Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had their first No. 1 hit 50 years ago this month. "Sherry" was the start of a career that has lasted half a century. The group's rise from the projects of Newark, N.J., to the top of the music charts has been celebrated in the Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys, and now, Valli himself is set to make his own Broadway debut with a weeklong concert engagement at the Broadway Theatre in New York starting Oct. 19.
Valli spoke to Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about singing impressions and hair products. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.
You weren't born with that name were you?
"No, I wasn't. My name actually is Francesco Castelluccio."
And where did 'Frankie Valli' come from?
"I had a manager that thought that Castelluccio was too long and no one would understand it. At that time, he could've called me anything he wanted as long as I was getting this shot."
And I'm told that the group wasn't always called The Four Seasons.
"Well it was called so many names. It was everything from The Varitones to The Romans to The Topics to The Village Voices. And there were some names we can't use on radio that might upset a lot of people."
Now I'm told that there was an actual 'Four Seasons,' but not the fancy hotel or restaurant.
"Right, it was a cocktail lounge in a bowling alley. We went there to play in the cocktail lounge and didn't get the job, and on the way out, looked up and said, 'Boy, what a great name for a group!' "
I gotta ask you about the falsetto. What made you decide to sing up there?
"I don't know. You know, I thought everyone had falsetto. And since I wasn't a schooled singer who studied with anybody, I just thought anybody who had a voice could do anything they wanted with their voice. Not until much later on in life did I realize I had been blessed with an incredible range, and then I saw it from a different perspective."
Is it any harder to hit those notes nowadays?
"I'm sure there's a note or two that may not air. What happens is that you gain some lows and lose some highs as you get older. In most cases you change keys in songs — you'll come down a half-tone or a full tone — and that's about it. Singers are no different than bodybuilders. You have to sing everyday. You have to try to stay in great shape. So anybody out there that wants to be a singer, it's no smoking, no drinking and no substances if you really want to keep it and be able to go out there and continue to do it. So basically you have to live a pretty clean life."
The musical Jersey Boys has been so successful. I gather there were some stories that are related in the musical that you didn't necessarily feel that it would help you for the public to know when you were actually living those years?
"Well, all through the early days of our success, the one thing that I was afraid of more than anything was that the public might find out we were not clean-cut kids who went to church every Sunday. Some of the guys in the group had prison records. So we just prayed and hoped that nobody would ever find out.
"When it came down to doing the play, Bob Gaudio said to me, 'Ya know, if we do a play, and it's going to be about our lives, we have to lay it all out there. Are you ready to do that?' At that particular time, there were so many record artists that had not made it yet until they got arrested. So at this point in time, I said, 'What difference is it going to make?' So he went along with that and so did I. We were just very careful to try not to hurt anybody."
Was music your step up and out?
"That was my only way out. I mean I don't know what would've happened if it wasn't for being involved in the music business. You know, I started out very young, and I was really convinced as to what I wanted to do. And I would buy these songbooks. It was lyrics to all the songs that were popular at the time. And I would sing along when these songs were being played on the radio, and then I started to mess around a little bit with doing impressions. And by doing impressions, I began to realize what this vocal mechanism was really capable of doing. And I took a little from the various different people that I liked a lot and created a style of my own.
"Impressions really open it up for you and make it wide. You have to think of it this way: If someone goes to a singing coach — in most cases, if there were 20 people who went to this singing coach and they were all baritones, they probably would all sound pretty similar. That's his way of teaching. But by doing impressions, you can broaden that scope. You can learn how does this guy do this and that guy do that and this lady do this and that one do this. And by doing these impressions and getting as close as you can, you will develop things. There will be more possibilities when you're singing, depending on the song you're singing. As far as lyrics were concerned, in my opinion, there was never anybody quite as good as Frank Sinatra. There was no one that could sing a lyric like he could.
"When you think about it, the interpretation of a song is very, very important. Hit records are a combination of a lot of things, but first of all and most importantly, in my opinion, you have to have a song. The performance is very important and the arrangement is very important and the production is very important. But without the song, all of those other things don't mean quite as much.
"Having a style is very important in making it. Even as time went by, the first time you heard The Four Tops, you knew right then and there was nobody that you'd ever heard in your life that sounded like Levi Stubbs. There just wasn't! That goes all the way down with every singer, whether it was Clyde McPhatter and the days when he was a Drifter. You knew it was him. Elvis Presley had a very unique voice.
