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One of the most successful pop vocalists of the 1960s and 1970s, Frankie Valli's athletic voice, which could rise from a muscular tenor to a stratospheric falsetto with pinpoint accuracy, was the signature sound for dozens of chart-topping hits by the New Jersey-based vocal group the Four Seasons. From 1962 through 1968, Valli, childhood friends Tommy De Vito and Nick Massi, and teenage prodigy Bob Gaudio provided sleek, street-smart and altogether danceable hits like "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Dawn (Go Away)" and "Let's Hang On!" that for many listeners, were key colors in the tapestry of their teenaged years. Valli later established himself as a solo artist with the brassy "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," and balanced his own music career with various versions of the Four Seasons. In 1975, he struck gold in the disco era with a string of hits, including "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" and the theme to "Grease" (1978). His vast body of work kept him in the public eye as a nostalgia act throughout the 1990s and early 2000s until proper respect was paid to his life and accomplishments with "Jersey Boys," a wildly popular and award-winning musical. The production, which sprung up around the...
One of the most successful pop vocalists of the 1960s and 1970s, Frankie Valli's athletic voice, which could rise from a muscular tenor to a stratospheric falsetto with pinpoint accuracy, was the signature sound for dozens of chart-topping hits by the New Jersey-based vocal group the Four Seasons. From 1962 through 1968, Valli, childhood friends Tommy De Vito and Nick Massi, and teenage prodigy Bob Gaudio provided sleek, street-smart and altogether danceable hits like "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Dawn (Go Away)" and "Let's Hang On!" that for many listeners, were key colors in the tapestry of their teenaged years. Valli later established himself as a solo artist with the brassy "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," and balanced his own music career with various versions of the Four Seasons. In 1975, he struck gold in the disco era with a string of hits, including "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" and the theme to "Grease" (1978). His vast body of work kept him in the public eye as a nostalgia act throughout the 1990s and early 2000s until proper respect was paid to his life and accomplishments with "Jersey Boys," a wildly popular and award-winning musical. The production, which sprung up around the globe to universal acclaim, underscored Valli's enduring contributions to popular music, and the singular brilliance of his voice.
Born Francis Stephen Castellucio on May 3, 1934 in the predominately Italian First Ward neighborhood in Newark, NJ, Frankie Valli was the son of barber Anthony Castellucio and his wife, Maria, a brewery employee. Raised in the tough Stephen Crane Village public housing project, Valli's life might have taken the same routes as many of his contemporaries - the military or crime, which he briefly flirted with as a teen, resulting in an arrest for breaking and entering - had his mother not taken him to the Paramount Theater in the 1940s to see Frank Sinatra. The singer's electrifying voice and stage presence had a profound impact on Valli, who began singing on street corners in Belleville with neighborhood friends Tommy De Vito, his brother Nick, and Nick Macioci, who would later perform as Nick Massi. These impromptu performances provided Valli with an opportunity to develop his voice, which could swoop to an astonishing falsetto for dramatic impact.
The De Vito brothers had a vocal act called The Variety Trio, and in 1951, invited Valli to perform with them. While singing with the Variety Trio, Valli made the acquaintance of country and western singer Texas Jean Valley, who became his first mentor. With Valley - whose surname Valli took for his own in a variety of permutations before settling on the accepted spelling - he began auditioning for publishers and producers in New York City. He was soon signed to the Corona label, a division of Mercury Records, and recorded his first single, a cover of George Jessel's "My Mother's Eyes" in 1953. The track failed to gain recognition beyond regional audiences, and Valli reunited with Tommy and Nick De Vito to form the Variatones. The group performed under a dizzying array of names between 1954 and 1956, none of which attracted much acclaim, before a 1956 audition for RCA landed them a recording contract. Now billed as the Four Lovers, they released "You're the Apple of My Eye," which broke onto the Billboard Top 100 , earning them an appearance on the gold standard variety program "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971) in 1956. However, none of their subsequent songs made their way to the charts, so they were soon dropped by RCA.
