Why There Was No Four Seasons Story For 43 Years
Jersey Boys, the hit Broadway musical that opened in 2005 in New York and 2008 in London, is not a revue, like Smokey Joe’s Café, nor a fiction fashioned to string together a body of work like Mama Mia but the story of a pop music act, like Shout or Walk The Line or The Temptations. So let’s skip past its savvy stagecraft, script, and marketing to ask a deeper question. Why is this the first successful telling of the tale -- in print, on stage, or on screen -- of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
The Seasons first hit with Sherry in 1962, just before the Beatles and the Beach Boys, reached their peak in the early and mid ‘60s, coincident with Beatlemania, and hung around in one form or another through disco and the movie Grease and beyond. They started out on Vee-Jay, Chicago’s doomed, mismanaged Motown doppelganger, and bounced along to other labels, and were essentially a singles act. So there was no external corporate entity with an economic incentive to shape their career with anthologies or reissues, and no internal drive to shape a career to fit an anthology. But they had personality and a sound, and cultural impact, and unusual longevity. Why didn’t that fall naturally into some sort of play, or book, or TV movie, or critical essay? Why did Jersey Boys take 43 years?
Rock era Pop music in the 1960s found a number of related frames to shape a story about itself, as it realized it was supposed to have a story, that it wasn't just a collection of hits.
The most common was expressed as “the blues and country had a baby and they called it rock and roll.” This formulation could explain founding fathers Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and understood rock and roll as a rootsy break with earlier forms of pop, an explosive mix of Anglo-Celt and African that revealed as well as hastened the diminishing of racism among white teens, while foreshadowing the counter culture and sexual revolution.
Another take linked Motown -- black music aimed at a multiracial audience -- to the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration of African-Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North. Most Soul Music could be fit into this frame, understood as the secularizing sibling of Black Gospel, and cousin of Black Pop Jazz. It’s political personification was of course Martin Luther King.
The arrival of the Atlantic-hopping, class-transcending cheeky early Beatles and their progeny set the stage for upmarket scrutiny. Delivering their North American derived music over here in British accents blurred social distinctions from the UK while relieving colonial insecurities about the status of Rock ‘n’ Roll. If Brits this clever understood and liked it, perhaps ideas applied to literature, painting, movies, and jazz could be applied to rock. Our political analog is Jack Kennedy, the sybaritic, Brit-emulating, urbane Irish-American. Tony Blair was the eventual P.M. Beatle.
A fourth angle explained white Country Music as an historically important tributary and distinctive counterpoint to 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, still rural and class bound at the beginning of that decade, and patriotic and very Protestant. Its political counterparts were Lyndon Johnson and then George Wallace, and for awhile Jimmy Carter.
A final frame existed outside the others but got absorbed in pieces: left-wing folk music, Marxist politics grafted onto an aesthetic that favored pre-industrial rural music. New Deal Popular Front in origin, by the 1960s it was an oppositional, bohemian. ideologically self-aware alternative introduced back into the mainstream through Bob Dylan.
Where did the Four Seasons fit? They came out of Doo-Wop, the Brill Building, r&b, and pop vocal jazz: a typical early 1960s northeastern urban stew. With the assistance of Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, Frankie Valli perfected the full-throttle falsetto, an historically important rock ‘n’ roll invention, (see Jan & Dean and Brian and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys and important bits of the Beatles). Valli could also sing a ballad but when he did he was a rock era emoter, not a throw back belter or saloon crooner. Unlike Frankie Avalon, or James Darren, he is post-Sinatra, the evolutionary leap beyond Bobby Darin in the long lineage of great Italian-American singers. It was all important. But it did not fit into the emerging storylines of ‘60s pop.
Even though that’s exactly what he sang. The first line of the Seasons’ first hit, after all, the dramatic peak halfway through the first act of Jersey Boys, (it takes that long to set-up the context) is simply “Sherry Baby,” four syllables, eleven notes long. This is rock ‘n’ roll.
And music that is distinctly aware of class and hierarchy, loyalty and family, opportunity and limits -- Roman Catholic, neither apocalyptic in politics nor Romantic in assumptions about the power of Art. A new music to explain a changing era, but one whose attitudes and aesthetics were not expected to re-imagine a whole new world nor permanently transcend the limits of the old.
“I’ll be a big man in town, someday” but “Dawn, go away I’m no good for you. Think what the future will be with a poor boy like me” and “Such a pretty face should be dressed in lace”. In the Four Seasons’ reality some people climb the ladder of success, and some people do not, but everyone is positioned somewhere on the ladder. True to Rock aesthetics, there’s an ecstasy in self-expression and definition that's unafraid of embracing vulgarity. But for the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli, sometimes that self is nevertheless trapped (or perhaps secured) by class and obligation. It’s thrilling to call for Sherry, and oddly thrilling to have to turn Dawn away.
