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Sunday, July 6, 2014
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I just went to see Jersey Boys at the movies, i.e. the film follow-up to the popular Broadway play about the career of The Four Seasons. For the younger folk out there, the Four Seasons were a popular “hit parade” foursome from New Jersey who spanned the 1960’s, and who had a few more hit tunes in the 70’s and 80’s. They “broke out” in 1963 with a trio of do-wop style hits (Sherrie, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man); but somehow they kept their finger on the pop-tune pulse for the rest of the decade, even as the “British Invasion” (Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Kinks) and the Woodstock generation (The Who, Jimi Hendrix, CSN&Y) revolutionized the radio waves and conquered the record racks.

The Four Seasons hit pipeline finally went dry after 1968, although they managed a few comeback hits after 1975 by banking towards a more showy “Las Vegas” style, and with slower emotional ballads. Actually, after 1965 the Four Seasons were less of a foursome and increasingly were a changeable back-up act for lead singer Frankie Valli. Valli has to be given a lot credit for being flexible and figuring out how to stay relevant in the big-music world in rapidly changing times.

(And of course, there’s always a quiet man behind someone like Valli. I never knew that much about the Four Seasons, as it was the Beatles that we kids memorized and idolized. So, it was only when I finally saw Jersey Boys that I learned about the “catalyst” who converted a local north Jersey act into a world-class recording band: Bob Gaudio, the highly-talented if poorly educated high school drop-out whose songwriting changed everything for Frankie V and semi-gangster /band founder Tommy DeVito.)

Jersey Boys also interested me because I knew a little bit about a mostly unremarked “sideshow” to the early Frankie Valli story. For several years (ending not long ago), I knew a guy at work who grew up in the same housing project as Frankie (i.e., the Stephen Crane Village public housing complex in North Newark). Sometime after the Jersey Boys story hit Broadway in 2005 and started attracting national attention, this fellow told me a bit about his own youthful musical endeavors in the old neighborhood. These took place in the mid to late 1960s, say roughly 1963 to 1969, just a year or two after Frankie and Tommy (who also hailed from this neighborhood) had hit the big time and moved to the suburbs. The first venture for my work associate was an acapella combo called “The Savoys”, who had gained local acclaim and recorded a few 45s. They are still remembered on various “oldies-but-goodies” web sites, and you can still listen to their songs on You Tube (e.g. Gloria, from 1965, and Visions of Love.)

So OK, Frankie and Tommy and friends weren’t the only ones who gathered on the street corners in the local project on summer evenings and who later managed to put their harmonies onto vinyl. By 1965, however, white-guy acapella was not going to get you onto the airwaves of WABC or WMCA, the two top-40 hit parade radio stations in the New York area. The Beatles, Stones, Byrds and Supremes were now defining the game. Even Bob Dylan was already there with “Like A Rolling Stone”!

However, things got a little more interesting for my workmate and his Savoy bandmates in 1966, when one of the original guys quit and was replaced with Frankie Valli’s younger brother, Bobby Castelluccio (later Bobby Valli). Bobby and the other Savoy members were about 17 years old at this point. Even though Frankie V had moved out in 1963, his mother, father and younger brother Bobby stayed on at Stephen Crane, so the Castelluccio / Valli musical influence could still be felt in that project.

You can read what happened from there in Mark DiIonno’s article from the Newark Star Ledger. According to several of the core bandmembers, Frankie (allegedly) became interested and involved in the fate of the former Savoys, now that his little brother was on board. They followed his advice and learned to play guitars and keyboards and thus adopt a more current musical style. They transmuted themselves into a pop group called “Stephen Crane Village”, and according to my workmate and his former band partners (other than Bobby, who does not mention any of this on his own website), they could have become another top-10 act, but for the fact that Frankie Valli ultimately held them back because of his sibling rivalry psychology.

Given the renewed interest in Frankie Valli’s story courtesy of Jersey Boys, the old Savoy / Stephen Crane Village members are proposing their own movie version of this story, to be called “Corner Boys” (which may have some legal hurdles to use, given that various copywrited shows including The Wire utilized this name for some of their own episodes – it’s not exactly an original name.) According to the Ledger article and a video on the website, movie producer T.J Mancini was interested in this story. A Google search does not indicate that anything had become of this proposal since the 2012 article.