In 1958, Valli teamed with producer Bob Crewe for session work, and released a solo single, "I Go Ape," for Okeh Records, billing himself as Frankie Tyler. More singles for Decca and smaller imprints under another barrage of pseudonyms soon followed, none of which had any significant impact on listeners. That year, the Four Lovers performed in Baltimore with the Royal Teens, who were enjoying success with the primitive but catchy "Short Shorts." After being introduced by Joe Pesci, who, at the time, was pursuing a music career before his successful run as an actor, Valli befriended the group's 15-year-old guitarist Bob Gaudio, who replaced Nick De Vito in the Four Lovers the following year. After several more personnel changes, including the departure of Hank Majewski and his subsequent replacement, Charles Callelo, who became the group's arranger, the quartet settled into the lineup that Four Seasons fans knew best: Valli, Tommy De Vito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi. In 1960, after failing to land a job at a bowling alley in Union Township, NJ, Valli and Gaudio made the best of the situation by taking the name of the establishment -The Four Seasons - for the current incarnation of the group. They also formed a partnership that required them to evenly split any earnings.
In 1960, Gaudio penned the single "Sherry," a propulsive, handclap- and footstop-driven pop song that placed Valli's voice in sharp focus. After placing the single at Vee Jay - and becoming the first white artists to sign with the predominately black R&B moniker - the track became an overnight sensation, landing at the top of the Billboard charts and thrusting Valli and the Four Seasons into the spotlight. The key to the song's success was Valli's multi-octave lead, which could easily shift from a high tenor to his astonishing falsetto. So impressed was the group and the label by Valli's talents that though the albums and singles were attributed to the Four Seasons, all carried the legend "Featuring the 'Sound" of Frankie Valli."
Between 1962 and 1968, Valli and the Four Seasons scored a remarkable string of Top 40 hits and albums on the Hot 100 charts, and between 1962 and 1964 alone, the only group to challenge their record sales was the Beach Boys, whose leader, Brian Wilson, both admired and feared the work being done by Valli, Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe, who oversaw most of the group's material. Furthermore, the Four Seasons were the only American act to land a No. 1 hit during the height of the British Invasion. After topping the charts in 1962 with "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man" in 1963, the Four Seasons returned to the No. 1 position in 1964 with the epic "Rag Doll," and would have enjoyed a second No. 1 with "Dawn (Go Away)" that year had it not been for the combined effort of three Beatles tracks in the top three Billboard slots.
In 1965, Valli, Gaudio and Crewe launched a unique situation in the pop world: they wrote and recorded material for Valli as a solo performer while still producing songs for him with the Four Seasons. The intention was to dominate the charts with material by both acts, but it took some time to establish Valli's identity outside of the group. For one, Valli sang his solo material in his natural tenor voice and eschewed his trademark falsetto. The solo songs also hewed closer to the pop material sung by performers like Neil Diamond than the soulful, dance-friendly tracks by the Four Seasons. The gambit was often hard-fought; while the Four Seasons continued to score major hits with "Let's Hang On!" (1965), "Working My Way Back to You" (1966) and "Beggin'" (1967), Valli's solo material often landed with a thud on the charts. 1965's "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" died upon arrival, and added insult to injury when the Walker Brothers turned it into a Top 20 hit just six months later. Its follow-up, "(You're Gonna) Hurt Yourself," broke the top 40, but 1966's "You're Ready Now" and "The Proud One" failed or barely made the Top 100.
But in 1967, Valli found his signature solo tune: "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," a swooning romantic ballad punctuated by blasts of brass. The track shot to No. 2 on the Billboard chart and generated some 200 covers, including hit versions by Andy Williams, Nancy Wilson and Lauryn Hill, and became a staple of film and television soundtracks, most notably "The Deer Hunter" (1978). The Four Seasons' new label, Philips, quickly generated a Top 40 solo album, The Four Seasons Present Frankie Valli Solo, which compiled previously released singles with new takes on standards like "My Funny Valentine" and "My Mother's Eyes," his first-ever single.
