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Celebrating Frankie Valli: How The Jersey Boy Became A Global Icon
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Celebrating Frankie Valli: How The Jersey Boy Became A Global Icon

Solo and as leader of The Four Seasons, Frankie Valli has made an indelible mark on pop music. His legacy speaks for itself…

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“You know, my whole life has been music,” Frankie Valli said in 2016. “I don’t play golf. I don’t play tennis. I don’t hike. I don’t ski. If I could do all music, all day long for my whole life, that would be the ultimate for me.” The music of Valli and his group, The Four Seasons, has been classy, catchy, soulful, jazzy and, above all, enduring. Valli’s work now spans eight decades, and has responded to changing trends while retaining its pure heart – that of Valli’s incredible voice. As he has put it, “I just thought anybody who had a voice could do anything they wanted with that voice.”

Listen to the best of Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons here.

Tough beginnings: New Jersey boys

Frankie Valli was born Francesco Castelluccio in 1934, and grew up poor in blue-collar Newark, New Jersey. Close enough to New York City to smell its excitement, but far enough away to yearn for its untouchable glamour, Valli felt this contradiction keenly. “It’s the dream of becoming successful,” he reflected in 2023. “It’s, ‘How do I get out of here? How do I take this step to this plateau since no one is sending me to college? What am I going to do with my life? Am I going to work in a factory for my whole life? Am I gonna get a job with the mob picking up numbers? Or am I gonna go and get involved with various crimes? What am I going to do?’”

Valli’s family were on the edges of the mafia, with Valli describing Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo – a high-ranking mobster – as “like an uncle”. Yet while the mob was part of the background noise in his Italian American community, Valli’s powerful falsetto and early, deep interest in music drew him away from trouble. “I was barely a teen,” Valli has said, of discovering his voice. “I thought everyone could sing falsetto! People’s reaction of wonderment and their comments made me realise how special it was.” He started studying singers. At the age of seven, Valli saw Sinatra perform; he also loved jazz, and particularly became entranced by The Four Freshman (a vocal quartet also beloved of Brian Wilson).

But it was to be a woman, the singer “Texas” Jean Valli, who held the most immediate influence on him. She was a commanding yodeller, writing and performing her own songs, accompanying herself with bass fiddle and guitar. She took the young man under her wing, and introduced him to her music-business contacts as her brother – and his stage name, Valli, stuck.

The influence of a strong female artist so early on in his career gave Frankie Valli a unique quality among his peers. His music is not aggressively masculine, and never thoughtless about women’s viewpoints (in 2018, he praised the #MeToo movement). His falsetto, for which he is so famous, grooves and gyrates beyond gender binaries.

Becoming The Four Seasons

Frankie Valli’s first single, a cover of Georgie Jessel’s My Mother’s Eyes, was released in 1953, but it wasn’t until he joined up with Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio that his career solidified. Evolving from a band called The Four Lovers, The Four Seasons met the mood of the early 60s with hits such as Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like A Man. All were enormously successful – fresh, young, yet stunningly accomplished.

There was a soulfulness to these early tracks that elevated them from standard US pop music of the time. The Four Seasons’ first record company, Vee-Jay, was more known for R&B and jazz; and The Four Seasons was the first white act that the label signed. The unique qualities of The Four Seasons drew admiration from far and wide, including from chart rivals The Beatles. “We talked about music,” Valli said, on meeting the group in 1965. “And I found out that John Lennon was a major Frankie Valli fan.”

Vee-Jay wasn’t The Four Seasons’ home for long. But the band’s defection from Vee-Jay, and the label’s eventual dissolution, led to an important business decision that would have major positive implications for Valli. “Instead of settling with them for the money, we settled for taking back everything we recorded, and owned it [from that point on],” Valli said in 2023. This retaining of rights was a principle that Valli stuck to throughout his career, giving him an unusually high degree of control over his own legacy.

New horizons: Psychedelia and Motown

Throughout the 60s, Valli and The Four Seasons continued to create memorable hits, including Rag Doll, Let’s Hang On and their version of I’ve Got You Under My Skin. There were personnel and name changes; these kept the band fresh, but, by the end of the decade, fast-evolving trends risked leaving the band behind. They responded with the most complete artistic statement of their career, and the album of which Valli is personally incredibly proud.

