Valli still has a string of prominent gigs, including headlining A Capitol Fourth on PBS this summer amid his usual touring.
He paused to talk about the basis of his success – the songs he sang – as well as the importance of oldies radio, the songs that got away, and his role on The Sopranos.
Frankie Valli: We never really stayed in one bag when we were recording. We could have been mistaken for somebody else. And there were times we changed the name, like when we did the Bob Dylan song "Don't Think Twice," we changed the name of the group to The Wonder Who? for that particular record. And then Frankie Valli was having hits, and also The Four Seasons were having hits all at the same time. So we've been incredibly lucky here.
And having great songs. Of course with all the opportunities that you get, you still need to have great songs. It always boils down to the same thing.
Songfacts: Well, you did a lot of different-sounding songs as well.
Frankie: We knew that you could get in rut if everything you did had exactly the same sound, so we stopped approaching it the same way. We did three songs in a row that had a very similar sound: "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man." Then it was time to make a change, to go to a new place. We did "Dawn," which was totally different. The first three songs we did were all self-contained. "Dawn" we used an orchestra. Then we did "Ronnie," and "And That Reminds Me" - it went on and on. We did "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," "My Eyes Adored You," "Who Loves You" and "December, 1963."
It was very important for us to not have every song sound exactly like the one you did before, and it took a lot of work to do that. When we did the Cole Porter song, "I've Got You Under My Skin," we managed to make it sound like us, and that all came under the heading of the way the harmony was laid out. We used a basic type of harmony on almost everything we did - a harmony that had a lot of church overtones, with a touch at times of the modern.
And we just had a lot of fun. We went in to make records and had a lot of fun and hoped that the public would like them. And fortunately for us, they did like them. That amounts to why we had the success we did, I guess.
I don't think anybody has a real handle of what it is that makes you successful, but I've said this so many times before: in order to have a hit you need to have a song. You could have a great arrangement, great production and a great performance, but if you don't have a hit song, you're not going to have a hit. And that's been proven so many times. If I was wrong, every record than an artist put out would be a hit.
The public mostly knows about the songs that became hits. Nobody knows about the failures.
Songfacts: Are there some songs you did that you thought were hits and didn't turn out to be?
Frankie: There are some songs that were on albums that I felt could have been hits but record companies at the time didn't agree. A good example is when we recorded an album for Motown Records and it was put out and nothing really happened. They really didn't promote it, and promotion is a very, very important part of it.
Rita Coolidge recorded a Boz Scaggs song called "We're All Alone." We had the first record on that after Boz. We took a track from a Boz Scaggs album and we recorded it and put it out – we forced the record company, actually, to put it out. They didn't want to. So they didn't work on it, and six months later, Rita Coolidge had a hit with it. So...
We had the first record out on "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore." And again, when you're fighting with a record company and they're not promoting, it's like going to Vegas and four-walling. Unless you have the hotel behind you, you're not going to do business, I don't care what anybody says. The hotel has to be behind you, and the same with the record company - the record company has to be behind you.
For most of our career, we haven't been with a major record company because the deal that we had in the record business, we own all our own masters, and most record companies wouldn't allow you to do that at that time. Now everything has changed and there aren't that many major record companies anymore, so when you don't get that major force, it's like making a movie and putting it out independently. Well, if you're not a major studio, and you don't have 4,000 or 5,000 theaters that you can put the movie out all at one time, you could lose a great movie.
Songfacts: Did you also have songs that you didn't think much of at the time that ended up becoming big hits?
Frankie: There are some songs I liked more than others. But to start off, I wouldn't have recorded them if I didn't like them. It's like food. You don't eat food you don't like.
When somebody is showing you a song, you either like it or you don't like it.
Songfacts: Some of your songs have taken a life of their own. "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" was almost a standard as soon as you recorded it. There are hundreds of cover versions by now.
We recorded "I've Got You Under My Skin," which was a classic Sinatra recording, after watching a Frank Sinatra show where he was singing that song. And on top of that, Cole Porter was probably one of the most incredible writers that ever lived. So the inspiration for us to record "I've Got You Under My Skin" came as we were watching a Frank Sinatra show.
