Although they were one of the very biggest rock & roll groups of the 1960s, the Four Seasons — unlike, say, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or the Byrds — don’t excite virtually automatic respect from listeners and critics. A big factor is their most distinguishing trademark, the shrill falsetto vocals of their lead singer, Frankie Valli. Many also find their material — gently moralistic, romantic tunes with tightly arranged group harmonies that updated doo wop ethos into the 1960s — too cornball and clean-cut.
Whatever your feelings about the group, though, there’s no denying their considerable importance. No other white American group of the time save the Beach Boys boasted such intricate harmonies, though the Four Seasons were much more firmly in the Italian-American doo wop tradition. Their uptown production values were contemporary and, in certain respects, innovative. The R&B influence in their music was large, and some of their early singles enjoyed success with the R&B audience; in fact, some listeners thought that the Four Seasons were black when the group landed their first hits. And they were immensely successful, making the Top Ten thirteen times between 1962 and 1967 with hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Dawn,” “Rag Doll,” and “Let’s Hang On.”
The Four Seasons had been around for a long time before they got their first hit in 1962. Frankie Valli had made his first record way back in 1953, and in 1956 made a little noise with the Four Lovers’ “Apple of My Eye.” The Newark, NJ, group also included future Four Season Tommy DeVito on guitar, and in subsequent years Valli would record flops for RCA, Decca, Cindy, and Gone, sometimes as a soloist, sometimes with groups. In the early ’60s, the group, now known as the Four Seasons, were doing backup vocals for other artists.
Philadelphia producer Bob Crewe started working with the Seasons in 1962, and his contributions would be inestimable in the following years. Not only did he produce all of their big ’60s hits, but he would write much of their material in collaboration with group member Bob Gaudio. It was Valli’s near-soprano, though, that dominated their number one hit “Sherry,” as it would on the rest of their hits. “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Candy Girl” all followed within the next year — big smashes all, the first two (like “Sherry”) featuring stomping, almost martial handclaps. “Candy Girl” offered evidence of versatility, with its samba-like rhythms and glissando flourishes.
The British Invasion did little to diminish the Seasons’ fortunes, at least initially. In 1964, they moved from Vee-Jay (which also, for a brief time, had rights to the Beatles) to Philips. Their production became more sophisticated and dramatic while remaining unabashedly pop, and in 1964 they had several of their biggest hits: “Dawn,” “Ronnie,” “Rag Doll,” “Save It for Me,” and “Big Man in Town” (as well as a gem-like B-side, “Silence Is Golden,” which would be a hit in 1967 for the Tremeloes).
The Four Seasons’ influence, oddly, was also felt on a couple of tracks by the biggest British Invasion bands: the Beatles’ “Tell Me Why” and the Rolling Stones’ “The Singer Not the Song” both launched into ear-straining falsettos at points, whether as a satire, tribute, or both.
The winning streak basically continued through 1967, although they would never again be as huge. “Let’s Hang On,” “Working My Way Back to You,” “Opus 17,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Beggin’,” and “Marianne” were all big hits from the time, though, working in some mild soul influences. They also, just for kicks, released a couple of silly singles under a pseudonym, the Wonder Who?, that even pre-teens quickly identified as the Seasons under disguise. The Wonder Who?’s 1965 Top 20 hit, “Don’t Think Twice,” easily qualifies as the most ridiculous Dylan cover ever to hit the Top 40.
Guitar-oriented, more socially conscious rock and soul had been making inroads into the Four Seasons’ audience for a while, but the times really caught up with them by the end of 1967. The group would only make the Top 40 one more time before their mid-’70s reunion. In the late ’60s, Valli, while maintaining his position in the Seasons, had kicked off a solo career that went straight for the heart of showbizzy pop on his biggest single, the number two hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” The Four Seasons did attempt to address social concerns of the day on the late-’60s album Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, which usually met with derisive snickers from the few that heard it.
The Four Seasons struggled on into the 1970s; by the time they signed with a Motown subsidiary in 1971, Valli and Gaudio were the only original members left. They briefly returned to the top of the charts in the mid-’70s with “Who Loves You” and the nostalgic “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”; at the same time, Valli had a resurgence as a soloist, reaching number one with “My Eyes Adored You” and making the Top Ten with “Swearin’ to God.” It couldn’t last, any more than the group could turn back the clock to December 1963, that last moment when they reigned as the most successful white rock group in the world, unaware of the oncoming invasion by the Beatles. They’ve remained active off and on during the last two decades on the nostalgia circuit, without gaining any notable successes on record.
— Richie Unterberger