Released in 1969, The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was a huge departure from the established Valli sound. Songs such as American Crucifixion Resurrection were ambitious, lengthy, conceptual. They pricked and prodded psychedelic US culture in the manner of Frank Zappa or Van Dyke Parks. “We talked about some of the social problems on that album,” Valli said in 2002. “Nobody was expecting anything like that from us. The record company wasn’t very pleased with the fact that we turned in an album like that.”

In the early 70s, The Four Seasons signed with perhaps the most famous US label of the time, Motown. The partnership seemed to auger well. Their first album for the label, Chameleon, was released in 1972 and, just like The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, was a successful attempt at a new direction. The song Sun Country was particularly glorious; Valli has described it as “a work of art”. The Night, another of Chameleon’s songs, became a Northern soul favourite.

Yet Chameleon didn’t sell, Motown lost interest and Valli was sidelined. A second album for Motown lay unreleased. But a canny Valli, remembering the huge benefit of acquiring the rights to the Vee-Jay material, purchased the rights to the track My Eyes Adored You – and promptly had a huge hit with it outside of Motown.

Revival and renewal

The Four Seasons’ original sound, so evocative of years-past summer nights, was now something Valli was deliberately leaning into – with huge success. December 1963 (Oh, What A Night) was released at the end of 1975 by The Four Seasons, and was a US and UK No.1.

Nostalgia fuelled the 1978 movie Grease, and Valli sang its title track. “I got a call from [Barry Gibb’s] office and they said, ‘Barry has a song that he’d like you to take a look at, and possibly do.’” Valli was interested in moving into acting at the time, and Allan Carr, who had adapted the original Grease stage show for the screen, presented him with a choice: to perform either the title track, or appear in the movie as Teen Angel and sing Beauty School Dropout. “I listened to both songs,” Valli said, “and almost knew immediately which it would be.” The Teen Angel part eventually went to Frankie Avalon.

Acting remained a part-time interest for most of Valli’s career, but it blossomed fully later on. He played the part of Rusty Millio, a high-ranking capo, in The Sopranos. He was sublime in the part, drawing from the characters he grew up around back in Newark. “Doing The Sopranos, for me, was really a highlight in my life,” he said in 2022.

Memories and musicals: fashioning a legacy

Otosclerosis is a medical condition, where the middle ear hardens and causes hearing loss and distortions. Valli developed the condition in 1967, and it worsened throughout the 70s, during which time he increasingly sang “from memory”. “I went ten years without any help,” he revealed in 2013. An operation in 1980 finally corrected the loss, and Valli regained most of his hearing. “That was a moment of truth for me,” he said.

Valli and The Four Seasons’ reputation has changed and heightened in recent years, partly due to the stage musical Jersey Boys. The idea of Four Seasons’ member Bob Gaudio, the show doesn’t shy away from the band members’ difficult upbringings, something they felt pressure to hide when they were coming up.

“I felt there was a story that was different from anyone else I knew of in the music business,” Valli has said. “The fact we were four guys who grew up poor, kind of in the ghetto, and that a couple of guys did time for burglary and stuff like that. Those were things we never talked about. Because, in those days, we were afraid if anybody found out, no record company would distribute our merchandise and no radio stations would play us.”

Jersey Boys became an enormous success throughout the world, and was adapted into a film – directed by Clint Eastwood – in 2014. Valli was played by Nick Jonas, himself a New Jersey native. “I think he’s brilliant,” Valli gushed. “The Jonas Brothers are terrific.”

No plans to stop: “I’ll probably tour until I can’t do it anymore”

Frankie Valli turned 90 on 3 May 2024. He has continued to tour through his 80s, and he released the album A Touch Of Jazz in 2021, coming full circle as he recorded some of his personal favourite jazz tunes – those that first inspired a young Francesco Castelluccio.

“[Age is] really a frame of mind. It really is,” Valli said in 2023. “I’ll probably tour until I can’t do it anymore, but even if it’s a limited amount of touring, it’s something I love and I love people. If it weren’t for people, I would not have had a career in the music business.”

Frankie Valli’s career is one of the longest, and most cherished, of all vocalists. His incredible falsetto has often been imitated, yet has not been bettered. He has credited his willpower and tenacity for his success – the determination that grew from a difficult start in life.

“Everybody should live the life they want to live without hurting anybody,” he concluded in 2023. “That’s the secret.”

Check out the best Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons songs.

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