Garden State Serenade
There are several fine packages of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons classic material, many of them issued by Rhino Records. Of particular note is the thee CD, one DVD set Jersey Beat that contains all the memorable songs by the band and solo singer as well as lesser known nuggets: 76 songs and 12 video clips in all. For the less fanatic, there’s the excellent 20-song single album, The Very Best of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Rhino also still offers the original two single discs Gold Vault of Hits – both volumes one and two – for those that have memories of those wonderful Phillips collections from the ‘60s.
A word of note: the group recorded as the Four Seasons, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (even though there were only three others in the group) and as Frankie Valli, not to mention having a big hit with Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” as the Wonder Who. There is even one album (1967) called The 4 Seasons Present Frankie Valli Solo and a later one (1970) titled Half & Half, which contained alternating recordings by a solo Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Also, sometimes the albums are billed as the 4 Seasons with the numeral 4 and most times the band is listed as Four Seasons. In any case, the Garden State serenaders have always had a distinctive sound, not matter how they billed.
One has to wonder who would be interested in Rhino’s recent releases of 18 of the original 18 Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons records in one set (The Classic Albums Box,) eight solo Frankie Valli releases in another (Selected Solo Works), a double disc set Audio with a G; Sounds of A Jersey Boy, The Music of Bob Gaudio (the Four Seasons founding member and keyboardist who wrote most of the band’s hits), and a 25-tracks single disc compilations from the motion picture and Hollywood soundtrack of Jersey Boys. This comes to 324 songs – almost 18 hours of music.
Yet despite the quantity of material, the compilers still managed to omit several essential recordings such as “Opus 17” and “Watch the Flowers Grow”. And despite labeling the 18-disc collection The Classic Albums Box, it appears they reissued later versions of the albums than the originals – so that despite the packaging on such discs as New Gold Hits, the contents are different than what is listed.
Another problem is that these seem to be stereo recordings. Back in the day, many of these records were available in both mono and stereo, and the mono versions kicked stereo’s butt. The blend of voices was more important than the separation. The amalgam of instruments and vocals created a much more powerful and dynamic effect than the partition of sound. Because of the short length of many of these discs (usually around 30 minutes), which was typical during the early ‘60s, one has to wonder why Rhino did not include both mono and stereo versions of the material on the same disc.
But these criticisms, which are important, are “should have” denigrations. Rhino could have paid more attention to the quality of its creation and released a significantly better product. That said, the more imperative question concerns how good the music here is: is it worth springing for 324 tracks when there are several perfectly good abridged collections?
The short answer is, unfortunately, “no”. Most listeners, and indeed most Four Seasons fans, would be better off with fewer tracks. That may sound like a knock, but it really is not. A lot of the original Four Seasons’ album cuts were schlock, and were known to be at the time. The Four Seasons began at a time when 45 rpm records ruled rock. Albums were meant for adult music like Frank Sinatra. Singles were for kids – and the Four Seasons were aimed at the teenage demographic. That’s why the band’s first album, Sherry and 11 Others is called that – it had one hit song and 11 pieces of filler including innocuous pop tunes from the past like “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”. There’s no reason these versions of the songs need to be heard again, and there was little reason to hear them the first time. Certainly the single “Sherry” far outsold the long playing record.
And this sets up a template for how to approach most of the albums contained here. The Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons originals are better than their covers. They performed everything in their signature style no matter what the content of the song was. This makes their renditions of many wonderful rock songs, such as The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, Lenny Welsh’s “Since I Don’t Have You”, and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” just about unlistenable. Most people would better appreciate the Jersey Boys’ oeuvre if never exposed to these songs. The one exception would be their upbeat rendition of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay”.
