NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

In and out of harmony

How the Four Seasons sang their way to a Broadway show

BY DAVID HINCKLEY

Somewhere in rock 'n' roll lore you can still find the remarkably wrongheaded notion that nothing happened between Elvis joining the Army on Aug. 4, 1958, and the Beatles singing for Ed Sullivan on Feb. 9, 1964.

In between, goes this view, real rock 'n' roll died and every song was sung by Fabian, who couldn't sing.

It's a tidy way to capsulize six years. But it's nonsense. The forces set in motion by Elvis, Chuck Berry and their fellow pioneers spent those years simmering and incubating. Artists like Paul Simon, Phil Spector and Bob Dylan and groups like the Beach Boys, the Temptations, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were working under the radar, getting good.

So were the Four Seasons, whose members had been singing in various combinations since the early '50s. So by 1961, when Bob Gaudio joined Frankie Valli, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito, they brought along some history.

"We came along at an interesting time," says Gaudio, whose first break was co-writing the 1958 novelty hit "Short Shorts."

"I liked R&B instrumentals like Bill Doggett's 'Honky Tonk,'" he says. "But we were also listening to street-corner groups and traditional pop harmony groups like the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los."

The group's 1962 breakout hit "Sherry" was "a combination of those influences," he says.

To many young music fans today, of course, the story of "Sherry" and the Four Seasons might as well be a story out of 12th-century Bulgaria. But it's good enough that, as of this week, it's being told on Broadway.

The biographical show "Jersey Boys" started previews last week at the Virginia Theatre and opens Nov. 6. Gaudio, who wrote or co-wrote the music, says he's optimistic it can succeed where shows about the Beach Boys and John Lennon recently died.

A difference, Gaudio notes, is that "Jersey Boys" may have a fuller story, touching on the dark underside of the music biz and tense intragroup conflicts.

Also, the story is fresh.

"Even people who loved our music really didn't know anything about us," Gaudio says. "We were never glamorous. We were never a phenomenon."

However, with "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man" - three straight No. 1 hits - the Seasons did create a critical bridge between the pop/rhythm and blues harmonies of the '50s and the incoming sound of the '60s. Alongside the Beach Boys, they were among the first kids on that new playground.

"We liked the Beach Boys," Gaudio says. "There was kind of that friendly East Coast, West Coast thing between us. We were always fans. 'God Only Knows' is a brilliant record."

If Brian Wilson is properly considered a master of harmony, Gaudio and his partner Bob Crewe were no slouches either with harmonies or production.

"The first thing people look at with Four Seasons records is the vocals," Gaudio says. "But for me, the drum fills and rhythms are as much a part of it as anything. They're the base on which the harmonies were built."

One listen to the Four Seasons hit "Dawn" will confirm that.

"I'm a frustrated drummer," Gaudio says. "That's why our songs tended to be drum-heavy. But our harmonies were complex, too. You'll never hear 'Rag Doll' in a Holiday Inn lounge because it's just too hard to sing."

After those first three hits, Gaudio says, he changed the Seasons' sound just to keep it fresh. Not long thereafter, by coincidence, the Beatles arrived.

"To be honest, I didn't feel a sense of competition," he says. "Then I looked at the charts and the Beatles had No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4; No. 3 was 'Dawn.'"

The Seasons would expand their sound several more times in the next few years, scoring at one point with a chirpy recording of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." In 1967, Gaudio sent Valli back to their pop roots with the solo "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," which became the signature song in "The Deer Hunter" and one of the most-played songs of the 20th century.

It was hearing that song in "The Deer Hunter," says Gaudio, "that first got me to thinking our music would work in a show. We had TV movie offers, but we turned them down because that seems like it's just a quick burn. ['Jersey Boys'] serves the songs better."

Whether or not they add up to a Broadway hit, they sure didn't come out of a dead zone.

Originally published on October 9, 2005