would that make him less effective in the revival of Private Lives? Any numbers of singers have had substance abuse and behavioral problems – will they show up for their concerts? Will they be late? Will they be able to perform?
When I saw the singer Frankie Valli at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, on November 3, 2017, the question – one could sense that the audience had it in mind – was: would Valli be able to sing the piercing falsetto notes that he sang on the famous Four Seasons recordings of the 1960’s and 1970’s? Valli is, after all, 83 years old.
The answer, to the great relief of those of us who were there, is yes, he can.
There were several aspects of the concert that can be identified as concessions to age. For one thing, in the glory days of the Four Seasons, there were four singers, including Valli, some of whom also played instruments, and all of whom did dance steps.
Since the 1970’s, Valli has toured as “Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons,” with four other singers (Todd Furnier, Brian Brigham, Brandon Brigham, and Landon Beard, according to Wikipedia), none of them original Seasons, backing him up vocally, and doing the Temptations-derived dance moves that Valli doesn’t do any more. (He did essay a couple of cautious choreographed movements late in the show.)
I am pretty certain as well that the keys of the songs have been lowered, so that Valli’s high notes don’t have to be quite as high any more as they used to be. If I’m correct about this, however, the use of the lower keys is nevertheless not particularly distracting
Most importantly, Valli paces his concert (about an hour and a half long) well, particularly in regard to the spectacular notes of some of the songs. By my count he did not sing anything using falsetto until the third number, and then only sparingly – the songs are sequenced so he doesn’t have to.
Little by little, the falsetto sections get longer, until he is really belting them out in “Stay,” after which he said, the night I was there, “I think I hurt myself on that one.” By the end of the show, when the big hits (and terrific songs) like “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Bye Bye Baby,” and “Let’s Hang On” make their appearance, his high notes are strong. A stunning demonstration of this was an a cappella (that is, unaccompanied) verse of “Sherry,” sung by only Valli and the Four Seasons to brilliant effect.
I learned from an actor, Jarrod Spector, who played a remarkable “Frankie Valli” in the musical Jersey Boys (which ran on Broadway from 2005 through 2017), that Valli advised him not to hit the falsetto notes too hard – to take it easy on them, not try to bellow each one. Valli clearly takes his own advice – he seems barely to open his mouth, which indicates that he is not overworking his vocal equipment. This may have something to do with why it has stayed in good shape for so long.
For that matter, Valli is by no means just a high note singer. His “regular” singing voice is notable – the listener can recognize it anywhere by its mix of clarity and growl. He would be a distinctive singer of popular songs if that were all the voice he had. The novelty of the high falsetto tones, of course, set the group apart from others, as did Brian Wilson’s pure falsetto tones for the Beach Boys. But Valli would probably have found a career path anyway…
Maybe in Las Vegas. He has acknowledged that his idol was Frank Sinatra. A good deal of his present show has a Vegas feel about it, a night club feel – although I suspect that some of the items that feel that way were added for the appearances of his concerts on Broadway in 2012, 2016, and 2017, particularly a sentimental film segment over a song called “Harmony” I hadn’t previously heard.
I have always loved the songs the Four Seasons recorded. For a long time I had to defend this opinion, but the task has gotten easier since the massive success of Jersey Boys. The fact is that the music of the Four Seasons has always occupied an odd space between Las Vegas style entertainment, doo wop singing, novelty acts, and rock. To specify:
Las Vegas style entertainment
I felt this both times I saw the original group, in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1964, I noted in my journal that “to my surprise [I was already a fan of their records], I didn’t like them at all,” which I believe I wrote because I thought they had a “night club” rather than a “rock” feel to their performance. I was more specific when, after the second time I saw them, in 1967, I wrote:
Last night, Friday, Patti and I saw the Four Seasons give a good show at the Convention Center. No other grou
ps; they played
two halves, with intermission. Their humor low, poor – about underwear,
I considered that kind of humor to be typical of Las Vegas style entertainment of the time, like the Rat Pack. To be fair, I did continue in the journal:
Sound and songs fine – I was impressed by the quality of their material, like “Bye Bye Baby,” “Don’t Think Twice” [!], “Candy Girl,” “Don’t Worry About Me,” “Tell It To the Rain,” and especially “Let’s Hang On.”
From the beginning the Four Seasons used a typical doo wop lineup of four singers, with one a tenor voice (Valli), one a bass, and so on.
Valli’s super-distinctive falsetto provided an irresistible and essentially unique “hook” for the songs the group sang.
My definition of that genre, when I first saw them, was I’m sure restrictive, and I believe many rock critics also had the problem of thinking the Four Seasons weren’t pure rockers – which they weren’t. But heard in concert, for example when I saw them, their songs, well, rock.
Valli’s audiences respond to him. At the November 3 concert, the crowd was mostly on the older side – a friend said she felt like she was at Lourdes! But its loyalty was rewarded. He seems to inspire personal loyalty too – his musical director, the flamboyant and distinctive keyboard player Robby Robinson, has worked with Valli for forty years, and the night I saw the show, Joe Long, who was the group’s first major replacement (from 1965 through 1973 according to Wikipedia), was in the house and Valli introduced him from the stage.
In addition to all the factors I’ve listed here, part of Valli’s appeal, these days, is that performing at his time of his life gives him a kind of gallantry. He is not a “warm” personality on stage. But he is a courageous one to go out at his age and sing vocally daunting music the way he does, and to sing it well. At the concert I heard, his voice got stronger with each song, and he sang with grit and determination. One can hardly ask for more. Long may he wave.