So, after seeing Jersey Boys and knowing a bit about the “Corner Boys” story from my conversations with my former workmate and from the Ledger article, I decided to do a mini-investigation and analysis of my own regarding the fate of “Bobby Valli and the Stephen Crane Village”. (Had that band made it somehow, they clearly would have had to change the name; outside of Newark and Belleville, nobody knew what a “Crane Village” would have meant – was it a place where construction cranes came from, or was it about a certain weird type of waterbird? And what would they have changed the name to? “The Village People” perhaps? No, there weren’t any YMCA’s in North Newark, and these fellows just weren’t like that . . . )

Should “Corner Boys” see the light of day (or the light of a theater projector)? I vote NO, at least not as a catty tell-all about what a nasty bastard Frankie Valli was to his brother and his musician friends. First off, listen to those You Tube recordings of the Savoys. They were OK, but you really can’t imagine them on the top-10 hit countdown; not really in 1958, and not at all in 1965. The members of the Savoys definitely had some musical talent, but they clearly didn’t have their fingers on the pulse of modern styles. If the story is true about Frankie V telling his brother Bobby in 1966 that his bandmates had to ditch accapella, then he was doing them all a big favor! In other words, guys, wake up!!!! I mean, did the British Invasion radio airwaves somehow not get thru in the projects?

We can’t corroborate why the Crane Village recordings of “Rich Man” and “If You Could Love Me” were never released. Unfortunately, I could not find any internet renditions of these tunes. Were they really top-10 material, that Frankie Valli at first helped his brother and his friends to get into the studio (as the Ledger article implies), but were later held up because Frankie feared that they would propel his brother to the same level of fame that he enjoyed?

Or did the record company managers, whose money was on the line, just decide that there were better bets out there at the time? If the money people had seen dollar signs above Crane Village, could Frankie (who was ultimately at the record companies’ mercy – by 1966 and 67, there were plenty of other big acts out there besides the Four Seasons) have stopped them? One has to wonder if our “village people” got as far as they did (i.e., into the big studios) because of Frankie Valli’s benevolence. It seems just as plausible as the sibling rivalry theory, in the absence of any soundtracks to listen to.

We do have one clue as to what Bobby Valli and Stephen Crane Village could do, musically. In 1969 (after Woodstock and Altamont, to keep things in context here), despite the alleged interference of Frankie Valli in blocking his brother’s recording success, Stephen Crane Village did release a 45 that supposedly got some airplay. And it is on the Internet for us to hear.

That song is called “Hey Summer”, and after a few listens I think it gives us some good clues as to what determined the fate of Stephen Crane Village. The style is vaguely Four Seasons-like; Bobby V definitely could lay down some Frankie-like falsetto harmonies. The overall style is a bit saccharine, reminiscent of the short-lived “bubble gum” genre of 1967-1970 (let’s not forget that the Archies, Cuff Links and 1910 Fruitgum Company all had hits in 1969). But the lyrics are . . . well, a bit clumsy. The opening line goes “Gee this picnic’s fun, with a groovy thing with you . . . “ OK, so maybe Stephen Crane Village needed a Bob Gaudio . . . but he was already taken (although according to the Ionnio article, Mike Petrillo, another writer for the Four Seasons, had given some songs to the band).

The most specific contention in the “Corner Boys” story, according to the article, is that Frankie V had arranged with a producer for Crane Village to record a song called “The Worst that Can Happen”, months before it became a 1968 hit by Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge. After not hearing anything more about it, one of the Village members finally heard the Johnny Maestro version on the air, and concluded that they got stabbed in the back. Well, maybe . . . but again, without hearing whatever Crane Village might have done with that song, it’s hard to say. I have to wonder, would a Four Seasons style and the high-pitched falsettos that Bobby Valli used have worked with that song? Would they have been better than the more baritone approach that Maestro used? Was it Frankie Valli who gave Johnny Maestro the nod, or was it the people who had money on the line?

Overall, without any further evidence contradicting what I have already heard, I remain unconvinced that Stephen Crane Village brought anything new or exciting to the quickly changing music scene of the late 1960s. If their “suppressed works” (e.g. “Rich Man”) were so good, why didn’t the backers who pressed “Hey Summer” into vinyl also put those tunes out? Perhaps the old recordings were a bit out of fashion by 1969, given the emerging “psychodelic era”; but couldn’t they have been spruced up with a bit of solid drumming, some horns, and some edgy guitar licks? Was “Hey Summer” really the best they had to offer?

Frankie Valli comes out of Jersey Boys looking a bit saint-like, having tried to deal with failing marriages, a troubled daughter who eventually died from an OD (plus a stepdaughter who died in a tragic accident, not even mentioned in the play or film), and a band partner who owed big money to the mob and could have been killed. The Corner Boys story would have occurred during at least a portion of the Jersey Boys story arc. Concerns about Frankie’s little brother (who was about 15 years younger) and his musical ventures did not make the cut. The former Savoys / Stephen Crane Village members featured in the Star Ledger article appear to be bidding for some last minute fame (and a few bucks, no doubt) by throwing mud at the iconic image of Frankie that emerges from Jersey Boys. But without a real “smoking gun” proving that Frankie conspired to break their wings, these guys are mostly just blowing smoke.

