I grew up in the 1960s on the streets of Washington Heights in Manhattan. In the summer, no one went away to camp. You had your bike, your baseball cards, change for Stein's Candy Store and a bathing suit. That was it, and that was all you needed. Some of my fondest summer memories were spent standing under a park sprinkler on a hot afternoon waiting for the Good Humor truck to show up so I could buy a Popsicle shaped like a rocket. I didn't even know what the country looked like, let alone a country house. The closest we came to getting out of the city was sitting in the back of a parent's car on a Saturday afternoon as it drove across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey's Palisades Amusement Park. [Pictured above, Frankie Valli]
At home at night, we didn't have air conditioning. You took a shower, left yourself dripping wet and turned on a big square fan. Then you jumped into bed with a damp washcloth in case you got hot and fell asleep to the thump-thump of the fan's big blade. Like many kids, I listened to a transistor radio under my pillow that was set to WABC. From there, my imagination went wherever DJs named Dan Daniels, Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram and Cousin Brucie took me.
The band that reminds me most of those days is Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, not the Beatles or the Stones. In fact, you heard the Four Seasons so often where I lived they were practically part of the family. In my neighborhood, they were ingrained in the cultural landscape, like Nok-Hockey, deli hot dogs with the strings still on them, red Schwinn bikes, a free cookie at the bakery and the smell of exploded caps.
The Four Seasons were always on the radio in New York back then, and sometimes you could see them perform at Palisades during evening concerts sponsored by WABC. Frankie's falsetto and pleading song themes (Rag Doll, Walk Like a Man, Candy Girl, Marcie, Big Man in Town, etc.) made perfect sense if you were a kid growing up in New York. I saw young guys like him at the pizza shop all the time telling the pizza guy when to take their slices out of the oven, dabbing off the oil gingerly with a napkin, and ordering grape drinks that were mixing all day in clear fountain units. In the early '60s, you were a kid until you looked like an adult and then you dressed like an adult. There was no youth culture then in New York—no red-striped short-sleeved shirts like the Beach Boys wore, no collarless Beatles jackets or blue suits with white piping like the Temptations. In the city, it was just grownup sharkskin jackets, open shirts, cotton turtlenecks and pointy black shoes.
Frankie Valli's voice came in and out of my life at critical turning points: Opus 17 (Don't You Worry 'bout Me) in 1966, Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You in 1967, Who Loves You in 1975, Swearin' to God in 1976 and Grease in 1978. All of the songs stood for the same thing—the hipness and familiarity of living in New York and surviving all the stuff to say you did. Like the sound of squealing subway cars, the green city buses with cat ears, and the ding-ding-ding of change being fed into pay phones, Frankie Valli's high voice and sincerity along with the Four Seasons' tight harmony was an omnipresent sound of my youth. It was never not there.
So it was a joy when I finally had an opportunity to interview Frankie a couple of weeks ago for today's "House Call" column in the Mansion section of The Wall Street Journal. With Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys movie opening today, I wondered what life was like for Frankie growing up at the Stephen Crane Village projects in Newark, N.J. You can read my interview here.
It's always an honor and privilege to interview artists for The Wall Street Journal and take readers along for the ride. But with Frankie, it was personal. Fortunately I didn't have to turn on a fan while wet to write. Some things have changed. [Above, Frankie Valli by Brad Trent for The Wall Street Journal]
Here's Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons singing Who Loves You in 1975...
Wait, there's more! In today's Wall Street Journal, I have three other articles you may enjoy: A new bossa nova album is coming next week that uses the original vocals from American soul and jazz hits (here); six cities in the U.S. and Europe that gave birth to music styles are still going strong (here); and an interview with Patrick Carney of the Black Keys on how the band's new album, Turn Blue (Nonesuch), was recorded (here).