[14 August 2008]
Frankie Valli is New Jersey’s link between Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen. He’s the Garden State’s Elvis Presley, the man who made rock and roll tough and tender, so that one could listen to it and still be manly without being a goon. He embodied cool and street corner swagger; the hood with a heart who you’d want by your side in a fight, and the boyfriend you’d be afraid to bring home to meet your parents, but who would make you the envy of all your friends.
Born in 1934, Valli started out singing professionally in the ‘50s, but didn’t hit it big until the ‘60s with his band the Four Seasons. Valli had some success as a solo artist during this decade, but he didn’t really establish a separate identity from the Four Seasons until the ‘70s. This may seem odd, as Valli is actually older than Elvis Presley, but his look and his voice possess a classic quality that seems to exist outside of any particular era.
Valli’s first two albums as a solo act were called Solo and Timeless. He originally put out these records as individual efforts while continuing to lead the Four Seasons. The biggest difference between the Four Seasons and Valli’s independent efforts relate to the use of his falsetto. The Four Seasons’ records regularly featured Valli hitting the distinctive high notes. Just think of a tune like “Sherry”. His solo records, on the other hand, were marked by Valli’s crooning. For example, think of Valli’s big hit from 1967, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”. The vocals are startlingly different.
Collectors’ Choice records has just re-released all of Valli’s domestic solo albums from the 20th century (with the exception of two he recorded for Motown, which are available from Hip-O Records) as a series of twofers. Solo and Timeless are sensibly paired together. At the time of its 1968 release, Solo merely compiled his already released 45s, with the addition of a few newly recorded standards like “My Funny Valentine” and “Secret Love”. While some of the material is suspect, like the saccharine “My Mother’s Eyes”, other tracks were top-notch pop-rock singles that deserve to be remembered, such as the original “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)”, which later became a big hit for the Walker Brothers, the angst-filled ballad “The Proud One”, and the snappy “(You’re Gonna) Hurt Yourself”.
Timeless, released in the same year as Solo, was Valli’s first full-fledged effort at creating an album. While the record lacks the hits of the previous LP, Timeless showcases Valli’s effervescent style as an adult contemporary artist. He offers mellow takes on covers of popular songs from the period, like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”, Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny”, and Jimmy Webb’s (by way of Glen Campbell) “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. Valli slows the songs down and lets the band, especially the horn sections, do the heavy lifting.
It then took seven years for Valli to put out another solo album. For some reason, Collectors’ Choice pairs up 1975’s Close Up with 1976’s Valli, rather than his other 1975 album, Our Day Will Come (which Collectors’ Choice matched with 1977’s Lady Put Out the Light). Close Up contains Valli’s first number one record (without the Four Seasons), the sweet ballad “My Eyes Adored You”, as well as a 10-minute version of his disco hit “Swear to God”. The rest of Close Up follows in the same light-urban mode. Valli wraps his voice around well-written tunes that bespeak of love as something hot and classy. The cheesiness is offset by the sincerity of Valli’s delivery. He always sings like he means it. In comparison, Valli did not yield any top ten singles, but has plenty of charms of its own, and the sophisticated pop arrangements allow Valli to swing. He does a wonderful job belting out Boz Scagg’s “We’re All Alone” (which became a big hit for Rita Coolidge a year later), and does heartfelt versions of the tender love songs “Lucia” (with the London Symphony Orchestra) and “What Good Am I Without You”. He does a few disco numbers, but these are somewhat disposable.
However, the disco songs are the best things on Our Day Will Come. Valli’s dance version of Ruby and the Romantics’ 1963 tune was popular, but the standout track from the album is the incongruous disco version of the Left Banke’s pained adolescent trope, “Walk Away Renée”. The Left Banke used an almost classical orchestration to frame the narrator’s angst. Valli does a bouncy version you can hustle to. This doesn’t stop the singer from carefully annunciating each syllable. The split between body and mind has never been more pronounced!
Our Day Will Come is paired with the much smoother Lady Put the Light Out (1977). Valli takes a languid approach to the mostly soft rock whose titles—“With You”, “Second Thoughts,” “I Could Have Loved You”, etc.—suggest their gentle love themes. The record generally offers many pleasant moments because of the consistency of tone. Valli’s mellifluous voice is always a pleasure to hear, and the sophisticated arrangements showcase his ability to sound strong and tender, but there are no real highlights here. The most interesting song would be “Native New Yorker” (later a disco hit for Odyssey), a tribute to Big Apple women, whose lyrics (“You’re no tramp / But you’re no lady”) come off as though written for a parody sung by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live.
Valli’s next record spawned his greatest success as a solo artist, thanks to Barry Gibb. Gibb gave Valli the theme song to the movie Grease, which was being adapted from the Broadway play with some added tunes. The song went platinum, and the 1978 album Frankie Valli…Is the Word attempted to cash in on its success. Valli rocks out more here than he did in the past, but while there’s one other Gibb-penned song, “Save Me, Save Me”, that has a nice flow, the rest of the material is unremarkable.
Frankie Valli…Is the Word is paired with Valli’s 1980 album Heaven Above Me, which proved to be his last album for more than 20 years due to hearing problems that caused him to undergo a series of surgeries. Valli returns more to a soft rock vein and to a dance beat. As a result, the songs have a certain sultriness, especially on his romantic duet with Chris Forde, “Where Did We Go Wrong”, and the up-tempo, sexy number “Let It Be Whatever It Is”. The album’s centerpiece is the Latin-tinged, 10-minute-plus “Soul/Heaven Above Me”, which was a disco hit.
Valli himself has made a comeback in recent years thanks to the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys, about the Four Seasons, and Valli’s recurring role on HBO’s “The Sopranos”. He has a new record out on the adult contemporary charts, and these re-releases show the continued interest in the man and his music. He was always too good to be forgotten. These discs should spawn a continued resurgence of attention to the great singer. What was once true remains today—Frankie Valli is the word.