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October 25, 2014

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An interview with Bob Gaudio, founding member of the Four Seasons

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Scott Doctor/www.greatscottstudios.com

Erich Bergen and Bob Gaudio.

*Check out this story with accompanying photos at VegasDeLuxe.com.*

The man who wrote the Four Seasons hits, co-founded the group and sang on stage as part of the group walked away in the mid 1970s after a staggering and sensational 12-year-run at the top. Bob Gaudio wanted to go on to write and produce other superstars, and he did with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

In 1995 after Record of the Year awards, Grammy nominations and with “Who Loves You” and “Oh What a Night” on Billboard’s longest charted records for more than a year, Bob was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame as “the quintessential music-maker.” But throughout his extraordinary and super-successful career, he always wanted to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the group’s success.

It took nearly 40 years, and now he watches over Jersey Boys nightly in one theater or another throughout America. What’s even more incredible is that as partners, Frankie Valli and Bob only have a handshake between them that’s lasted all that time -- right until today! No high-powered attorney’s documents; just a binding New Jersey friends’ handshake!

The award-winning hit musical Jersey Boys at the Palazzo celebrates its first anniversary today. I sat with Bob in the empty Palazzo theater the night before the Las Vegas premiere for our exclusive interview, so let’s go back in time one year ago together.

Robin Leach: What is the magic and the lasting appeal of the Four Seasons as the Jersey Boys? Why now 40 to 45 years later -- is it part of an era that’s bigger now than it was back then?

Bob Gaudio: That is a difficult one to answer, especially for me. This is the first time that I have been able to be an audience participant, to sit in the audience and feel what they must have felt during that era of the ’60s and the ’70s. I have to credit the writing and direction. It is so well put together that I think it would stand up even if the songs weren’t that popular. I think it is just the show is so well done; otherwise it is just a bunch of familiar songs.

RL: It is more than the familiarity; it was the content of the songs that made them work. It is pure unadulterated love, struggle and love again, isn’t it?

BG: It is the Rocky story and music. We have always related to a blue-collar audience and passion. It has always been about the music for us. I guess that came out in our records. We weren’t the glamour boys. If we didn’t make a great record, we weren’t on the radio. So we had to work at it. I think that shows in some of the records we have made. We took great care and focused on what we were doing. There weren’t a lot of distractions for us. It was survival.

RL: You have watched some of the preview Las Vegas audiences. Is it a mix of both young and old?

BG: It leans toward the over 45 crowd, but we do see a younger audience. There are some ushers in here that can’t be over 25; they have been back to see the show four or five times. Some of them said they had to pay, so I guess that is a good sign.

RL: Were you worried at all about coming to Vegas, which seems to have held a heavy hammer against Broadway shows?

BG: Yeah, it is similar to New York. When we were testing the show first in La Jolla (Calif.), we got an amazing response; the electricity coming out of the audience was phenomenal. We knew what we were in for. The Beach Boys show was opening. All Shook Up, the Lennon show, none of them made it, so it was similar to what happens here. So yeah, there is apprehension. The way I see Vegas is it is like New Jersey without the grass.

RL: Is it fun or strange to watch yourself being brought back to life?

BG: It is both. It at first was surreal. It was an out-of-body experience. After a while, I started enjoying the show as a show, then I went through the phase of what was wrong with it and why weren’t the harmonies right and correcting it from my standpoint. Now, it is still a bit of both. I get off on watching the audience and watching the people have such a great time and listening to them. I don’t get recognized. I am the backseat driver. I like to stand outside and listen to the comments.

RL: With no one recognizing you, do you ever get the urge to jump up and join in and let everybody know who you are? Do you think, because you were the original, that you could do it better than them?

BG: Not for a second. These kids sing, dance; they look better then we did. We had an originality to us, there is no question about it, but could we compare with the talent on this stage? No, these kids act, sing and dance. I wrote and produced and sang. I couldn’t wait to get off of that stage every night.

RL: When was the last time you performed as part of the original group?

BG: I think the last time we were all together was at the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It wasn’t a concert. It was 1970 something. I left the group early ’70s. I stopped performing and Frankie continued on. I went off to write and produce and do other things, so I have been off the stage a very long time.

RL: Frankie continued on and was the front face of the Four Seasons. You had driven the bus, you created the bus, you built the bus, and yet you are not anywhere near as well known as he is still to this day. Does that irk you or do you laugh about it?

BG: It is the chosen place to be for me. I don’t know if I was side by side with him in the performance department, if things that were accomplished could have been accomplished. There is an outside view that I have always had of our partnership. The 45 years of handshake. I think it was an important thing that I could look in and be a lot more objective. I was not caught up in the limelight. I still feel that way today. I am thrilled. I’m certainly a lot more recognizable now, but not to the point where it is hindering.

RL: Was the handshake between you ever formalized? Did it ever become a contract or did the handshake just last a long, long time?

