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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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At 89, Frankie Valli is ready for one last encore

Singer says he’s ready to cut back on live performances

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LOS ANGELES — Nobody came to Frankie Valli’s wedding over the summer, which was exactly how the 89-year-old singer wanted it.

“Oh, it was terrific,” he recalls of the very private ceremony at Las Vegas’ Westgate Hotel, where Valli and his fourth wife, Jackie Jacobs, tied the knot in June, more than half a century after he set out toward becoming one of the 1960s’ most reliable pop hit-makers as the falsetto-voiced frontman of the Four Seasons. “We both have families from back east, and afterward everybody said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us? We wanted to come!’ ” He laughs.

“They probably all would have, as long as I paid for the plane trip and the rooms.”

Financial considerations aside, Valli is hardly wanting for crowds these days: With a set list chock-full of AM radio classics like “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Working My Way Back to You,” “Rag Doll” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” — each a compact marvel of lush vocal harmony and rough-and-tumble rhythm — Valli plays 75 or 80 well-attended concerts every year, including a gig in May at Inglewood’s YouTube Theater in which that last tune sparked a singalong so robust that Valli told the audience, “They can hear us in Sacramento.”

Last week the singer launched a new Vegas residency at the Westgate — known as the Las Vegas Hilton when Valli worked the joint in the late ‘80s — and next month he’ll perform at the Agua Caliente casino in Rancho Mirage. Yet it’s not just nostalgic old-timers keeping him in business on the road.

In February, Valli put in a surprise appearance at Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy gala in Beverly Hills, where a who’s who of music industry insiders watched him do “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” as part of an all-star bill that also featured Lizzo and Lil Wayne.

“When I called to ask him to perform, he was actually already booked,” says Davis, the veteran record executive known for shepherding Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow to superstardom. “So I said, ‘Look, Frankie,’ and then I described who would be in the room: the heads of record companies throughout the world and people from MTV and BET and iHeartRadio and Live Nation — tastemakers who can really make a difference.”

Broad appeal

Valli wasn’t sure “any of these people would even know who I was,” the singer says. “I wondered what value there would be in it.” But Davis had his heart set on Valli as a complement to his opening act: Måneskin, the Grammy-nominated Italian rock band that topped Billboard’s rock-radio chart for 16 weeks in 2021 with its glammy cover of the Four Seasons’ 1967 hit “ Beggin’.” He also knew Valli had an ace in his pocket: “ ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ is second only to [Neil Diamond’s] ‘Sweet Caroline’ as an audience favorite where they join in and know every word,” says the exec.

“Clive said, ‘I’m telling you right now — you’re gonna kill,’” remembers Valli, and the flattery worked: He rescheduled his conflicting job in order to play Davis’ party, where indeed he brought down a house that included the promised industry bigwigs along with stars such as Tom Hanks, Joni Mitchell, Smokey Robinson and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich. Olivia Rodrigo and Demi Lovato were there too, as seen in a viral Instagram video showing Rodrigo losing her mind to Valli’s decades-old tune.

“I was shocked at the response,” Valli says today. “I mean, there were a lot of rappers up front, and they were going crazy.”

So then why is he threatening to hang it up soon?

This month Valli announced that he’s planning to cut back his live work by about half in 2024; he swears he’s not saying farewell, though he is calling his next run of concerts the Last Encores tour.

“I’m not sure whether I’m gonna keep going out,” he says on a recent morning at the Encino home he shares with Jacobs, 60, a former CBS marketing executive whom he met at dinner one night at a Los Angeles restaurant. The house on a quiet cul-de-sac is tastefully decorated in gray and white; a book of Bob Dylan lyrics sits on an end table amid family photos and a plaque commemorating the Latin-airplay success of “ Te Quiero Baby,” Valli’s 2020 collaboration with the Cuban American rapper Pitbull.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he continues, his whaddya-want-from-me accent softened slightly by his years living in California. “It’s not so much the work — it’s the travel. Back in the day, you went to a job and you stayed there for a week. That wasn’t so bad. Now everything is one-nighters, which means you finish the show, get to bed, get up at 6 in the morning, go to the airport, go to the next job and do the same thing all over again.” A small, birdlike guy dressed in skinny jeans and dress sneakers, Valli sighs. “It’s tough.”

More happily, the Four Seasons’ music has taken on something of a life of its own, raising the possibility that the group’s catalog — already familiar to a generation of younger listeners thanks to the smash Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” — might continue to thrive into the future without Valli’s having to pound the pavement. Not long before Måneskin’s “Beggin’ ” cover took off, the L.A.-based DJ and producer Surf Mesa borrowed the chorus of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for his laid-back house track “ILY (I Love You Baby),” which exploded on TikTok in 2020 and has racked up nearly a billion streams on Spotify. Last year the Yeah Yeah Yeahs interpolated a bit of “Beggin’ ” for a cut from their latest album. And this fall the Fugees’ Lauryn Hill — like Valli a proud New Jersey native — is on tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of her 1998 solo debut, which includes a rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

As with the Davis gala, Valli says he’s been surprised by the outpouring of interest. “This business never ceases to amaze me,” he says. “When you think you know everything about it, you find out you know barely anything.”

In fact, he’s been taking deliberate steps to preserve his legacy. Three years ago, Valli and his longtime bandmate and creative partner Bob Gaudio — the latter of whom co-wrote much of the Four Seasons’ best known material with producer Bob Crewe, who died in 2014 — struck a deal with Primary Wave, a music publishing company that specializes in monetizing hit-filled catalogs through placements in film, TV and commercials and through samples and interpolations like that in the Surf Mesa song. (Among the other acts in whose intellectual property Primary Wave owns a stake are the late Houston, Prince and Leon Russell.)

