Oh, What a Night: The Hit Men Behind Frankie Valli Take the Auditorium, Minus Frankie
FlaglerLive | December 28, 2012
Saturday evening (Dec. 29) the Flagler Auditorium closes out its year not with a bang so much as with the Hit Men, who bill themselves as the original stars of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Or more accurately as Lee Shapiro, the keyboardist and the man to be credited with the group’s rebirth—minus Valli—puts it: the original 70s configuration. That’s when the group hit the big time with “Oh, What a Night,” “Who Loves You,” and “Swearin’ to God.” And it’s to audiences from that era, who also happen to be the dominant demographic in Palm Coast, that the Hit Men will primarily play to.
The work of the original hit-makers, as Shapiro calls them, extends beyond the name Frankie Valli. The group, whose other members include Gerry Polci, Jimmy Ryan, Larry Gates and Russ Velazquez have played, in no particular order, under the aegis of other legendary groups of the era—Tommy James and the Shondells, the Critters, Carly Simon, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Barry Manilow, Elton John and Kiki, the Ramones, and Chicago.
“People may not recognize us by our names like they would George Harrison or Ringo Starr, but we’re responsible for a lot of the music that people 50 years old and older grew up to—the music of their youth,” Shapiro says. “We fill the niche for people for whom there’s nothing on the radio.”
Between their many members the Hit Men have performed songs from over 80 hit albums. “You hear the hits the way you remember them,” Shapiro says. “When we play ‘Oh, What a Night,’ it doesn’t sound like the record—it is the record. What I mean by that is it’s not a facsimile; it’s authentically the record—because we made the record.”
So don’t confuse them with a mere tribute group. The songs they’re bringing to the Flagler Auditorium are only ones they’ve performed together when they–not to mention the songs–were hits: All the people who made those songs famous are artists whom the Hit Men knew and played with and in many cases stay in touch with.
As it happens, Shapiro first saw Bob Gaudio, the original Four Seasons producer and songwriter, play for Frankie Valli on the Ed Sullivan Show when he was nine years old. Gaudio was at the keyboard. Ten years later, at 19, Shapiro replaced him as Frankie Valli’s keyboardist. The opportunity came when Valli was looking to begin the second phase of his 70s act. Since the original phase had been so successful because of songs made popular by the Broadway show, Jersey Boys, Valli kept his talent search to the same stomping grounds: New Jersey and New York. At the time, word of mouth had spread about Shapiro, then a composition major at the Manhattan School of Music. Shapiro had been getting some exposure by playing in bands and in studio sessions. Valli’s manager approached him and asked if he’d like to audition.
“Well, shit,” he said.
The day wouldn’t be easily forgotten. Shapiro hadn’t been standing anxiously in the studio long when Frankie Valli himself sauntered in. Frankie asked him to do an obligata, or an introduction that is outside the main tune, in this case to the hit Valli song, “Dawn.” When Frankie opened his mouth to sing that first verse—“Pretty as a midsummer’s morning, they call her Dawn”—Shapiro blanked and abruptly stopped playing, so mesmerized was he by Valli’s voice. Somehow, he still managed to land the gig. And with that, at 19, Shapiro went to Vegas. George Polci had already gotten the job as the band’s guitarist. He was 20. That was 1973, a hair away from 40 years ago and they’re still playing together.
Stories like these are about more than just peering through rose-colored glasses at how exactly each member got there: the stories are part of the show the Hit Men are bringing to Palm Coast on the 29th. Between songs, group members will share anecdotes about their time with various performers, the making of the hits, and how they got their names in a behind-the-scenes type of extra feature. It’s another way they’re able to separate themselves from “sound-a-alike” or tribute groups.
Some other such stories include certain members, in this case Jimmy Ryan, being called to London to record for a producer with the unfamiliar name of Reginald Dwight. The man became better known by his stage name: Elton John. Another time, Ryan got called to sing backup for Carly Simon. He was surprised to find Paul McCartney next to him in the studio, singing for the same tract.
“There’s no limitations here, we’re very biographical, very authentic,” Shapiro says. “People can expect to hear the music of their youth by the guys who created it.” That’s not to say that there isn’t something there for people more familiar with the ages of Monica Lewinsky and Facebook than Watergate. “The music itself is so infectious, people should bring the kids for a very fun evening. It’s not only about the band members’ stories,” Shapiro says. “You could always share with your kids the story of where you were the first time you heard a particular song. That’s a universal experience.”
The Hit Men: The Original Stars of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, in performance for one night only, Saturday, Dec. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the Flagler Auditorium. Tickets are $29 for adults, $18 for youths. Call the Auditorium box office at 437-7547 or visit the auditorium’s website.