"Establishing a style is important. It really is. But a lot of singers get so involved with their instrument and more so than they do in what they're singing. I think you really have to think about what you're singing. You have to make the public believe what you're singing, and in order to do that, you have to believe it."
I have also read that if you hadn't become a singer you would have been a hairdresser.
"Right, until I realized that you couldn't sing and do hair at the same time. ... I loved doing hair because it was very, very creative. But working in a shop was just not for me. I've always considered myself to be a creative person. Doing hair means to do someone's hair to complement their face. When the customer's telling you what they want and it's not right for them, it can be very frustrating."
You know, Joe Pesci began as a hairdresser in a hair salon.
"Right, and Joe Pesci used to cut my hair. ... Joe Pesci and I are really close friends — from a family place to a one-on-one place. Joe Pesci comes from an incredible family. We all hung out in the same neighborhoods and knew all the same people. Joe Pesci is also one of those people who probably if he didn't get involved in the acting business would've probably been mobbed up. That's the way we grew up when we were kids. That's the way it was. Joe Pesci was as talented when he was a kid as he is right now. But sometimes things are not happening or you're not in the right place at the right time or whatever. Joe Pesci's also an incredible singer and musician. He plays the guitar and sings very well."
So since we're talking about hair, mousse, gel, spray or pomade?
"None of them. There are people whose hair needs help. When hair is resistant you need to use product on it. Or if there's a style that's going on, you need to put something on your hair. There is so much dust in the air to start off with and impurities in the air. You put anything on your hair that has any sticky substance, imagine going an entire day. At the end of the day if you could really weigh your hair, it would probably be a half a pound more than it originally was.
"Occasionally depending on what the situation is, if I want a little shine to my hair, I'll put something on my hair. There are a lot of really good products out there. Sometimes I revert to some of things I did when I was kid. If I wanted my hair to shine a little bit, I'd put a dab of Vaseline in my hands and rubbed it together and put it through my hair because I couldn't afford lanolin. ... Vaseline can give you a great shine, but you better wash your hair at the end of the day."
Has it been hard to say goodbye to the other original Four Seasons?
"It was very difficult. You know, the first guy that left the group was Nick Massi. And it almost broke my heart when he left that group. But Nick was a particular kind of guy that being on the road was not really what Nick was all about.
"But I never in my life have known anybody who was more in love with music than Nick Massi — learned a lot of his music in the penitentiary. And Tommy DeVito was a terrific guitar player. Again, here's a guy who learned to play guitar in jail. And Bob Gaudio was an incredible writer."
Do you have a song [other than 'Sherry,' 'Walk Like a Man,' 'Big Girls Don't Cry,' and 'Can't Take My Eyes Off of You'] that you really enjoy singing?
"There are so many songs. I go through some of the albums that we have sometimes and listen to some of the songs that the public probably hardly even knows, because in that period of time when we were having hits, LPs were not that popular, that came later on. But I've loved and enjoyed doing just about everything that I've ever recorded. Although there may have been some things I recorded that didn't turn out exactly the way I liked them or I might have gone in and done them over, there's nothing I'm sorry for that I recorded.
"Not too very long ago, I did a CD for Universal. They came to us. We thought about it and weren't too sure we should do one. But we did it anyway — I did it. It was called Frankie Valli: Romancing the '60s. I just took a bunch that I absolutely love that other people recorded. I've always had this feeling about music, that if you took a song that someone else recorded, unless you could make it yours in some way, you should not do it. I was very careful about the songs that I chose to do in this CD. Unfortunately we have very little radio going on, and there are just about no record stores at all that I can think of. It never really had a chance. But I do some of the songs from this album in the show and I must tell you right now, the response is mind-boggling.
"That's another thing that I learned from being around at a period of time when Sinatra was major and Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole: They all recorded the same songs. Every single one of these artists in most cases at some time or another, they were recording songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and all the great writers of that period — the exact song — they'd go in and do their interpretation of it. They were all able to make it theirs. You could listen to different versions and get just as much enjoyment out of it as you did any of the others."
So, after 50 years [in the music business], what's the key to keeping going and staying fresh?
"Well, I think the key is that you have to be in good health. You have to really love what you do and be capable of doing it. Or do it at least until you're not capable of doing it anymore. Right now, I'm feeling fine and I'll do it for as long as I can."
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.