Frankie Valli on the Four Seasons’ Legacy and Their Massive New 45-Disc Boxed Set: ‘We Didn’t Want to Try to Sound Like Anybody Else’

Substitute “ears” for “eyes,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” still applies for much of the world when it comes to the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It’s a dozen major hits from the ‘60s and ‘70s that remain foremost in the thoughts of pop fans, but the catalog of group and solo material goes much deeper than almost anyone who’s not a truly seasoned Valli fanatic would guess. How deep? Well, there’s a new Four Seasons boxed set, “Working Our Way Back to You — The Ultimate Collection,” that includes what feels about 400 seasons’ worth of material… 45 discs’ worth, to be precise.

Very few acts in music have gotten a boxed set this comprehensive, but then again, few have the kind of output that started out so prolifically and then went on to span a half-century of releases. What will be at least as valuable for the faithful as having those dozens of hours of music in one thick doorstop of a set will be the accompanying printed material, including a hardback coffee-table book that includes an essay by Paul Sexton and interviews by Ken Sharp, with the musicians and writers involved all providing memories, as well as talks with celebrity fans from Billy Joel to Little Steven. A collection of sleeve art and softcover album-by-album annotation by Ken Charmer also round out the set, not to mention the 44 CDs being supplemented by an LP copy of the cult favorite album “The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette.” Something this extraordinarily comprehensive doesn’t come at a cost that’s accessible to someone who really just wants the basic hits, or in massive quantities — it’s a limited edition of 2,500 and the rock-bottom sale price is around $400. But for anyone who is more than just “a regular Frankie fan,” this is an example of the kind of physical media that dreams are made of.

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At 89, Valli remains musically active. He released a jazz album in 2021 (one of the few things he’s recorded that is not part of the new boxed set), and he still tours, with his next shows in the SoCal area being Thousand Oaks and Rancho Mirage gigs coming up in October and November, followed by a Las Vegas residency in 2024. Valli got on the phone with Variety to discuss the lavish “Ultimate Collection” package and some of the issues and memories it brings up.

It’s pointed out in the liner notes for this set that you own your masters and your publishing, which has to be one of the reasons a comprehensive set like this can even happen — the rights aren’t scattered around a million places. Was that just amazing foresight on your part?

We had to make a sacrifice for that. In most cases, we were not dealing with major record companies. Major record companies would never gone for a deal where you lease your records to them, and at the end of the period of time that they’ve been leased to have, they come back to you. So that was a big sacrifice. But in the end, it paid off. It was a sacrifice to be on top of your career and in charge of what happens with your career, knowing that at the end of the day, everything comes back to you [while not getting the push of a major label]. I’m sure that, without that, there are many artists out there that have recorded material that’s still in the can.

The way that whole thing happened was, when we left Vee-Jay Records [in 1963], there were some situations with money that was not coming to us that should have been, and that helped us to make up our mind what we wanted to do. Instead of settling with them for the money, we settled for taking back everything that we recorded and owned it. And we went on to the next record company and leased our records to the next record company, so that they came back to us at the end of the lease.

A lot of artists have to wish they had followed that model of owning and leasing their material.

Yeah. I can’t begin to tell you how many people in our industry and our business that I tried to talk into doing exactly what we did. I was a very strong believer that you could get four or five artists, put it together, and go to a major record company and get $25-30 million for them to distribute your records on your label, and the artists would own the record company. But I just couldn’t get that message across — either that or I didn’t do a good job. It would’ve been a great idea. I mean, I don’t know if the Bee Gees own any of their catalog; they should. Robert Stigwood was their manager, the record company, their promoter — I mean, there’s a conflict of interest!

I recall talking with you when the “Jersey Boys” movie came out, and asking, “Will there ever be a really, really comprehensive Four Seasons box set?” So this is kind of a dream come true for people who wanted that. There’ve been some good collections of the essential material over the years, including one Rhino put out, but now, for the really hardcore people, it’s a chance to look at some of the songs that fell through the cracks.

Yeah, so to speak. There are a lot of of songs that never came out that I thought should have been singles, and it just never happened. There was just so much that we almost forgot about. I think that some of the stuff that we recorded and put on albums was superior to a lot of stuff that we put out as singles.

Do you have some underdog favorites that are in the boxed set you would point people toward?