The “Corner Boys” story regarding the Savoys, Crane Village and Bobbi Valli could still be an interesting and valuable addendum to the Jersey Boys legend, if it were handled in a more positive and thoughtful fashion. It does make you ask – why did Frankie Valli and his friends make it to the big leagues, and yet his brother with his own friends did not? Bobby more or less had Frankie’s vocal skills, if “Hey Summer” is any indication (and Bobby Valli did have a successful career as a singer in his own right, despite his time with the Crane Village group). And the other Savoys / Village people were probably no more or less talented musically than Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi. Was Bob Gaudio the creative spark that made the difference? Did living in Frankie Valli’s shadow help or hinder the Village group? Or did the radical changes in the pop music scene taking place after 1964 close the door to the musical talents that a group of street-harmonizers from North Newark could offer the world of pop? The Corner Boys story COULD BE a really interesting case-in-point comparison as to how and why an artistic talent “catches fire”, versus other talents that don’t.

But only IF those guys who spoke with Mark Ionno could filter out the “could have been a contender” negativity in their story, and look more positively at what they did experience and accomplish. Which is still a whole lot more than most anyone with any sort of interest in making music for the public could or will ever do! One good sign that perhaps the “Corner Boys” are ready to make peace with the “Jersey Boys” can be seen in the videos that were made of a radio show appearance that the former Savoy members made recently at radio station WPAT. In the second video of the You Tube series on that show, the host asked them about the Frankie Valli angle, and instead of re-running the “we got gypped” line from the Star Ledger article, they were rather gracious about Frankie’s legacy.

I hope that these fellows can still make something of their Corner Boys story. It may not hit Broadway nor become a world-wide movie release like Jersey Boys, but with a good and intelligent film maker and an honest and open-minded approach, it could be turned into an interesting indie movie that might continue to tell a compelling story regarding the nature of talent, art and fame, long after Jersey Boys itself is forgotten.

PS, another small thing that inspired my interested in this topic: not long ago I had dinner at Michael’s Pasteria, a nice little pizza place/restaurant on the main drag (Franklin Avenue) in Nutley, NJ. Nutley is where Frankie V and some of the other Four Seasons members lived in the 1960s and 70s. On the wall in Michaels is an autographed photo of Tommy DeVito. And, about every 6th song on the piped-in background music is by the Four Seasons, of course.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:51 pm      

  1. Jim, I must confess the whole “Jersey” thing is not something that I really notice, having lived all my life in the Mid-west. By this I really mean I likely should have nothing to say as I know nothing about the “topic”. But I have heard the “Jersey Boys” and Frank Valli sing. So from that standpoint, perhaps I can make a few observations on your post.

    I am speaking first of all of individuals in general at this point. And here I really mean *general* as such, I am thinking of people who are in any sort of position of power or celebrity particularly. For instance, I’m including here politicians, (any of them); people in religious positions of power (as in monsignor bishop, cardinal, etc.); individuals in positions of celebrity/fame as such (as in movie stars, singers, people famous for being famous as in the Kardashians, etc.). I tend to think of people in these kinds of positions who want to attain some kind of “famous-ness” (however one might define that) are all for the most part narcissists. They must be if they are to attain what they want – being well known, attaining power and awards and money for something they can do. (Even those who are famous for being famous work hard at just that.)

    It seems to me that absolutely everything and everybody involved with these individuals must be involved the “me, me, me” that drives such individuals. Even when such individuals do something “good” (say make a huge contribution to a charity), they never mention the “me” part of the kind thing they may be doing – the tax deduction that they may need or the fame they acquire in “doing good”.

    I once heard Madonna say that “up to that point” in her life she had *never* (that word struck me) considered anyone but herself in anything she had done in her life. And I tho’t: That’s how one becomes famous and/or powerful – consider no one else but oneself. (And here I should say she was talking about something she was doing that most people would consider a “real good” for a specific individual. Yet, she was making sure the public knew she was “doing good”; so she was getting the benefit for herself by publicizing it. I might also mention that that one time was the only time I heard of her doing something “good” for another. Could it be she has done innumerable good deeds that have gone unnoticed? Somehow I wonder if that would be the case, but perhaps she has done such quiet good.)

    So, when it comes to Frank Valli, it is no surprise to me that he might have had some competition with his brother, might have kept his brother from attaining the same amount of fame he himself had, etc.

    Now a little more specifically regarding the music: This is a quirk of my own and thus one needs to consider it just that way: I have never really liked falsetto singing in men. It seems to me to be trying to do what women do in singing, but the voice comes out strangely unfeminine. But I’m not going to blame Frankie Valli for that as it’s my particular quirk.

