Hit Men perform popular songs they recorded with Valli, James
Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 12:50 p.m.
Lee Shapiro had no qualms about starting his professional career on the oldies circuit. Oddly, the creative force behind The Hit Men had greater problems with the idea when he assembled the group.
The Hit Men
What: Former stars of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Tommy James and The Shondells and other acts perform the hits they helped recorded
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Phillips Center, 3201 Hull Road
Info: 392-2787, Ticketmaster.com
“Getting a job in 1973 with Frankie Valli seemed pretty natural because The Four Seasons was the first pop group I saw as a kid and thought ‘I could do that,’” Shapiro said amid preparations to travel south for group shows featuring musicians authentic to some of the most popular recordings of the 1960s and ’70s. “You had Bob Gaudio anchoring the sound on piano, not the guitars you heard with other groups. When I got the job, I could tell myself, ‘I’m replacing Bob Gaudio.’”
At that point, Valli’s recording activity was as a solo artist, and he tended to use his road band as studio musicians. “He had a hit with ‘My Eyes Adored You,’ and that created more demand for new material, so we all went into the studio,” Shapiro continues, and it was to his good fortune that the best result was a group song.
“The record company could tell ‘Who Loves You’ was the best single, but it was clearly a group singing it and not just Frankie solo, so it got billed The Four Seasons and suddenly it became a real, current, hitmaking group.” A pair of other major hits followed, by Valli getting tapped to sing the theme to the movie “Grease.” Spreading things out a bit, the ’70s Four Seasons’ hits included one in which the drummer, Gerry Polci, sang the principal lead on “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).”
It was the continued friendship between Shapiro and Polci that led to the current band. “We heard a lot of tribute bands. We saw the Broadway Show (“Jersey Boys”) and we heard a lot of franchised bands in which someone’s grandchildren own the name and send out a group that had nothing to do with the original music,” Shapiro recalled. “We didn’t like that at all and decided to do something different.”
The individuals involved in The Hit Men had worked together, not necessarily on records but also film and video background music, advertising jingles, the different things a professional musician does. But they all have hit pedigrees. Jimmy Ryan had been part of jug-bandish folk rock group The Critters who hit with “Mr. Diengly Sad” in 1967. After that, he helped Carly Simon shape her first several albums as an acoustic and electric guitarist. As part of Desmond Child’s production team, Larry Gates was involved in the original recordings that led to Bon Jovi’s hit version of “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Russ Velazquez also comes to the groom with an extensive association with a wide range of artists, including Carole King, Sting and The Ramones.
“An oldies show is generally guys on stage bringing the audience a song from the past,” Shapiro explained. “We wanted to do it the other way around. We wanted to invite the audience into our world, in which we made various hit records.” They tell stories, show how parts were put together, even reveal some of the studio tricks some producers would just as soon we didn’t know.
“I didn’t work on the original Four Seasons records, but I know Bob Gaudio and really love what he did and one of the things I know is that he used this board on the floor that someone would tap, or kick, or hit next to a chair. We have a board.”
The intent was to perform, not reproduce. “If we had to do it digitally, we don’t do it,” Shapiro says. “A keyboard might play a string arrangement, but there are no digital samples, no tricks to present chorus vocals. We play what we can and we talk about what we play.”
The repertoire includes their studio work, but also live work with an assortment of artists. Shapiro, for instance, left the Four Seasons eventually to work with Tommy James. The others have similar resumes. And if they don’t involve recordings themselves?
“One of the things is that we know the writers. I know Sandy Linzer and Bob Gaudio,” Shapiro says. “I promised Frankie Valli we’d be true to whatever we did, and if we were worried about something, one of us will call the writer up.”