KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Stop for a minute and think about the contrast between illusion and reality.
Where does one stop and the other begin?
That’s what Frankie Valli found himself considering the first time he watched a run-through of “Jersey Boys,” the mega-hit Broadway musical that depicts Valli’s rise to fame in the 1960s with the band that would become famous as the Four Seasons.
“How would the word ‘strange’ sound to you?” Valli said the other day. “It’s like a reflection of yourself. You look in the mirror and all of a sudden the reflection you see in the mirror is doing you. And you’re just standing there watching.”
To call Valli an iconic figure in pop music might be an understatement. He and the Four Seasons scored 40 Top 40 hits, including eight singles that went to No. 1. Most of the songs were written by the group’s co-founder Bob Gaudio. Today many of them — “Walk Like a Man,” “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” — remain instantly recognizable. What makes them so, aside from Gaudio’s expert craftsmanship, are Valli’s utterly unique falsetto vocals.
But Valli said he didn’t realize he was doing anything special.
“The magic that may seem to be there was something that was normal and natural,” he said from a tour stop in Denver. “I never studied singing with anybody. And I never thought that what I was doing was so incredibly unique. I thought anybody singing could do it. It took me awhile to understand that. I had this wonderful gift, and I loved using it.
“I learned to sing by doing impressions, singing songs that I liked that the radio was playing. You liked the song and you wanted to sound like the person doing it. … If you could imitate four or five people, if you really worked on it you could probably do 15 or 20. But as I said, I never gave it a second thought. I thought all singers could do that.”
“Jersey Boys,” with which Valli and Gaudio were directly involved, is an international hit, and Valli said there are plans to adapt it as a film, which could begin shooting as early as January. In terms of the story, which depicts the group’s early struggles, the conflicts among bandmates, brushes with organized crime and eventual success as recording artists, Valli said the show is “95 percent accurate.”
For this concert tour, Valli is bringing a band that includes two guitars, a bass, drums, keyboards, a sax player, four singers and a small horn section. The audience, he said, will hear plenty of hits.
“And we try to keep the talking down so we can get a lot of music in,” he said. “I think that’s really the key to live performing. I’m sure there will be people who come to the show and say, ‘Oh, he didn’t do that song I was waiting for.’ But it’s like a guy with 100 suits. You can’t wear them all at the same time. It’s just how it is.”
But Valli loves singing the hits because that’s what people come to hear.
“I’m thrilled to have an audience,” he said. “Without an audience, I could be doing this in my living room, and I wouldn’t make 20 cents doing it.”
Valli came up at a time when the music business was very different. In the 1960s its foundation was virtually a 19th-century industrial model: You made recordings, which were pressed as albums and singles at a factory and then trucked out to record stores. Top 40 radio programming included a wide variety of music — pop groups like the Four Seasons alongside R&B artists, soul singers and British rock bands — and making personal connections with DJs was crucial.
Now we’re in the age of digital downloads, automated radio and consumer-programmed digital “stations,” but Valli admitted there are things about the old music business he misses.
“I think technology does change things,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s better. I miss the record stores and the radio stations. I can remember a period of time just in New York City when there had to be eight or 10 radio stations playing pop music. That’s all gone.
“And the relationship recording artists had with radio was incredible. You could go out and promote a record and go to a city like Detroit, another great record town, and you’d have to be there a couple of days to cover all the radio stations and introduce yourself to all the DJs.”
On the other hand, Valli said, he is heartened that stations with oldies formats today are usually No. 1 or 2 in their markets.
“There was something to that music,” he said. “It was like the music of great songwriters, like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and the Gershwins. I mean, some things are forever.”
Valli, an Italian-American kid from Jersey, has done a bit of film acting through the years, but never so memorably as when playing mob capo Rusty Millio in the fifth and sixth seasons of “The Sopranos,” which focused on a New Jersey mafia family.
Casting Valli was a nice postmodern touch, because Valli and his music were often cited by characters on the show. Valli said David Chase, the series creator, crafted the part specifically for him. And at the first rehearsal Chase gave him some advice.
“He said, ‘I want you to play it like you,’” Valli recalled. “‘I want you to do it like it’s actually you; you don’t have to change your voice; do it as though you were that person.’ So that’s what I did, and I had a lot of fun doing it. I loved every minute of it.”
As depicted in “Jersey Boys,” singers couldn’t work their way up in the music business without encountering the mob. Valli said Rusty wasn’t really modeled on anyone he had ever known, but he was a type he knew well, the kind of guy who was part of the social fabric.
“There isn’t a city in America where at certain points in time there wasn’t an organized crime situation going on,” he said. “Every city in America had something, whether it was Philadelphia or Kansas City or Los Angeles. I grew up in the middle of it. I grew up in a very Italian neighborhood that was mixed. But I knew a lot of those kinds of people. Those were the guys who owned the clubs we worked in. … That’s just the way it was.”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.