    Here I will digress a bit (what a surprise!): I have noticed in the last couple of decades that for the most part singers who seem to be the most famous, receive the most awards, make the most money have the strange ability to not be able to sing very well at all. First of all, so many of their songs are composed of three notes (used to be they could play 3 chords on their guitars, now the songs are completely composed of 3 notes); and in the case of one female singer of massive reputation and an almost obscene amount of awards, her songs are composed of two notes. I’ve paid very close attention to these songs, thinking I could not possibly be correct. I find myself wondering how I could be so wrong; but I’ve sung the songs myself and still come up with 2 notes.

    Perhaps the fame in this case is due to the demographic she appeals to. But then how account for the hip-hop “artists”. OK, perhaps their vocal music could be considered poems and their dancing a new kind of dancing; I’m willing to accept that. Yet, I wonder about the incessant use of 4 letter words that get bleeped; and the incessant use of the female body as just that – no person “inside” just the female body being sexual. Poetry? Dancing? Respect for women? (I realize I’m on a massive digression here, but somehow it connects to the music. See below.)

    Another thing that I find myself wondering about – and this may apply to Frankie Valli and his group (or is it groups?): I confes I’m not sure if this point applies to the Valli brothers. If one would take out all the production values from the song (all the backup dancing, all the backup singing, everything that is anything except the person simply singing alone) what kind of song would be left? Would people be as “taken” with the song if just the person alone were singing? Or *must* the production values be there to enable the piece to be accepted as “good” by the demographic group it appeals to?

    It does not surprise me that Frankie Valli may have (even unconsciously) done his best to sabotage his brother’s career in music. The “me, me, me” needed in such a situation prohibits anything else. Maybe, as you mention, “an honest and open-minded approach” might not even make a good indie movie as it might really show the person for what was involved in most of the situations that involved acquiring positions that concerned power, fame, money, celebrity, etc., and that might not be pretty at all.

    So while I know little about the whole “Jersey boy” thing (or even the “Jersey” thing), in the end I see people as people. It seems to me that the fact that Frankie Valli was from “Jersey” is likely important only because of the demographics of it all. Getting down to the nitty gritty of the humanity involved ends up with individuals who are concerned only with the “me, me, me” necessary to acquire celebrity, money, fame, power, etc.

    I want to be clear that I am not talking only of the Jersey Boys or Frankie Valli or his brother, or groups he was involved with. I’m including in this comment politicians, religious people with power positions, athletes, individuals with any type of celebrity, fame, money, power. Acquiring such positions, as I see it, demands that those people be narcissistic or they simply will not acquire all that makes them famous in whatever way they are famous.

    I should add that there may be a very few individuals who do not fit in the category of “me, me, me” – e.g., Mother Teresa. But how many are those? And the ones that do not qualify for “saint” have me wondering if hiding underneath all the “do-goodness” is a serious amount of “me, me, me”. Yet, in this last case, I would not throw out the baby with the bath water. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 7, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

  2. Ok so you talked to crybaby basilone!

    [COMMENT — actually that wasn’t the person that I referred to, i.e. the guy who once worked where I work. The person in question was actually more of a friend of a friend, I didn’t know him too well, but I did hear a little bit about his whole “Corner Boys” story. But most of what I know about it all came from the Ledger article. Hey, I’m not trying to take any sides here, I know that the truth is always more complex than any story that you hear. It’s just that I’ve heard the music and it’s all good, very good. But come on, the “Corner Boys” / “Savoys” / “Crane Village” folk were not the Four Seasons. That’s all I’m saying. The other day I had dinner at Michaels once again, always a pleasure getting over to Franklin Ave, and I must have heard 4 or 5 Seasons songs on the music system while eating, and zip for the Savoys or Crane Village. Not that their music isn’t darn good and not that they don’t deserve to have their fans, and maybe Michaels should fit ‘Gloria’ or another one their tunes onto the system; but I’m just not sure that they were really world-class.]

    Comment by tony mancine — October 16, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

  3. Hello. Just a note to confirm JimG.’s point about the friend who lived in SC Village and Frankie Valli’s pre famous life. My family lived there from 1944 – 1954, while my Dad was in the Navy. My mother had 5 kids to raise, having two sets of twins, two years in a row, so she was busy. Frankie and several of his friends did errands, like grocery shopping for her. She recalled this to me in the mid ’80s. When I saw the clip of the movie ‘Jersey Boys’ I knew the research had been done well, because the two story brick buildings looked eerily similar to SC Village. Anyhow, great early memories there of Branch brook Park, which was a great draw for us children. We lived there when Clara Maas hospital was starting being built. We moved when I was just 8, but the memories are still vivid!

    [Tony, thanks for the memories! Sometimes I drive down Franklin Ave. to get to work after I go to the dentist in Nutley. Will think about this next time! Here’s another SC memory site.]

    Comment by Tony Caruso — December 26, 2014 @ 9:53 am

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