But as Valli's fortune as a solo artist began to rise, the remarkable, near-decade-long run of the Four Seasons as a popular act was on the wane. Like so many acts in the music business, the group had hewed to the model of building its success around singles. But the arrival of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1967) and Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and the psychedelic movement in general signaled a shift towards artistic expression through complete albums, which was a largely alien concept for the Four Seasons. The group, which was already undergoing internal strife due to several personnel changes and Gaudio's growing interest in studio work over touring, responded to the market shift by releasing more singles. Valli netted two more Top 40 solo tracks, "I Make a Fool Of Myself" (1967) and "To Give (The Reason I Live)" in 1968, but his follow-up album, Timeless (1968), which centered around covers of modern pop standards like "Sunny" and "Eleanor Rigby," saw only modest success.
By the early 1970s, Valli and the Four Seasons were no longer viable as recording artists, though they remained a popular touring act with their older material. A name shift to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and a move to Motown failed to change their fortunes, and in 1974, they left the venerable soul label. Before departing, Valli purchased a single master, "My Eyes Adored You," which he brought to Private Stock Records. Released as a Frankie Valli solo track, the lush, street-smart track shot to No. 1 in 1975, bringing the singer back to the spotlight. A follow-up, "Swearin' to God," broke the Top 10 that same year. By 1975, Valli had brokered a deal with Warner Bros. to sign the Four Seasons - now comprised of Gerry Polci, John Paiva, Don Ciccone and Lee Shapiro - and their label debut generated the No. 3 hit "Who Loves You" (1976) and the disco-flavored "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," which rose to No. 1 and spent six months on the charts. Though fans celebrated the return of Valli and the Four Seasons to the airwaves, many noticed that Valli was no longer taking the lead on many songs. The reason for his reduced presence was two-fold: Valli and Gaudio had planned to establish the Four Seasons as its own entity while rebuilding Valli's solo career. The singer was also struggling with otosclerosis, a debilitating condition that resulted in hearing loss. After performing while virtually deaf for many years, the condition was corrected by surgery that restored most of his hearing.
Valli struggled to endure the mid-1970s. His efforts as a solo artist and as a member of the Four Seasons were barely finding an audience, and by 1978, he had announced his retirement from the group. His life was already in deep turmoil due to the death of his daughter, Celia, in a car accident, which was followed six months later by his daughter Francine's accidental overdose. The lone bright spot of the period was his rendition of the new title track for the film version of the musical "Grease." The Barry Gibb-penned single shot to No. 1 and saw platinum sales. The remainder of the decade saw Valli release occasional easy listening singles and albums for MCA while reuniting with permutations of the Four Seasons for tours and the occasional live album. He also began flirting with an acting career. A onetime student of acclaimed character actor William Hickey, he took supporting turns as mobsters and other criminally inclined figures in several low-budget and independent films and TV-movies.
In 1990, Valli and the Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The honor generated a string of new Four Seasons LPs, as well as the return of "December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" to the charts in remixed form in 1994. A decade later, Valli was suddenly again at the forefront of pop culture. After receiving numerous tributes on "The Sopranos" as the vanguard of New Jersey/Italian-American achievement, he joined the cast in 2004 for a successful run as Rusty Millio, a major player with the Lupertazzi crime family who attempted to usurp power from its new chief, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), and in turn, was assassinated at the behest of its former capo, Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola). While working on "The Sopranos," Valli and Gaudio conceived a musical based on the life of Valli and the original Four Seasons. "Jersey Boys" opened on Broadway in 2005 to near-universal acclaim and swept the major theater awards, including the Tony, Drama Desk and Olivier for Best Musical. Its runaway popularity naturally revived interest in Valli's life and career, and in turn, generated a recording contract with Motown. 2007 saw his first solo album in 27 years, Romancing the 60s, which featured Valli's covers of popular songs from the decade. A massive 3-CD box set, Jersey Beat, was heavily promoted by Valli and the Four Seasons in a hugely successful tour, which outsold the likes of Jay-Z and the Jonas Brothers. In 2008, the Four Seasons' "Beggin" was revived by a pair of European covers that scraped the top of the Continental charts. It was subsequently featured in a popular ad campaign that marked the 60th anniversary of the Adidas label.
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