Not Always Fair Weather: A Brief History of The Four Seasons
By Raven Snook
You know their name and you probably know their songs – even if you’re not aware that they wrote them. The Four Seasons enjoyed an incredible string of hits in the 1960s including “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll,” all featuring their unmistakable sound tight doo-woo-inspired harmonies supporting lead singer Frankie Valli’s soaring falsetto vocals. What makes the success of The Four Seasons particularly striking is that they were one of only a hand full of American bands to weather the British invasion that started in 1964. But unlike those English groups – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones – The Four Seasons never sparked a myth or a movement. Eschewing the counterculture and harder rock and roll, this quartet of blue collar, streetwise Jersey Boys performed unabashedly catchy pop tunes that spoke to their own demographic: working class guys and gals trying to make out and make it in an increasingly complicated world.
“I think The Four Seasons are misunderstood and undeservedly written off,” says musicologist and Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken, a long-time fan of the group, “And yet there are myriad reasons why their music remained so popular. Simply put, they made damn good records.”
In the late 1950s, three of the four original members – guitarist Tommy DeVito, bassist Nick Massi and lead singer Frankie Valli – were knocking about Jersey, playing music together in various incarnations, most notably as The Four Lovers. But it wasn’t until they hooked up with keyboardist-songwriter Bob Gaudio and producer-songwriter Bob Crewe that they really started to gel.
Initially, Crewe used The Four Seasons as backup singers for his other recording projects. Although the boys protested, he claimed to be waiting for them to come up with a hit. In 1962 their first number-one song “Sherry,” co-written by Crewe and Gaudio (the team that would pen the lion’s share of the groups hits), became their breakthrough, followed by “Big Girls Don’t Cry” that same year. “Crewe fashioned a sleek, stylised production motif for the Seasons’ discs that signified a bridge spanning the stoop-step, doo-wop world of the fifties to Camerlot and the vistas of a ‘future’ in the sixties,” Diken explains.
The same way that the Beach Boys captured Southern California living, The Four Seasons encapsulated the North-eastern working class experience. “Their records evoke the feel of New York City,” says Diken. “You can picture the buildings, feel the rhythm of people walking the street and riding the subways. It’s imbued in the fibre of the groves and the attitude in the singing.”
Diken also stresses the originality of The Four Seasons. “Their records were like no others on the radio,” he says. “While the group’s signature sound was always present, their singles were all little worlds unto themselves, so different from each other. At times, their catchy hooks belied the sophistication of the music. They used innovative cords and changes, arresting rhythmic shifts and patterns, to make ‘pop symphonies.’ Take “Dawn”. It still sounds fresh and exciting because there is so much musical adventure. It takes me to a different place every time I hear it. Nobody could have kept The Four Seasons off the charts.”
“Another intriguing fact is that The Four Seasons appealed to teenagers yet were ‘safe’ enough for adults,” Diken continues. “They were innately hip but perhaps not ‘cool’ like the Beatles or Stones. Their appearance was more conventional like the entertainers of my parents’ era.”
The 1960s was an era of experimentation with groups of all genres feeding off of one another. The Four Seasons were inspired by Motown artists (in fact, many listeners initially thought that they were black and they had four hits on the Billboard R & B charts) and, in turn, their impact was far reaching. The Rolling Stones’ producer Andrew Loog Oldham took creative cues from Bob Crewe’s vision for The Seasons and Keith Richards was purportedly captivated by “Rag Doll.” Fellow famous Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen’s wide-screen epics bear the influence of The Four Seasons’ cinematic mini-dramas and wrong-side-of-the-track strife. And who can forget Billy Joel’s smash hit homage “Uptown Girl”?
Even The Four Seasons’ rivals The Beach Boys referenced their sound. “There was a very healthy competitive streak between Brian Wilson [of The Beach Boys] and The Four Seasons, “explains Diken. ‘There’s a Valli-like falsetto tag at the fade of The Beach Boys’ Surfer’s Surfin’ Today.”
The Four Seasons had 13 top-ten hits between 1962-67. They also had a covert side project named The Wonder Who? which had a hit with the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.” But as the sixties wore on, The Four Seasons’ success waned. Times and tastes were a changing and progressive politics and psychedella reigned. Although Massi and DeVito left the group and Valli launched a solo career, The Four Seasons continued on. The band attempted to address issues of the day with Genuine Imitation of Life Gazette, a 1969 concept album, but failed to generate any chart toppers. Soon after, Gaudio ceased performing on stage, but retained his position behind the scenes and all that remained of The Four Seasons was Frankie Valli and for-hire instrumentalists. The band enjoyed just one more hit. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” in the mid-70s a song nostalgic for their heyday.
But The Four Seasons music never died. It was everywhere, in movies on the radio. Gaudio and Valli remained close friends and business partners and over the years, they dreamed of their careers being translated into a film or a show. Although their music was ubiquitous this story had never been told. Skip to 2004 when JERSEY BOYS, a musical based on the lives and songs of The Four Seasons, premiered at La Jolla Playhouse. The show moved to Broadway in the fall of 2005, reminding Baby boomers of their past and introducing Gen Xers to an important part of music history.
Diken sums up the four-decade appeal of The Four Seasons like this; “Their records were full of guts, power, class and art. And in an era where a record’s success relied heavily on dance-ablity and humm-ablity, The Four Seasons offered iron -clad hooks and rhythm of life grooves that defied the listener to sit still.”