Adam Lowenberg, Primary Wave’s chief marketing officer, says the Four Seasons’ catalog activity has “almost doubled” since 2020 thanks to projects like the rapper Flo Rida’s recent “What a Night,” a remake of the group’s “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night!)” that was prominently featured in ESPN’s coverage of Major League Baseball. (The original is the band’s most popular track on Spotify, with more than 428 million streams.) Next year the company plans to convene a songwriters’ camp to sift through Valli and the Four Seasons’ discography — almost all of which is collected on a massive new 45-disc box set — in search of hooks and riffs that might be recycled or repurposed; it’s also finalizing release plans for an album Gaudio made of Four Seasons hits in lullaby form.

The LP’s working title? “Jersey Babies,” of course.

Gaudio, who’s 80 and who quit performing ages ago, says he pays close attention to the “two or three requests” that come in every day to use the Four Seasons’ music in one way or another. (The band’s other two founding members — Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito — died in 2000 and 2020, respectively.)

“I’m very careful with commercials because some of them are just goofy,” Gaudio notes on the phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn. He regards an old denture-cream spot soundtracked by the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” as a cautionary tale. “Even now I have to turn it off if it shows up on YouTube,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just terrible.”

Four Seasons catalog

Lowenberg confirms that Gaudio is more involved than many of his more hands-off clients (or their estates). “Bob will email me: ‘Adam, check out the song “The Night” off our “Chameleon” album,’ ” the Primary Wave exec says, which he promptly did. “And right away I was like, holy s—, this song would be perfect for the Jonas Brothers.” In Lowenberg’s view, it’s the “insane depth and insane variety” of the Four Seasons’ catalog — who else could jump from street-corner doo-wop to a chirpy cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” to 1969’s trippy “The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette” concept LP — that makes the music so well suited to a streaming era in which genre divisions mean as little as they ever have.

Valli agrees. “The thing about us is that we never stayed in one bag,” he says, perched on an armchair as he talks between phone calls from a road manager and from his son Emilio, who works as a real-estate agent in Malibu. Valli has four children in all; in 1980, his stepdaughter from his first marriage died in a car accident, followed just six months later by the death of another daughter in a drug overdose. “When that happened, I lost it for a bit,” he says, referring to a stretch of substance abuse that lasted until he swore off booze more than 40 years ago.

Of the Four Seasons’ eclecticism, he adds: “I never looked down on any kind of music,” including disco, whose silky beat propelled the Barry Gibb-penned title song from 1978’s “Grease” soundtrack, which went to No. 1. The singer draws a line between that open-minded attitude and his upbringing in the racially mixed housing projects of Newark and points out that the Four Seasons, who took their name from a bowling alley where they once tried (and failed) to get a gig, began releasing records in the early ‘60s through a Black-owned company, Vee-Jay Records.

“Lots of people thought we were Black until we played the Apollo Theater with Jerry Butler and Ike and Tina Turner,” adds Valli, born Francesco Castelluccio into an Italian American family. “This was a period of time when nobody white was playing many Black theaters.”

As it happens, it was the Four Seasons’ experience 60 years ago with Vee-Jay that enabled the control they maintain today over their music. As Valli tells it: “They’d defaulted on paying us, and we went to audit them and found they owed us money. Well, we realized very quickly that was gonna be an ongoing thing forever. So when they offered to pay us, we said, ‘No, we don’t want to be paid — we want everything back that we’ve ever recorded for you.’ ” He smiles a mischievous grandfather’s smile. “And we got it all back.”

The Four Seasons went to Philips Records next and made a deal, Valli says, in which they leased their music to the label for five years without giving up ownership of their masters — a prescient move now widely duplicated by the Taylor Swifts of the world. The upside of moving from small label to small label rather than sticking with one powerful company for the long haul is that the Four Seasons enriched themselves more than they enriched any group of record execs, according to Valli.

“Think of all the people in a record company who get paid,” he says. “You give them a record and they give you 6 percent, 8 percent, 10 percent of what it makes. Where’s all the rest of the money go?” Another grin. “Don’t you think it’d be a good idea to get it?”

The downside to this approach, Valli and Gaudio say, is that the Four Seasons never enjoyed the promotional muscle that propelled the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the pinnacle of pop cultural prestige. “We were only as good as our last hit,” Gaudio says. “ ‘Rag Doll’ went to No. 1 in 10 days in New York, and we still had to fight for the follow-up” to get radio spins.

Also, though the Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 — an honor Valli attributes to the enthusiasm of the late Seymour Stein — the singer has never won a Grammy Award to go with his 19 Top 10 hits. “Again, we weren’t with a big record company,” he says, adding that “the Grammys go by the voting power that a record company has within” the Recording Academy.

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Valli, who grew up around mobsters and went on to portray one on “The Sopranos,” doesn’t seem bitter about any of this; he imparts the information like a teacher eager to illuminate the dark corners of a music industry he long ago figured out. He even offers up his cellphone number in case any further explanation is required.

Does he prefer to text or call?

“Call,” he says. “I’m very un-electronic. You see all these people getting into trouble? Look at Hunter Biden.”

From the kitchen, Valli’s wife calls out, “No political talk, please,” which he ignores long enough to ask why both parties refuse term limits and to wonder “how all these guys in politics become millionaires.”

Might we think of the Last Encores tour as a kind of term limit for Frankie Valli? He seems to like that idea.

“I just want to go someplace when I’m done that’s very quiet and doesn’t have radio or TVs,” he says.

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