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Posts tagged ‘Four Seasons’

Bob Crewe 1930-2014

Bob CreweBob Crewe, who died last week aged 83, was one of the architects of 1960s pop music. Here’s my Guardian obituary. It’s interesting that of all the records he made, among his favourites was one that, from the outside, must have looked highly unpromising: the Four Seasons’ 1966 version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”.

Written in 1936 for the musical Born to Dance, the song received its definitive reading 20 years later, when Frank Sinatra included it on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, a hugely successful album. Sinatra had been featuring it in concert for a decade, but the recorded version benefited from Nelson Riddle’s finger-snapping arrangement, which builds up to Milt Bernhart’s wild trombone solo. It catches Sinatra at the very zenith of his ring-a-ding-dingness.

So it was brave of Bob Gaudio, a member of the Four Seasons and Crewe’s songwriting and production partner, to suggest that they risk a charge of sacrilege by giving it a whirl. The key to the triumphant success of their version might have been the decision to assign the job of arranging it not to one of their regular collaborators, such as the great Charlie Calello, but to the comparatively unfamiliar Artie Schroeck, who had been given his first breaks in the business by Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton and whose background was in big-band music.

Was it Gaudio, Crewe or Schroeck who made the crucial decision to switch the basic rhythm from a swinging 4/4 to straight eights, thus transforming the song from semi-jazz to pure pop? My guess would be Gaudio. But it’s the arranger who finds a way to integrate the tempo changes, the pauses and the rubato passages, to blend the strings and the tubular bells, to marshal the dynamic shifts, to make a sudden switch to the minor key, and to emphasise the drum fills — probably played by Buddy Salzmann — in a way that evokes the group’s earlier hits. And whoever came up with the repeated “Never win… never win…” in the backing vocals was a man who knew how to craft a hook.

It was a huge hit, of course. No wonder Bob Crewe was so proud of it. Here it is.

* The photograph above, which appears in the booklet accompanying the Four Seasons/Frankie Valli box set Jersey Beat, released on the Rhino label in 2007, was taken during the session at which “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was recorded in 1966. Left to right: Joe Long, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Artie Schroeck and Tommy DeVito.

 

 

Jersey Boys

Four SeasonsThere were only two other people in the cinema when I went to see Jersey Boys this week, a mere five days after its UK opening. Having received reviews ranging from cool to lukewarm, Clint Eastwood’s transfer of the Four Seasons musical from stage to screen has clearly failed to capture the public imagination — unlike the original, which is still running on Broadway and in the West End.

I belong to a generation that didn’t have much time for musicals, generally speaking, but I loved the theatrical version of Jersey Boys when I saw it a couple of years ago. The music sounded as good as the records and the staging was genuinely exhilarating. So the film’s first surprise is that Eastwood hasn’t simply tried to replicate the factors that made the stage show a success: he’s gone for something halfway between a musical and a conventional biopic, which is hard to pull off.

Here are the two main drawbacks: it still feels unmistakeably theatrical, and there’s surprisingly little music. Great trouble has obviously been taken over the design of the costumes, the sets and the props, and the film’s colours and textures are carefully graded to match the period, but it hardly ever feels real. And in an effort, I guess, to avoid the accusation of having simply reproduced a jukebox musical, the director has used the music only when it functions as part of the narrative (e.g. when they’re performing “Sherry” on American Bandstand or Valli makes his comeback, singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with a big band in a plush nightclub). Unlike Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles film, Eastwood doesn’t rely on enhanced versions of the original recordings to underdub the actors when the group are seen performing in a club or a theatre: the performances sound as unpolished and sometimes as weedy as they would have done in real life, deprived of the support of session musicians and studio technology. I ended up quite liking that, although I suppose I’d gone in hoping for the sensation of the original mixes of “C’mon Marianne”, “Beggin'”, “Beggars Parade”, “Tell It to the Rain” or “Dawn (Go Away)” thumping out through a cinema sound system.

In its treatment of the group’s early connections to New Jersey mobsters the film is grittier than I remember the stage version being. It’s still hardly Goodfellas, and it frequently lapses into cliché and caricature, but it does have a genuinely outstanding central scene in which the rest of the group discover the extent of the tax and gambling debts they’ve been landed with by Tommy DeVito, their founding member; he is forced out by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, while Nick Massi quits in disgust. In reality Massi left in 1965, after their first run of chart success, while DeVito’s ousting came six years later, at around the time they were dropped by Philips, when the hits had dried up. But it works in terms of dramatic truth, and the showdown exposes the sort of conflicts that anyone who has ever been in a band, at whatever level, will probably recognise. That scene also highlights the real excellence of the central performances by Vincent Piazza (DeVito), Michael Lomenda (Massi), Erich Bergen (Gaudio) and especially by John Lloyd Young, who delivers a nuanced and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Valli.