I’ll see what I can remember offhand. There was a song called “You’re Ready Now” that was in the can forever, and all of a sudden, years later, some disc jockey in the U.K. started playing it and we had a big hit with it. [The song was first released in 1966 but didn’t become a British hit till 1970.] That also happened with “Beggin.’” There were a whole bunch of songs in that particular period of time we were with Motown, like a song called “Poor Fool” [which was released in 1975 and never charted], written by a keyboard player that we had working with us. Bob Gaudio had written a whole bunch of songs that we had recorded that just never came out.

Some of the cover stuff we did… I don’t know if you remember the song “Sunny”? Well, we did a version of that as a ballad that I thought should definitely been a single. And another song that we used to do in the show quite a bit, “Book of Love,” we did a version of, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it should have been a single. There’s a Bob Gaudio production of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” that I thought was a brilliant record.

Another discovery is gonna be — again, back to Motown — we did a song called “Sun Country” that is on a Chameleon album. It is really a work of art. And it could have been a hit for Chicago; it’s that far away from everything else that we did. We were not afraid to do different material or material that sounded totally different than what we had originally done. “Silence Is Golden,” we had the first record on it. The record company wouldn’t release it as a signal. Another group came along and recorded it exactly the same, and it was a hit [for the Tremeloes, three years later, in 1967]. We had the first record on “We’re All Alone,” the Boz Scaggs song, which again got no promotion. The record company wasn’t that crazy about it. Rita Coolidge had the hit with it [a year later, in 1977].. And “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine.” It was copied by the Walker Brothers, note for note.

After leaving Motown, you immediately bought something back, that worked to your benefit, right?

“My Eyes Adored You” was originally recorded for Motown. And we bought back the track when we left Motown and brought it to another record company and had a big hit with it. It was in the can for at least three years. That happens. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was in the can for a year and a half or two years. The record company didn’t believe in it, right? So, who is really right or wrong? You need to follow your instincts.

You know, I also did a jazz album, and I wasn’t accepted in the jazz community as far as radio was concerned, because I’m Frankie Valli. I did it with a guy that was probably one of the greatest jazz organists that ever lived, Joey DeFrancesco. [That album, “A Touch of Jazz,” came out in 2021. DeFrancesco died in 2022.] But that’s what happens. Sometimes you get into things and you believe in things.

It’s funny just looking at the earliest album titles, which are transparently all about the single: “Sherry & 11 Others.” “Big Girls Don’t Cry & 12 Others.” “Dawn Go Away & 11 Others.”

Right. Which was mainly the producer’s idea. They just tried to put albums out very quickly then, not always with a whole lot of thought.

And then on the opposite end of that, this set includes not just the CD but a vinyl LP of “Genuine Imitation Life Gazette,” a concept album from 1969. It’s kind of a legendary album that maybe more people have heard of than have actually heard. You say it’s a favorite of yours — why?

It’s a favorite of ours because we took a different path and tried to get away and create conceptual ideas. And it wasn’t accepted by radio because it didn’t have any falsetto and it was nothing like “Sherry” or “Big Girls” or “Walk Like a Man.” A lot of thought was put into it. There was another album that Gaudio did with Sinatra, that I helped put together, which was also a concept album, called “Watertown.” And that didn’t get a chance, either. The whole idea of it was sold to Frank on the basis of that it was a story of a guy’s life all put into an album. And “Watertown” has become an underground hit. Anybody that’s heard it, even, especially college kids, they love it. The same thing with “Genuine Imitation of Life Gazette” — they can’t believe that that’s us.

On a different tack, the group’s Christmas album, “Four Seasons Greeting,” was only your second album ever, back in 1962. It’s something a lot of us still pull out every December for your distinctive and fun take on that holiday material. Do you have any memories of doing that?

Yes, I do. That album was done in 24 hours, that entire album. We finished at 11:30 in the morning and went through Harlem to the Apollo Theater and did five shows with Jerry Butler and Ike and Tina Turner. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun.

The liner notes in in the book that comes with the boxed set includes great commentary from those of you who made the music, but also interesting perspectives from people outside the group. Little Steven, Steven Van Zant from Bruce Springsteen’s band, makes the point that really only two American groups survived the British Invasion — the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys — and everyone else kind of fell away. Does that strike you the same way, as you look back?

Yes, it does. The thing that strikes me most about it is the Beach Boys continued to do what they did, and we continued to do what we did. And it seemed that most of the American groups, except for the R&B groups, were copying a little bit of the British sound, or trying to be more like the British sound. It all comes down to be who you are, and that’s where it’s at.