This music doesn’t reference downhome Nashville or swinging London or groovy San Francisco (or even a big night at the Copa or in Vegas); it’s not on the way to carving out a counter-culture, of the left or of the right. Later attempts to shoe-horn the supposedly unfairly overlooked Four Seasons into the canon of hip, ambitious, progressive late ‘60s, early ‘70s rock don’t work, not because their music wasn’t interesting or creative, but because it doesn’t share the utopian ambitions of hip rock. The most completely realized song on their failed Sgt. Pepper era album, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, for instance, delineates a divorced dad on his weekly visit to his children. Hardly acid trip material. Their wonderful Dylan covers don’t mask a Mr. Jones befuddlement, or offer an homage, but reveal a bemused appreciation. Frankie Valli proves he can jump into “Queen Jane Approximately" and charted with a goofy take on "Don't Think Twice." They get it, they just don’t buy in.
At the same time, because this urban worldview assumes a social hierarchy that permits mobility as well as cross-cultural fertilization it doesn’t fit the fatalistic, regional, Calvinistic personalized resignation that lurks in classic country music. Nor does it match the self-pitying country rock of a defeated Woodstock Nation in exile in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Neither described New Jersey in the 1960s or the 1970s, at least the part inhabited by the Four Seasons in their music.
Maybe there was a sixties social context coming together that would have fit them, given them a narrative so to speak,but it collapsed with the death of Bobby Kennedy. Ignoring whatever his real political accomplishments may or might have been, his assassination was understood at the time as the heartbreaking ending of a storyline that now would not get told. Perhaps his presidential campaign was promising something that had already become impossible, had already come to an end, but that contributes to the poignancy.
How could one brother John be a beloved elitist, and another brother Robert personify the multiracial dreams of urbanizing blacks and working class northern whites? Let’s line that up with some other questions. Why couldn’t anyone replace Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy? Why did Bobby Darin drop out of politics and try to become a folk protest singer after RFK’s assassination? Why didn’t the Four Seasons have a story until 2005? What is it, exactly, that never happened?
The window that should have opened onto a story about the Four Seasons in the 1960s and 1970s was closing. Maybe Bobby Kennedy could have kept that window open; maybe John Lennon or Curtis Mayfield or Bobby Darin would have found a way to peer through that window. Maybe it was going to close anyway as the country split apart after the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam and as the long post-WWII economic boom wound down in the 1970s and the gaps opened up between the bottom and the middle and the top. We’ll never know.
So what came along that eventually created the space for Jersey Boys to come together?
It could have been Motown, if Berry Gordy hadn't abandoned Detroit to the Rust Belt and dragged Motown to LA. It might have been disco, if Sylvester Stallone hadn’t killed off the potential of Saturday Night Fever with his Rocky-ized, Reagan era sequel Stayin' Alive, draining all the impact of the original by extracting John Travolta from a social context. It wasn’t Grease. Although the title song, newly written for the movie by the Bee Gees, proved to be another career extension for Frankie Valli, Grease got cleansed of too much social reality to provide a context for Jersey Boys by the time John Travolta met Olivia Newton-John on the beach in Southern California. And it wasn't yet Bruce Springsteen.
I say it was the post-1960s gangster movie, specifically Scorsese's Casino, probably not DiPalma’s Scarface and especially the Sopranos, that built a frame to tell again a story about the possibilities and limits of mobility and social class. And I say it wasn’t The Godfather, just like it wasn’t Dynasty or Dallas. Those three were serials about the rich and powerful; if anything, Reagan era meditations on the Kennedys, or prophetic dreams foretelling Reagan and George Bush I and II.
Scarface updated the gangster narrative and made it accessible to the hip hop era, and, to my mind, set up The Sopranos,and then American Gangster. But it relies on a classic punish-the-bad-guy ending to resolve the snowballing wish-fulfillment that the plot accrues. Like other great pop culture story lines-- the life of Elvis Presley, the career arc of the Clash, the disintegration of Brian Wilson or Sylvester Stone-- Scarface builds on playing out the contradiction of promising more than can be delivered.
In this context, The Sopranos is not The Godfather or Scarface, because it’s not about the creation of a dynasty or its destruction, it’s about an anxious suburban dad managing the family business. Sure, they are Italian-Americans in New Jersey, just like the Four Seasons, and place into pop consciousness some of the verisimilitude that’s referenced on the stage in Jersey Boys. The TV series even cast Frankie Valli for a season before his character got bumped off. But most importantly for our purposes, Sopranos articulates a sublimated story about economic class and hierarchy, corruption, loyalty, church and family in a less than perfect world that lies at the center of the Four Seasons strongest work. It made the narrative of Jersey Boys a possibility, and primed an audience to expect it. We might say it brought the gangster movie in line with the career of the Four Seasons, with characters that contain a rock era subjectivity inside a social structure perceived and accepted as non-utopian.
In a more universally consistent, prosperous world this wouldn’t be the story, we wouldn’t sit in anxious living rooms watching Tony Soprano sit and squirm in his. In a nation that resolved the legacy of slavery and didn’t de-industrialize its northern cities, Black owned Vee-Jay would have merged with Motown, Berry Gordy would have never left Detroit, Phillip Roth would have moved back home to Newark, Curtis Mayfield would have written the title song for Grease, and the Four Seasons would have been label mates with the Beatles forever. In a place where politics could replicate our fallen leaders, stories wouldn’t go unfinished, and all Presidents would know how to bowl and be able to reference the Four Seasons as easily as Stevie Wonder or Bruce Springsteen. In that world 43 years is too long, but in this world it’s a whole lot less than never.
Originally presented at the EMP Pop Conference, April, 2007. Revised 2008, 2010, 2014