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Frankie Valli talks music, ‘Jersey Boys’ & the mob

July 17, 2016 GMT

Frankie Valli isn’t singing in the rain. But the legendary vocal dynamo is singing in the drain, well, almost, on a regular basis.

The leader and namesake of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons — whose music and story are immortalized in the Clint Eastwood-directed film and La Jolla Playhouse-bred hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” — keeps his voice in shape by practicing. Daily. In the shower of his Calabasas home, north of Los Angeles.

“I try to sing every day, although there are times you have to get away from it,” said Valli, 82, who performs a sold-out show Saturday with the latest edition of The Four Seasons at Pala Casino’s Starlight Theater.

“Mainly, I sing while taking a shower. I take a shower that’s a little longer than normal; maybe I’ll be in the shower for half an hour, singing scales and then songs. You do it every day. It’s like lifting weights. You have to keep the machine oiled.”

And what songs does Valli — whose name is synonymous with such classics as “Sherry, “Walk Like a Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” — dive into during his extended showers?

“Sometimes, I’m just improvising. Sometimes, I’m singing some of my favorite standards,” he said. “I might be singing ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ or ‘All the Things You Are.’ Or I might be singing something by Sinatra and get the feel and really pay attention to singing it in a way where I’m communicating.”

What also appeals to Valli, besides keeping both his famous falsetto and his lower register in shape, is the sound of his voice in the shower. When asked, half-jokingly, if he has considered installing recording equipment in his shower, he offered an earnest response.

“To tell you the truth, I had a sound company come into my shower to take a sample of the echo and re-create it when I go into my (home recording) studio, because I like the sound of it,” Valli said. “I have two walls of tile and two walls of glass that face each other in my shower. There’s a natural echo that I really like.”

Now 82, New Jersey native Valli performs up to 10 times a month across the country. He recently completed a Christmas album and hopes to complete a jazz album with top organist Joey DeFrancesco next year.

In September, Valli will perform in London, where a touring production of “Jersey Boys” is at the Piccadilly Theatre through next April. Another touring production will be at the San Diego Civic Theatre next May for six days, under the auspices of Broadway/San Diego.

“I never had any idea ‘Jersey Boys’ would end up as big as it did, but I thought there was something there,” Valli recalled. “I felt there was a story that was different from anyone else I knew of in the music business — the fact we were four guys who grew up poor, kind of in the ghetto, and that a couple of guys did time for burglary and stuff like that. Those were things we never talked about. Because, in those days, we were afraid if anybody found out, no record company would distribute our merchandise and no radio stations would play us.

“Before we started pitching ‘Jersey Boys’ to producers, Bob (Gaudio, The Four Seasons’ co-founder and primary songwriter) asked me: ‘Are we going to tell the truth?’ I said: ‘Absolutely. What do we have to lose?’ Everybody calls it a musical, but I don’t see it that way. I thought it was a story about four guys who came from a rough neighborhood, went through a lot of changes and trouble, and came out of all that and were successful.”

“Jersey Boys” debuted at La Jolla Playhouse in 2004, then opened late the next year on Broadway, where it’s still running. It earned eight Tony nominations and won in four categories, including Best Musical. Des McAnuff, then La Jolla Playhouse’s artistic director, was nominated for Best Direction of a Musical, but lost to “Sweeney Todd” director John Doyle.

“We got Des, who I knew had done The Who’s ‘Tommy’ at the La Jolla Playhouse,” Valle said. “I saw ‘Tommy’ and loved it. I loved the fact he was not afraid to take chances in producing and directing.”

Valli was born Frank Castelluccio in 1934. His career formally began with the release of his 1953 debut record, “My Mother’s Eyes,” which was credited to Frankie Valley and The Travellers. Three years later, he made the first of three appearances on TV’s “The Ed Sullivan Show” as the lead singer in The Four Lovers. He was still a teenager.

“For me, it was all brand new and very exciting. It was something I always wanted to do and never quite knew how it might come about,” recalled Valli, who got his start sitting in with the Variety Trio in his hometown of Newark.

The guitarist in the trio was future Four Seasons mainstay Tommy DeVito. He paired the teenage singer with an aspiring country vocalist from Syracuse named Jean Valley. After she told a New York manager that Castelluccio was her brother, he changed his professional name to Valley, then shortened it to Valli to reflect his Italian heritage.

Alas, “My Mother’s Eyes” was a flop, as was his next single, “Somebody Else Took Her Home.” It was not until “Sherry” topped the national Billboard charts for five consecutive weeks in 1963 that The Four Seasons scored their first hit.

Can Valli recall the names of the many pre-Four Seasons bands he led?

“It was basically always the same personnel in each; we just changed the name when there was no success,” he explained. “We started off as The Varitones, Then we were Billy Dixon and The Topics, The Village Voices, The Four Lovers. We had so many names.”

Did he ever consider throwing in the towel?

“Oh, there were many times,” Valli said. “I went to school to become a hair dresser. I worked construction and for a floral company, delivering and later making arrangements for weddings and funerals. I was a maintenance worker for the city of Newark. I did it as a means of making a living and sang in clubs at night.”

Many of those clubs were owned by members of the Mafia, a fact that meant Valli did not need to do any research when he was cast as Rusty Millo in the hit TV series “The Sopranos.”

“That’s the atmosphere I grew up in when I was a kid,” he said. “If you were in the music business, in most cases, all the places you worked for were owned by those guys. Organized crime (people) are the guys who owned the bars and nightclubs. I came from a very Italian neighborhood and there was a lot of organized crime presence. I knew guys who dressed in suits every day and drove Cadillacs, and didn’t go to work. I don’t know what they did. Then, grew up, and realized some were numbers runners and gamblers...

I can tel you that it got blown out of proportion. I don’t know of any organized crime situation where they took advantage of ordinary citizens. There were fights with (competing mob) families over territories, and they killed each other, and the neighborhoods were a lot safer. I cane from a very poor neighborhood, but you could keep your doors and windows open at night.”

When The Four Seasons finally took off, their ascent was swift and dramatic.

Between September 1962 and June 1964, the group scored 12 Top 40 hits and topped the charts with “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll.” Nineteen more Top 40 hits followed, along with worldwide record sales of more than 100 million. Valli also fared well on his own, scoring nine Top 40 hits as a solo artist between 1966 and 1978. Two of them, “My Eyes Adored You” and “Grease,” topped the charts.

By the late 1960s, the Four Seasons brand of close-harmony singing had fallen from favor. In 1972, the group underwent lineup changes and signed to Motown Records. After three years at Motown without getting a single hit, the Valli-led act signed with a different label and soon began a disco-fueled resurgence.

“I always dreamed of longevity, but I never thought it would last this long. The secret was we recorded in many styles, from the most elementary to the most sophisticated,” said Valli, who sounded taken aback when asked what he does to relax.

“You know, my whole life has been music,” he noted. “I don’t play golf. I don’t play tennis. I don’t hike. I don’t ski. If I could do all music, all day long for my whole life, that would be the ultimate for me.”

george.varga@sduniontribune.com