After DeVito’s departure, Valli and Gaudio took shared ownership of the group; the fact that they are named as the film’s executive producers probably guarantees a degree of both authenticity and airbrushing. There is no mention of the line-up (featuring the gifted lead singer/drummer Gerry Polci) that joined Valli for the chart rebirth with “Who Loves You”, “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” and “Silver Star” in the mid-70s (and it’s a bit dismaying that the first thing the audiences hears, before the titles, is a pianist infuriatingly misvoicing a vital chord in the great intro to “December 1963”).

If you’re a fan of the group, the film worth catching while it’s still around, which probably won’t be long. It’s hardly Eastwood’s finest hour as a director, and he doesn’t quite find the thing that would compensate for the missing vibrancy of the stage show, but of course it will send you back home to listen to some enduringly great records.

* The photograph of (left to right) Tommy DeVito, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi is taken from the booklet to Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, compiled by Bill Inglot and released by Rhino in 2007.

 

Give the session drummer some

If they still awarded grants for projects of genuine cultural significance, I’d want one for research into the great American session drummers of the 1960s. Which Motown records featured the playing of Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen or Uriel Jones? Exactly when did Al Duncan gave way to Maurice White on all those great Chicago sessions (Impressions, Major Lance, etc)? Precisely how did Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine divide the work-load in the Hollywood studios? I’d uncover the answers, and the world would be a better place.

Those questions came to mind when I found myself listening to Chuck Jackson’s “I Need You” a few nights ago. It’s a Goffin/King song (in fact you can find it on Honey & Wine, the second volume of Ace Records’ series of CDs devoted to their compositions), and it’s a beauty. Cover versions would come from the Walker Brothers and the young Wailers, but  none could match the performance of Jackson, one of the greatest of a generation of uptown soul singers that included Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe and Jerry Butler. Recorded for the Wand label in 1965, it was arranged by Ed Martin and produced by Stan Green and Steve Tyrell. In the hit parade, it made No 75 on the US Hot 100 and No 22 on the R&B chart, which was a disappointment for the singer after the success of “I Don’t Want to Cry”, “I Wake Up Crying” and “Any Day Now”.

What stuck out as I listened to this stately deep-soul ballad, however, was not the wonderful lead vocal. It was the arrangement, featuring strings, acoustic guitar and female vocals — and particularly the drumming, which makes use of the sort of emphatic tom-tom fills that Blaine brought to Phil Spector’s records, and Duncan (or possibly White) to those of the Impressions. And something about their architectural precision made me think of one name: Gary Chester.

Chester was the first-call session drummer in New York during those years. He’s the guy you can hear on the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “On Broadway”, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take”, the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”, Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By”, Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”, the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and many, many others. He was born in Sicily in 1924 (as Cesario Gurciollo) and died in New York 62 years later, having played, by his own account, on some 15,000 sessions.

He wasn’t the only session drummer in New York  in 1960s, of course, but something about the playing on “I Need You” sounded familiar. So I dug around on the internet, and found an email address for one of the producers. I sent a message to his assistant. Sorry to bother you with such a bizarre request after almost 50 years, I said, but could you ask Steve Tyrell if it was indeed Gary Chester on that record — and by the way, were the backing singers Cissy Houston and her nieces, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, which was how it sounded to me?

Forty eight hours later, quite miraculously, the reply arrived, short but very sweet: “Showed this to Steve and he said: Dee Dee and Cissy. Probably on the same session as ‘Since I Don’t Have You’. And it was definitely Gary Chester playing drums. Could have been Dionne as well but he doesn’t remember that.”

I don’t know why it gives me such satisfaction to pass that information out into the world, but it does.

For more great New York session drumming from the mid-’60s, listen to the Four Seasons’ “Dawn”. I used to think that was Gary Chester, too, but it isn’t. It’s Buddy Saltzmann, who also played on Little Eva’s “The Locomotion”, Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes”, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. And, of course, countless others. In the drum booths of the New York studios, he, Chester and Panama Francis were the men.

Now, about that grant…