NEW YORK — As Frankie Valli took the stage at Radio City Music Hall on Oct. 12, the audience was treated to what was being billed as the Newark native’s first show at the historic Art Deco venue in 30 years.
Backed by a nine-piece band and four backup vocalists, Valli launched into “Working My Way Back to You” following a montage of video clips of The Four Seasons in their heyday. Valli and the Seasons rose to fame in 1962 with three consecutive No. 1 songs: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.” Many hits followed over the next two decades, but as the group underwent an endless cycle of lineup changes, it became more and more evident that Valli’s star would outshine that of the group.
With so many farewell tours simultaneously happening now, it is tempting to remember a time when we took them seriously — when these tours weren’t the clichés they would inevitably become. And if we’re talking Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons at Radio City Music Hall, their farewell tour of 1977 is one of the first things that come to mind — especially since it’s been 41 years to the week when the group played there for what were supposed to be their last shows together. The plan was to launch the Seasons as its own recording unit independent of Valli while the vocalist embarked full-time on a solo career.
It was only three short years before a reunion happened, initiating the next four decades of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons existing in more incarnations than one can remember. What became clear, though, is that audiences don’t seem to mind the constant group changes. Valli is the one they come to see.
With respect to all group members past and present, there was a time when the names of group members commanded attention and credit — in those early decades when they still existed as a recording entity. In recent years, significant figures in the history have been given overdue respect in the form of street namings, New Jersey Hall of Fame inductions, and acknowledgment in the historically flawed but massively successful “Jersey Boys.” Regarding farewell tours, Valli may not have announced any last shows in the United States yet (shows are already booked for mid-2019), but his farewell performances in the United Kingdom begin next month. Radio City seemed to be both a celebration of his return, and a preparation of a larger production for the cavernous arenas of London, Manchester and Leeds.
Original Four Season Bob Gaudio was even in attendance and seated at mid-floor behind the soundboard, as if doing a once-over on the show from a distance. Valli introduced Gaudio, his longtime business partner, as the houselights went up, and the legendary songwriter received a standing ovation.
The show itself was a nonstop 90 minutes of hits as Valli and the group plowed through 1960s classics such as “Dawn (Go Away),” “Rag Doll,” “Beggin’,” “Tell It to the Rain” and “Stay,” as well as more evolved ’70s hits like “December, 1963” (Oh, What a Night),” “Native New Yorker,” “Grease” and “Swearin’ to God,” featuring extended solos from some very virtuosic musicians.
Robby Robinson, Valli’s musical director and arranger of 40 years — who has spent far more time onstage with the singer than anyone — seems to work with a never-ending rotation of personnel changes. That said, he is always in command of top-notch talent. Robinson has been the secret weapon of the show over the decades and is responsible for keeping it modern and relevant, especially given Valli’s age.
At 84, the singer has seen very few of his contemporaries and influences go the distance and surpass it in the same manner as he has. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett come to mind when considering artists who have performed into their 70s and beyond. But whereas older-generation artists sang to a much more low-volume setting of an orchestra, Valli’s show still carries the bombast of an all-out rock concert at times, complete with full light show, psychedelic visuals, smoke and screeching electric guitars. The background visuals, unique and custom to each song, were not seen in the recent Atlantic City gig over the summer.
The Four Seasons now consist of four choreographed vocalists. The “boy band” format has worked well behind Valli for the past decade and a half, and keeps the show current for millennials who cut their teeth on the “Jersey Boys” musical. The fan base now spans three generations — four, if we include the parents of the Baby Boomers, who largely accepted the Seasons while shunning other acts of the era, and saw their own legend, Frank Sinatra, embracing them early on.
Valli is now the elder statesman surrounded by this seemingly timeless adoration. For decades, he’d tell his New Jersey audiences, “It’s great to be home,” yet he’d continue onward, constantly returning in an annual cyclical pattern. Judging by the enthusiastic welcome he received in New York City and his clear love of being onstage, it may be safe to suggest that Valli, no matter where he is, has always been home.
Here is the show’s setlist:
“Working My Way Back to You”
“Dawn (Go Away)”
“Our Day Will Come”
“Opus 17 (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout Me)
“Tell It to the Rain”
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
“Native New Yorker”
“Silence Is Golden”
“Swearin’ to God”
“My Eyes Adored You
“Who Loves You”
Medley “Spanish Harlem” / “My Girl” / “Groovin'”)
“December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”
“Big Girls Don’t Cry”
“Walk Like a Man”
“Bye Bye Baby (Baby, Goodbye)”
“Let’s Hang On!”
Mike Derrico is a freelance writer and host of the Rock Under Fire podcast as well as the new Retrospeak podcast, both available on iTunes and Youtube.