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The Hit Men, from left, Gerry Polci, Larry Gates, Russ Velazquez, Lee Shapiro and Jimmy Ryan, will perform at The Anderson Center on July 11.
Hit Men to perform blasts from the past
June 25, 2014Tweet
With its pounding piano intro and a pop/soul/disco arrangement that incorporates three vocalists, The Four Seasons’ “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” is as infectious in 2014 as it was when it was released nearly 39 years ago.
The song remains special to former group member Lee Shapiro, who played keyboards and served as a musical arranger for The Four Seasons from 1973-1980.
“’Oh, What a Night’ will always be my favorite because it was the biggest hit the group ever had,” said Shapiro of the song that spent three weeks at No. 1 in early 1976 and returned to the Top 20 in 1993 as a dance remix. “(Drummer) Gerry Polci sang lead on it instead of Frankie Valli. We were like the young guys. It was a great thing that happened.”
Shapiro and Polci will bring the hits of The Four Seasons and others to the Anderson Center at 8 p.m. Friday, July 11, when they take the stage as members of the five-man act The Hit Men. Shapiro and Polci are joined in the group by Jimmy Ryan (a former guitarist and musical director for Carly Simon who also played with Cat Stevens and Jim Croce and was a member of the 1960s folk-rock band The Critters); Larry Gates (who has played with Bon Jovi, Janis Ian and Rick Derringer); and Russ Velazquez (an Emmy-nominated composer and arranger who has worked with Sting and Carole King).
The success of Broadway’s salute to the Four Seasons, “Jersey Boys,” inspired Shapiro to put the group together, he said.
“’Jersey Boys’ comes out and I was invited to a session where Frankie Valli was recording six or seven years ago,” Shapiro recalled. “I spoke to him and said: ‘Frankie, everyone is always asking Gerry and me about doing something together. We are thinking about it. What would be your feeling?’ He’s always been supportive and a friend through the years. He said: ‘If you want to do it, go do it.’”
Shapiro and Polci soon met for a rehearsal with Velazquez, Ryan and Gates.
“These are real people with real legacy résumés,” Shapiro said.
The group members played “December 1963” and immediately knew something magical was happening.
“We played it like it was yesterday,” Shapiro said. “We looked at each other and it was like, ‘I guess we’ve got to do this.’”
What started as a lone gig at a New Jersey nightclub has turned into 50-60 concerts per year for The Hit Men. The live show features only songs that the quintet recorded or performed live, so audience members can expect a healthy dose of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce and Tommy James and the Shondells.
Hit Men concerts also have a storytelling component to them, Shapiro said.
“The show is about the music, but it’s also about history and funny anecdotes and stories,” he said. “We have a visual presentation that is projected during the show and depicts what we’re talking about. It’s a multi-media show that is much more than a concert.
“As great as the tribute bands and the former actors of ‘Jersey Boys’ are, they weren’t there. We were,” Shapiro said. “Our stories hit a particular chord with people because we recorded some of these songs and toured on all of them. The stories we tell are true and behind-the-scenes: funny things you wouldn’t know, why the song was written and who did what.”
Shapiro was only 19 when he received an invitation in 1973 to audition for The Four Seasons, who at the time were recording for Motown Records and struggling to recapture their 1960s glory.
“I got a call because I used to have a big-band jazz group and the road manager saw me,” he said. “Frankie and the guys were looking for an arranger who could play keyboards so they wouldn’t have to keep coming back to New York every time they wanted to do a new song.
“I auditioned for Frankie and they had me play something on the keyboards. He started to sing and I stopped. He said: ‘What’s the matter?’ I said: ‘Man, it sounds just like the radio!’ He had a good laugh at my expense with that one. I was a kid, but we went and did it and the rest as they say is history.”
Shapiro stepped into the band role played by original Season Bob Gaudio, who wanted to concentrate on writing and producing for the group and others. In 1974, Shapiro found himself in the recording studio working with producer Bob Crewe and songwriter Kenny Nolan, as they recorded Valli’s No. 1 comeback hit “My Eyes Adored You.”
The success of “My Eyes Adored You” and the addition of three other young musicians to the group – Polci, bassist Don Ciccone and guitarist John Paiva – meant the time was a right for a new Four Seasons single. Even though the Gaudio-written “Who Loves You” sounded like a sure hit, the group had to persuade Warner Brothers to release it in 1975, Shapiro said.
“There was nothing like it at the time,” he said of the harmony-rich song that would peak at No. 3. “The Four Seasons that Gerry and I (joined) hadn’t had a hit in a few years. So we had to present it and have it considered by Warner Brothers. It wasn’t automatic. But they took a shot with it and (the record) took off. Like they say in ‘Jersey Boys’: Gaudio did it again!”
When it came time to record “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” the group members expressed doubts about Gaudio’s original lyrics dealing with the Prohibition era (“December 5th, 1933”).
“(Gaudio) flipped out!” Shapiro recalled. “’What do you mean? We’ve got the tracks cut. This is going to be a hit! What’s wrong with you guys?’ And that was the end of it. The very next day, he showed up with new lyrics. He came back with a new song and it’s the biggest-selling hit in the history of (The Four Seasons).”
The group continued to have success on both sides of the Atlantic, with hits such as “Rhapsody” and the Polci-sung “Silver Star” and “Down the Hall.” Valli’s solo career thrived through the end of the 1970s with the No. 1 hit “Grease,” along with “Swearin’ to God” and “Our Day Will Come.”
Shapiro, who went to work with Barry Manilow and Tommy James, credited Valli with “everything I learned about live performance.”
“Frankie taught me how to interact with an audience – not play at them, but bring them into a performance,” he said. “There are all of these little, magical guidelines that a lot of rock bands don’t know. Frankie imparted that to us quite innocently. It’s carried me through my whole life.”
Shapiro has a prediction for audience members who attend a Hit Men concert and experience the power of the music.
“The audience will leave happier and younger than when they got there,” he said. “It happens. People meet us afterward and they have a tear in their eye. They say: ‘I feel like I’m in school again.’ This music has that impact.”