That said, there are many fine songs here that have not been heard by many who may be familiar with previous collections. In particular, the inclusion of the complete On Stage With the Four Seasons and The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette are reasons to celebrate. “On Stage” came out in 1965 and was a fake live record; a studio album with audience overdubs. The album was released to fulfill contractual obligations and contains material more suited to Las Vegas than the pop charts, songs such as “Blues in the Night”, “Just in Time”, and “Mack the Knife”. The band offers some entertaining in-between song spiel, and one track in particular, “How Do You Make a Hit Song”, works especially well at conveying their personality and charm as the group as the performers go through “Sherry” and illustrates the song’s idiosyncratic elements. The strangeness of the record, issued during the height of the British Invasion in America, makes it a curious relic. However, the record is more than just a novelty though; the disc shows the Four Seasons as polished professionals.
The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette always stood out as an anomaly in the Four Seasons’ repertoire. The 1969 album shows the band stretching musically and lyrically into progressive music. It flopped when it came out because it sounded un-Four Season like. There were no pop hits with hooks, but ambitious concerns and expressions about divorce and children (“Saturday’s Father”), an elegiac condemnation of past mores and morals (“Mrs. Stately’s Garden”) and the psychedelic title track that analyzes the Prufrockian masks we wear and pays audio homage to “Hey Jude”. The ambitious album almost killed the band’s career but has since been rediscovered by many and revalued for its creative qualities.
The Frankie Valli box, Selected Solo Works contains eight of Valli’s albums from 1967 to 1980. The material has been available in double disc collections for years. There are no bonus tracks or even a booklet, just reproductions of the original cardboard sleeves and the contents of the original records. The set reveals Valli was more of a crooner by himself while the Four Seasons’ material tended towards rock. This can be clearly seen on his 1967 hit, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, the catalyst for his first solo album, which perhaps provides the pattern for the Valli style.
All the records in the box contain a mix of good and bad songs as the singer tries on a variety of musical styles. At best, Valli sings with confidence and swaggers through songs such as “Who Loves You”, “Grease”, and “My Eyes Adored You”. However, as good a singer as Valli is, he cannot redeem mediocre material and unfortunately there is some of that here as well.
The 36 tracks onAudio with a G; Sounds of a Jersey Boy, The Music of Bob Gaudio provide an interesting perspective on the songwriter. Starting with his first hit, the 1958 “Short Shorts” performed by the Royal Teens before the Four Seasons even existed, the double disc reveals range Gaudio’s as an artist. Consider the eclecticism of the collection as a positive: the boy band bubble gum of the Bay City Rollers singing “Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”, the deep soul of Jerry Butler’s “Whatever You Want”, Frank Sinatra’s lovely ballad “Elizabeth”, British new waver Lene Lovich’s angular “The Night”, the sultry jazz vibe of Nina Simone’s “For a While”, both Cher’s and the Walker Brothers’ dramatic interpretations of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (originally sung by Valli), and more. There are also several Four Season hits here. The variety of styles suggests Gaudio’s ambitions, but it is difficult to hear the album as more than didactic. It teaches that Gaudio’s work has a large scope yet there is no unifying theme.
The Jersey Boys is not quite a movie or Broadway soundtrack, but a strange fusion of both combined with sections of the original songs performed by the Four Seasons themselves. The liner notes do a good job of explaining what is what, and there are some fine moments here. John Lloyd Young, who played Valli in both the movie and play, does a great job. He did win the 2006 Tony Award Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. Comparing Young and Valli’s voices on the same song is pleasurable, but, as with the Gaudio work, more cerebral than moving.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons are the missing link between Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen. Valli frequently cites Sinatra as his first and biggest inspiration. It is difficult to hear “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” without hearing the Chairman of the Board’s influence, not to mention how much of ‘Ol Blue Eyes’ version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” comes across in the group’s rendition. Likewise, the Boss famously used to perform “Sherry” at his live shows, and songs like “Sherry Darling” and “Walk Like a Man”, which takes its title from a Four Seasons’ hit, certainly reveal the band’s impact on the fellow Garden State native. From the original 18 discs to the solo work of their lead singer to the authorial work of their songwriter to the reinterpretation of their songs in the present day, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons released a body of work that deserves serious attention.