|Leo Shapiro on the keyboard was a key addition to the Four Seasons.|
When I think of Jersey, Brooklyn, and Long Island, I think Jewish and Italian – and I think about the frequent cultural intersections between these two groups.
Could it be that the famous singing group “The Four Seasons,” the subject of the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” and the movie of the same name that opened last week – really had no Jewish members during its long history? Was it an entirely Italian-American group?
I thought it was until two weeks ago, when David Sachs, an editor at the Detroit Jewish News, clued me into Lee Shapiro, “the Jewish Season,” who played an important role in the mid-1970s revival of the fortunes of the band and its lead singer, Frankie Valli.
Mr. Sachs interviewed Mr. Shapiro in 2009, and I managed to catch up with Mr. Shapiro, who now lives in Hackensack, for a talk two weeks ago, just before he took the stage for a concert in Montana.
Born in Passaic in 1953 and raised in Glen Rock, Mr. Shapiro was a musical prodigy on the piano. During the mid-’60s, the list of three or four most popular bands in America always included the Beatles and the Four Seasons. The Beatles were his favorite band, Mr. Shapiro said, until he happened to see the Seasons on TV in 1964, and noticed that unlike the Beatles they had a keyboard player.
As he watched the group on TV, Mr. Shapiro pointed out their keyboard player and told his mother, “See, Mom, someday I could play piano and be in a rock band just like this!” What he didn’t know then was that the keyboard player was Bob Gaudio, the co-writer of most of the group’s hits. Mr. Shapiro told me that “Gaudio was one of my biggest influences.”
Mr. Gaudio is one of the main characters in “Jersey Boys.” He’s played by Jewish actor Erich Bergen, who has received the best reviews of any actor in the film. Lead singer Frankie Valli, guitarist Tommy DeVito, bass player Nick Massi, and Massi’s 1965 replacement, Joe LaBacio, a.k.a. Joe Long, also are portrayed in the film. As you may have guessed, none of these guys are Jewish.
This was the band’s lineup until, as almost always happens with pop acts, tastes changed. Then the group’s record sales tanked. In 1973, the Four Seasons and Mr. Valli still were signed to Motown, but their recording deal was virtually dead. The group still could draw big live audiences, but Mr. Gaudio, who never liked being on stage, didn’t want to tour anymore.
Enter the Jewish kid
In 1973, Mr. Shapiro was being trained classically at the elite Manhattan School of Music. He was a keen student of the art of orchestration (in other words, how to arrange the musical text for each instrument playing the song). For fun, he played keyboards with a jazz big band that played once a week at a small New Jersey club. Big band music was commercially passÃ© by 1973, so this was more a hobby band than a commercial one. Then a musician who had played with Mr. Shapiro heard about Mr. Gaudio’s departure and learned that the Seasons needed a tour keyboardist and arranger. He told the group’s road manager about Mr. Shapiro. The road manager checked the young musician out and was impressed by him. He told Mr. Valli about Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Valli asked the young musician to come in for an audition.
Mr. Shapiro told David Sachs about the first moments of the audition, “I began playing the first chord of the intro of ‘Dawn’ and Frankie began singing, “Pretty Eyes of midsummer’s morn..,'” he said. “I stopped cold.
“I couldn’t believe that before me was the great voice I heard so many times on the radio.”
Mr. Valli offered Mr. Shapiro the job of being the band’s musical director and keyboardist. He also asked Mr. Shapiro if he could arrange new songs that they wanted to add to the act. He needed them right away. Mr. Shapiro told me he wasn’t sure he then had the technical skill do such overnight arrangements, but like most job seekers, he said yes and hoped for the best. (It worked out.) Mr. Shapiro worked as a Four Seasons member for the next seven years, as musical director, keyboardist, and arranger, and he performed the same functions for Frankie Valli when Mr. Valli recorded or toured as a solo act.
“My Eyes Adored You” was a song co-written by Mr. Gaudio and recorded by Mr. Valli (solo) while they were still with Motown. Motown refused to release it as a single, so Mr. Valli bought back the rights for $4,000 and finally got a small label to release it in November, 1974. It soared to become a #1 hit by March, 1975. Mr. Valli’s follow-up disco-themed song, “Swearin’ to God,” lead to revival in interest in the Four Seasons group and a big-label record contract.
A new recording/tour line-up of the Four Seasons was put together in 1975. It included Mr. Valli, Mr. Shapiro, vocalist/drummer Gerry Polci, bassist Don Ciccone, and guitarist John Pavia. Mr. Shapiro was a key member of the band as it worked on its new album, “Who Loves You,” which was released that summer. It sold more than a million copies and spawned two hit singles: the title track and “December 1963″ (Oh, What a Night).” The latter tune, Mr. Shapiro told me, is interesting in that it was the first Four Seasons hit tune for which Mr. Valli was not the lead vocalist. Mr. Polci sang most of the verses, with Mr. Valli coming in only on the two bridges.