And Little Steven also makes the point in those liner notes that the Four Seasons felt like “neighborhood guys,” who kind of reminded you of your uncles. That could have pluses and minuses, but ultimately it ended up being a plus that you guys felt like people somebody might run into down the block, especially on the east coast. And of course there couldn’t have been a “Jersey Boys” Broadway play if that wasn’t part of the appeal, rather than moptops coming over from another land. It not being exotic was finally what made it iconic, even if it takes decades for that to really come into focus for everybody.

Well, I still have difficulty believing the impact that we made. I mean, when we started out, we just wanted to have a hit record, and to be able to make records and do whatever we felt like doing and not really try to be like anybody else or sound like anybody else. I was always a very strong believer that if you’re gonna do something, you have to give it a rendition that is totally different from anybody else’s and is totally yours. To do it exactly the same never felt right for me.

The liner notes include some other really great testimonials, like Barry Gibb saying, “At the time of the Beatles, Frankie Valli’s voice reigned as the voice you would hear when you fell in love.”

Who’s that — Barry? It’s funny, you know. When I got to do “Grease” [the movie’s title song, written by Gibb], the Bee Gees were doing the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” movie, and I got a call from his office and they said, “Barry has a song that he’d like you to take a look at  and possibly do.” And Allan Carr was my manager at the time, who was one of the partners in the “Grease” production, with Robert Stigwood. And Carr knew I wanted to do some acting. So he said, “Well, you could be in the movie and do a song like ‘Beauty School Dropout,’ or sing ‘Grease’ and you won’t be in the movie.” And I listened to both songs and almost knew immediately which it would be. Even though I’m not sure anybody really realized how big a record that would be.

You have to love the fact that with the “Jersey Boys” musical and movie, the story ultimately hinges on you being kind of… responsible. A lot of times in pop culture, we celebrate the people who are really wild and out of control. And here we have a show where the third act revolves around you doing what it takes to get out of debt. On paper, that doesn’t sound like the most exciting third act, but it works, and that’s a testiment to what you did in taking control behind the scenes.

It was really important to understand, because of where we came from… I grew up and lived in a project for my entire life, almost, up until we had some success, and I had a great appreciation for things, and I knew that everything that went up came down. And it was really important not to spend the whole wad of whatever you got all on one thing, but to think about tomorrow, because if nothing is happening, you would still be able to take care of yourself. I’ve seen so many singers who ended up broke, in hospitals. When Jackie Wilson died, he didn’t have anything going for him; I think he was on welfare. Some of the Supremes, that happened with, and there are more and more and more of the same kind of situation.

But the one thing I really feel good about is how we opened everybody’s eyes as to getting involved in owning masters and having publishing. The funny thing about artists is that publishers and writers get paid every time a song is played on the radio, but artists don’t get anything if they didn’t write the song and they didn’t publish the song. What do they have going, except for the now?

Earlier this year you sang “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” at the annual Clive Davis pre-Grammy gala. It must be an interesting feeling after all these years to be going to this event where it’s the hippest artists of the moment — and of course Clive reveres veteran artists too, so he tries to have a mixture. But the fact that he wanted to put you on there this year, and you’re in front of the cream of the crop of the hitmakers of today…

I couldn’t believe the response. Most of those people weren’t even born when when we were having that particular song as a hit. And when Clive asked me to do it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. What will it mean? Who’s even gonna know what I’m doing? He said, “This’ll be one of the biggest moments in your life.” And Clive has been known for having that kind of an insight. He’s a brilliant guy and a great humanitarian.

To be so well thought of and respected at this point in your career, does that scrappy underdog feeling go away after a certai point? Or coming from humble roots in Newark, is there always a little bit of that underdog feeling left?

Well, we’ve been up and down so many times, and every time somebody said “that was it,” we seem to have come back with something. We’re always working on something or other. There’s a possibility there could be a movie done on the “Watertown” project, for instance. So it feels good, but I do think back, and there are things about the past that stay with you — the camaraderie, and the difference between today and yesterday.

The competition was great in those days — I mean, it was really terrific. There were a lot of records, and artists and radio were like brothers. You got to know each other. If you were promoting a record, you went into Detroit or Philly or in the Baltimore area or Chicago and visited all the radio stations and all the different jockeys and went to their hops at night and lip-synced something from what you had recorded. It was fun.

You worked smaller venues back in the day, and you had to do two shows at night. Today, the venues have gotten bigger and and bigger, and I don’t know how the public is gonna be able to afford it if it continues like this.

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