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Four Seasons, in ten days

Tribute show Oh What a Night!, celebrating the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, returns to Wellington on 16 October. MARK CUBEY explores the ongoing popularity of the music and the production.

From left: Rob Hyatt, Paul Holmquist, James Bullard and George Solomon in Oh What a Night! Photo by James Marlena

I came along too late for the first flush of the Four Seasons. But it didn’t matter. They keep on keeping on.

Among American groups, only the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys continued their early 60s run on the US charts through the British Invasion, with the searing falsetto of Frankie Valli floating over the chunky thump of a string of flash, trash cash-banking hits with a rare ability to turn back time, and keep spinning into the future.

Was New Jersey keyboard maestro and songwriter Bob Gaudio a Vivaldi fan when he did a handshake deal with lead singer Frankie Valli to form the Four Seasons Partnership, and create a new name and lineup for his generic former outfit The Four Lovers? Who knows?

All that mattered for Valli and Gaudio was that with lead guitarist Tommy DeVito and bassist Nick Massi they had the falsetto/tenor/baritone/bass vocal combo, and former Royal Teens bandmate Bob Crewe in the production and songwriting pocket, to make a power play for the charts.

They thrived at music – and the business. Gaudio and Valli still own their recording catalogue 50/50;  this is not usual.

The hits were awesome, and many.  Valli’s voice was unearthly:
“Share-eeee, share-air-ee-air-ee-bay-ya-beee, Sherry Baby, share-air-ee, won’t you come out tonight….”
“Bee-yig girls. They don’t cry-yi-yi-yi, they don’t cry…”
“She’s a … raaag doll, just a … raaaag doll…”

Frankie Valli on Broadway, New York City, 2012. Photo by SolarScott.

Their (possibly) greatest song ‘Rag Doll’ made number one in July 1964, after the Beatles had already spent 15 weeks that year at the top of the charts (14 of those unbroken).

Then it was knocked off the top spot by ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and the world would never be the same.

But the songwriting partnership of Gaudio and Crewe had already punched heavy with smash hits like their debut, ‘Sherry’, written 15 minutes before a group rehearsal in 1962, That was followed by ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Dawn (Go Away)’, ‘Ronnie’, ‘Save It for Me’, ‘Big Man in Town’, ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘Girl Come Running’, ‘Beggin, and then ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’,  Valli’s first big success as a solo performer in 1967.

Gaudio and Crewe also penned the classics ‘Silence is Golden’ (‘Rag Doll’s B-side, then a smash for the  Tremeloes), and ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ (a Valli single that was reworked definitively by Walker Brothers).

Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons never went away, but stayed pretty quiet chartwise until the mid-70s when Valli scored big again with ‘My Eyes Adored You’, the Four Seasons also sold a million with ‘Who Loves You’, and ‘December 1963 (Oh What a Night)’ became inescapable, with a continuous ubiquity for the next 33 years on radios, in supermarkets and bars (appropriately enough: Gaudio was persuaded by Valli, and his co-writer and future wife Judy Parker to change the title from “December 5th, 1933”, celebrating the repeal of prohibition).

Valli went on to slick up the world with ‘Grease’ in ’78, but by then I for one was all about real disco and punk rock. But millions argued otherwise…

Promoters Stewart and Tricia Macpherson (above) will be capitalising on that dynamite catalogue again with the fourth visit of the musical tribute show Oh What a Night! to New Zealand this month.

As the Stetson Group, they have been promoting concerts and shows in New Zealand and held together a personal and professional partnership together for 45 years. Big achievement.

“We each have different skills,” says Stewart Macpherson, “and respect what each other brings to the enterprise. And we both know what’s going on all the time!”

Presenting shows like Oh What a Night! still give Macpherson a buzz. So do concerts (he brought over Jethro Tull last year), but he’s not doing so many of these now. “It’s difficult to get some of the big concerts, as they seem to controlled by the likes of Live Nation internationally.”

He started his promotional career in 1973 with a tour by Carmen Macrae that he describes as “a disaster, but a good lesson” (hardly anybody went), but it was followed within a month by the first of several “barnstorming” tours by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition. From then on, activity was constant.

Stetson promoted the first big international concert I ever went to (Lou Reed’s Rock’n’Roll Animal tour at the Wellington Town Hall in 1974), and I have to thank him for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the Majestic Theatre, Town Hall concerts by Talking Heads, and the Clash, and shows at the Wellington Trade Centre (where Te Wahea is now) by The Ramones, and the B52s. Golden years.

Macpherson formed special relationships with many key artist managers over the decades, and some with artists have also lasted a long time, notably Glen Campbell and Donny Osmond.

From left: Rob Hyatt, James Bullard, Paul Holmquist and George Solomon in Oh What a Night! Photo by James Marlena

He first encountered songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons during his earlier career as a radio DJ.

As will as the ongoing longevity of their catalogue, he credits the demand for returning shows of Oh What a Night! to “the energy these guys exude”.

And its not just an older audience: “The younger generation come as part of their family circle, or are looking for ‘retro’ acts.”

Frank Valli is still working live, but I subscribe to a theory that with a couple of original exceptions – The Eagles (apparently playing better than ever live), and the constantly-refreshing Fleetwood Mac- the 60s and 70s cover bands working now are probably better than the real bands could now ever be (case in point: The Pink Floyd Experience, who Macpherson has toured).

Macpherson concurs about this production: “I think these guys have the energy and vigour that the original guys have gradually lost.”

Not to be confused with musical biography stage show Jersey Boys, Oh What a Night! is a concert revue  show rather than character-based career exploration, with four performers collectively presenting the hits in between comedy repartee.

George Solomon, creator and writer of the show, has been every visit to New Zealand since 2012 (returning in 2013 and 2016), as has original choreographer and performer Paul Holmquist.

On this tour they are joined by James Bullard and Rob Hyatt, with all four taking turn about at lead and backing vocals, live to a backing track.

Oh What a Night! plays at the Opera House on Tuesday 16 October from 7.30pm. Tickets available here.