Mr. Shapiro, like many musicians before and after him, was blown away the first time he heard a record that he helped to create, played on the radio. He told Mr. Sachs: “I was driving in Paramus when I first heard ‘Who Loves You’ on the air. I had to pull over. I was shaking.”
Jewish kid fits in/Jersey Boys
Mr. Shapiro said that the Four Seasons used to refer to him as “the Jewish kid.” One of the guys in the band “even changed my name to ‘Leesha Piro’ to make me sound Italian,” he added. Mr. Shapiro could take such changes with good humor because he had grown up surrounded mainly by Jews and Italians. Like Massapequa on Long Island, which has so many Jews and Italians the locals call it “Matzo-Pizza,” Mr. Shapiro’s Glen Rock-Fair Lawn neighborhood mostly was a mix of Jews and Italians. Several of them, he proudly notes, went on to be famous rockers. (One of them is Jimmy Vivino, who leads Conan O’Brien’s band.) Mr. Shapiro listed some of the many cultural characteristics Jews and Italians share: valuing tight knit families; a general affinity for music; and respect for hard-charging business people.
As for “Jersey Boys,” Mr. Shapiro says it takes a lot of liberties with what “really happened.” Nonetheless, he is more than okay with the play and the film because they work on their own terms as works of art. When he spoke to David Sachs, Mr. Shapiro made this interesting point about the stage play. “Jersey Boys became a hit because there’s a fascination in America with two things: the music of the ’60s and the mafia. The Four Seasons history reads like the Sopranos without all the violence.” (Ironically, Mr. Valli had a shortish stint on the Sopranos playing a mobster).
The Indian summer of the Four Seasons gradually faded after the 1975 hits, even though Mr. Valli, singing solo, had another #1 hit in 1978 with the theme song from “Grease.” In 1981, Mr. Shapiro left the Four Seasons and no longer backed Mr. Valli on the road. He had gotten married in 1977; he and his wife, Georgia, wanted a more settled life, which they found in Fort Lee. The day I spoke to Mr. Shapiro, he had just learned that he and his wife of 36 years are about to be grandparents for the first time. Their daughter Ariel, their only child, is expecting twin boys.
Mr. Shapiro’s life since the Seasons has been anything but idle. In the ’80s and ’90s, his gigs included orchestrating for Barry Manilow’s Atlantic City revue, writing music for commercials, and working as music director for a major ship cruise line. His commercial work included music for a toy company ad. This got him thinking. In 1999, he co-invented “Rock ‘n’ Roll Elmo,” a singing doll take-off on the popular “Tickle Me Elmo” doll. Well, the singin’ and rockin’ Elmo toy sold four million copies. You won’t be surprised when I tell you that according to Mr. Shapiro, his Elmo royalties equaled everything he had made in the music biz up to that point. Also, he said, he was proud he had invented something that was true to the character (Elmo sang on Sesame Street) and “was something that parents and grandparents and their kids could relate to.”
Mr. Shapiro went on to invent other things, like kitchen utensils and an easy-to-play guitar. But they didn’t take off like Rockin’ Elmo.
The success of “Jersey Boys” helped lead Mr. Shapiro to start a new touring stage act called “The Hit Men” in 2010. The group plays one-night gigs around the country, backed by classical orchestras. Most classical orchestras are struggling financially and they benefit from a pops concert that usually sells out. These “Hit Men” concerts appeal to many older orchestra patrons, who fondly remember the rock and pop hits of their youth. As Mr. Shapiro told me, this is not a tribute or a copy cat group. Rather, it is composed of musicians who played with bands that had big hits in the 1960s, ’70, and ’80s, or who backed hit makers during the original studio recordings. Mr. Shapiro says, with pride, that the group uses no modern tricks, no pre-recorded music or vocals. What you see is a live band singing the songs live-plain and simple. Mr. Shapiro, Gerry Polici, and Don Ciccone perform the hits of the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli. Mr. Ciccone also played with Tommy James and the Shondells, so they perform Shondells hits. Similarly, Hit Man Larry Gates, another Jewish New Jersey native, was a top studio guitarist who played with Rick Derringer and Janis Ian, among others. So Mr. Gates plays their tunes, while backing on others. There are six members of the band in all, and they put on a great show. Some of the hits they play are beautifully augmented by the lush sound of full classical orchestra playing behind them.
The “Hit Men” has the enthusiastic backing of Frankie Valli. Not surprisingly, Mr. Shapiro is still one of Mr. Valli’s biggest fans. While speaking to me, he echoed what he told David Sachs a few years ago: “I owe everything to Frankie Valli. He gave me my big break and opened up the world to me.”