FAIR LAWN, N.J.—In a basement in a quiet suburb 10 miles west of Manhattan, the characters of a bygone era in pop music are brought to life in mellifluous four-part harmony.
Sherry is there, deciding whether or not to come out tonight. So are Dawn, the girl from the nice part of town, and Marianne, trying to understand her man.
This is hardly your average baby boomer garage band, though: Made up of former members of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, this weekend they officially launch a nationwide reunion tour as “The Hit Men” that will take them through next May.
The venues are more modest than the sold-out arenas they played to across the globe in the ‘70s, but don’t tell that to drummer Gerry Polci, keyboardist Lee Shapiro and guitarist Don Ciccone—they’re having way too much fun.
“Guys at our age say, ‘Let’s go to a golf course, let’s go and fish,”’ Shapiro said. “We get paid to do this, to go out and have our reunion. It’s great.”
Spurred by the runaway success of “Jersey Boys,” the Tony Award-winning 2005 Broadway musical based on the Four Seasons’ career, Polci—the lead singer on “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night),” the group’s last No. 1 hit—and the others, all in their late 50s and early 60s, decided to re-form, along with an A-list group of studio musicians, and give touring one more shot.
Over bagels and coffee recently at the house of bassist Larry Gates, which doubles as the band’s clubhouse and music studio, the members marveled at the response they’ve received at some of the dates they’ve played as a test run.
The audience tends to skew toward retirement age, but the love handles and Lipitor apparently haven’t killed anybody’s enthusiasm.
“People are much less inhibited now,” Shapiro said. “It’s almost like, ‘This is it; if we’re not going to have fun now, what are we waiting for?”’
“We had a bra thrown on stage,” guitarist James Ryan recalled.
“Granted, it was 97EEE,” Shapiro chimed in to uproarious laughter. “I think it was some guy’s.”
Ryan, Gates and Russ Velazquez, a singer and player of multiple instruments, are the hired guns brought in to fill out the group, and they draw from a deep well of musical experience.
Ryan and Ciccone, high school buddies from New Jersey, had pop hits in the ‘60s as The Critters with “Mr. Dieingly Sad” and the John Sebastian-penned “Younger Girl.” Ryan went on to back Carly Simon, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens and others, and carved out a career as a composer for film and TV.
Gates is a composer and producer who has worked with Grammy and Tony winners and once recorded the likes of jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker and Bob James in his basement studio in Fair Lawn. He and Shapiro have known one another since they were 8. Velazquez was a sought-after vocalist who sang on hundreds of commercials in the ‘90s and has composed for “Sesame Street” and other shows.
The former Seasons have remained active in music, as well. Shapiro has worked as a producer and arranger and reaped a financial windfall by creating the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Elmo” toy in the late ‘90s; Ciccone toured with Tommy James and the Shondells and has recorded and produced. Polci has been a full-time music teacher in New Jersey since the mid-‘90s after writing music for TV in California.
When they met in 1973, they were three authentic Jersey Boys barely out of their teens, and the Four Seasons were deep in debt and hadn’t had a chart hit in several years. Along with Valli and songwriter Bob Gaudio, they successfully transformed the group’s sound from doo-wop-influenced ‘60s pop to ‘70s disco with songs like “Swearin’ To God,” ‘’Who Loves You” and “December 1963.”
“The ‘70s got them out of debt and made their business viable,” Polci said.
The current band’s set list features the gamut of Four Seasons hits dating back to 1962’s “Sherry,” as well as songs by other artists the members of the group have performed with. Each song is prefaced by a personal reminiscence.
“Every song has a setup, a backstory and a personal experience that somebody in the band had with the artist or the song,” Gates said. “People love that, because they feel like they’re getting a glimpse behind the scenes.”
For the musicians, touring is a different animal this time around. The inevitable glitches are taken in stride: At one show, the power onstage went out, so the group finished the set a cappella, to a standing ovation.
“Back then, you really couldn’t appreciate it,” Shapiro said. “You’re a young, cocky kid and it’s like, ‘Hey, here I am, I’ve arrived,’ and you start to feel a little entitlement. Now, nobody’s saying, ‘Hey, Russ is singing two songs in the first half and I’m not,’ or ‘the light wasn’t on me.’
“It’s like we have all the magical, cool parts of it and none of the BS.”