Now, when I say that a song has to stand on its own, again, we did a version of it that was totally different than Frank Sinatra's, and we had a hit with it, and Frank had a hit with it. That's why I say the material is very, very important.
Songfacts: I imagine it's hard to fit all your hits into a show.
Frankie: There isn't a show that we do - and we basically do a two-hour show when we're in concert - where somebody doesn't come up to us and say, "I wish you would have done this, or wish you would have done that." It would take probably a 3-and-a-half hour show, and I don't know if I have that kind of stamina anymore.
Songfacts: How many dates are you doing a year?
One of the oddest double-platinum singles of 1978 was "Grease." Frankie Valli sang the Barry Gibb-written song for the 1950s-set movie version of the hit musical. In it came the philosophy, "We start believin' now that we can be who we are" and "This is a life of illusion, a life of control" which seemed odd even for a man who sang "Rag Doll."
Valli says he knew Gibb was writing the title song for the movie because his manager was co-producing the film. When Gibb sent him the song, Valli says, "I almost immediately said yes. How could anybody not hear that it was an incredible song? I think if they knew it was going to be as big a hit as it was, they probably never would have given it to me. They probably would have recorded it themselves."
The Bee Gees did record it... eventually. It appeared on their 1997 live album One Night Only – with Valli sitting in.
Frankie: We're doing near 100. I love what I do. I wish that everybody in life who had a job loved their job as much as I do. It's everything to me. It's my whole life. I don't play tennis. I don't play golf. I'm not a big time vacationer. I'd rather be in a studio making records than being on vacation.
Basically, I look at my life, I've been on vacation for the whole thing. How much more lucky could I be than to be doing something that I absolutely love for as long as I can remember.
Songfacts: Still, you've found time to do some acting.
Frankie: I love to act, because it's a little challenging. It's a little different than making a record, because in the movie business or the acting business the dialog is always changing, so it's very, very challenging, and I like that. I hope there's going to be more of that, because I certainly would welcome it.
Songfacts: There must be a whole group of people who may not know your music but only know you from your character on The Sopranos.
Frankie: I get that all the time: "Hey, Rusty Millio!"
When I was finally killed on The Sopranos, they told me that they got so many emails from people saying they would never watch the show again.
They were terrific to me at The Sopranos. They made all the changes for me and rescheduled shooting because they knew I was on tour a lot. And I knew I had to be killed off. Either that or I'd have to quit my touring business.
Songfacts: Well, it seems like your songs have never gone away on radio, and now they're back again in Jersey Boys.
Frankie: We need to thank oldies radio for keeping so many people alive the way they have over the years. I mean, in every market in the world that I've ever been to, oldies radio is either #1 or #2 and certainly with the disappearance of radio doing music in today's world, I don't know what's happening. We're losing record companies, and all the record stores are closed down. I don't know where it's going to go.
Songfacts: With oldies so popular, what does that say about today's music?
Frankie: I certainly think that there's a lot of today's music that will be forgotten. That's just the way it is. But there's a lot of good music also that will never be forgotten. I like the fact that kids are tuning in - I have twin boys that have just turned 20 and they listen to a lot of old stuff. They like the melodic structure of old music - it has a melody and a story.
Most of the singers today seem to sound very much alike. The most exciting thing that I've seen in a while is this kid Bruno Mars, who I think is absolutely brilliant.
Songfacts: You made your hits against some incredible competition, from The Beatles to Motown. It must have been even tougher to compete in the '60s.
Frankie: There's something to the music that was made in '50s, '60s and some of the '70s that is really very, very special. And there are those rarities out there, those incredible groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Eagles and the Manhattan Transfer, and the Billy Joels and the Elton Johns. I'm sure I'll leave some people out, but we have some incredible talent out there: the Celine Dions, the Whitney Houstons, the Michael McDonalds, the Patti LaBelles, the Gladys Knights.
I mean, there are just so many incredibly talented people who don't have this opportunity anymore of making records. I think that's a big loss.
July 11, 2014. Get more at frankievallifourseasons.com.
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