BG: It is still to this day on the handshake. It may be the only one of its kind in the entire world of pop music. We have had many colleges that have asked us to appear and discuss exactly that. I am sure it is interesting. We got a call way back, 20 to 30 years ago, about doing an article in Time magazine. I said finally some recognition here. It turns out it was in the financial section. It was how did you guys keep this together with a handshake for so long. It shows how important that was to a lot of people, especially the ones that have 20 attorneys working for them. They still can’t figure it out.

RL: What was the glue that did keep it together?

BG: I think it was the music. I think Frankie and I were on the same wavelength. We were attracted to each other for the same reason, his voice, my writing and playing whatever. It was a marriage made in heaven, as is the case with this show. From top to bottom, everyone involved in Jersey Boys is perfect.

RL: Over the years, were there hiccups in the honeymoon? In the marriage?

BG: When I left the group, I think Frankie felt deserted. That is portrayed in the show, and it is true. I understand that. I think he understands it now, too. There was a reason for us to do it the way we did it, and it has certainly proved to be a successful combination. He is comfortable with it now. I am sure at the time there was apprehension.

RL: Compare the pop music world back then with what happened with The Beatles and what we have today.

BG: Essentially, there is no record industry right now. It is all about live performances, which we are into right now. When I was a kid, I knew nothing. I got ripped off, and the only thing I got out of it was a car from my first hit “Short Shorts.” I don’t think artists had the protection like what they have now. There is a good and a bad side to that now. They are better represented; the deals are better. … To be fair, I don’t have a problem with that. I wish it were the case in our time.

RL: Frankie has seen the show a number of times in New York, and he is here for the premiere. What is his take on it?

BG: I think it was tougher on Frankie. It was tough on me watching Frankie opening night in La Jolla. That was the first time we both saw the show. His personal life has some tragedies. He was brave enough to say if we are going to do it, let’s do it like it is. It was tough, because I knew it was going to be emotional. I don’t know how far past that he is. I don’t expect you can lose a child and not get emotional under those circumstances. He doesn’t see it as often as I do. I see it sometimes for technical reasons, but he walks out saying, “My God, it is just amazing.”

RL: Here at the Palazzo, this is all bigger, smarter, with a more expensive theater than the Great White Way. Is Vegas a bigger gamble than New York?

BG: We have a proven history with the show, so from that standpoint, it is a bit less for us. I don’t think I have ever had a more frightening evening than opening night in New York. Even after La Jolla being successful, New York is New York, and all it would take is a handful of critics to destroy us. I am very positive about this in Vegas. If it doesn’t succeed here, I don’t think it is the fault of the show. If Vegas is not ready for a theater piece, then so be it.

RL: I know you’re an East Coast guy, but what do you think of Vegas?

BG: This is a playground. Could I live here? Probably not. I know you love it, and I can see why. I have been here for three weeks now, and I was talking to my wife about an apartment. It is terrific; I am an East Coast guy. I lived in L.A. for 30 years, and we moved back and we are in New York and in Nashville. That is our main home. I have no problem out here.

RL: Are you still writing?

BG: I have been so involved since this all began as a thought for the last 10 years that I haven’t had the time or desire. My desire has been to keep my hands on this as much and make sure it stays to the quality in New York. It is us.

RL: It was a piece of musical history, it was never copied. Are those some of the things?

BG: Absolutely. It is not the easiest thing to do. They are doing eight shows a week. You really need to treat yourself as an athlete. Frankie’s music and what he has done covers such a broad spectrum of vocal gyration that you just can’t take a nap.

RL: How unique was his voice in 1961, and how do you find a singer/actor to duplicate that voice?

BG: I think if you had the chance to see all four or five productions in a row, you would find every Frankie portrayal slightly different. They are actors, they get into character, and they know what they are doing. They get the emotion of it all. They have to make the melodies, have the range and all of that, but each is different. That is what I love about it so much; this is not a cloning. I don’t think that anyone who has seen the show in New York will be like don’t bother, it is the same show in Vegas. They are all slightly different, and each actor brings an intangible quality that makes it so successful.

RL: How is Frankie’s voice today?

BG: He’s in his 70s and is still performing. He doesn’t have to, but he loves it.

RL: He played here in Vegas. He was at The Orleans.

BG: He is out there doing concerts, and the success of Jersey Boys hasn’t hurt. It has become iconic. There are some that come to see Jersey Boys, and they have to see where it all started. It is the same with the catalog, and the audiences want to see the origins. There are times I will be out in the lobby and they will be playing the cast album, and I can’t tell the difference.

RL: Do you ever wonder how on Earth did this happen and why did it last?

BG: I have thought about Frankie as a lead singer in one form or another in Grease and other things he has done, how remarkable that is. He is probably the only lead singer in history that never left the group. It is usually the total opposite. We have had a remarkable run, nearly five decades. It has been up, down and comeback after comeback, and I think maybe this Jersey Boys show is the final comeback.

Jersey Boys, which opened on Broadway to rave reviews Nov. 6, 2005, continues to sell out and is one of the hottest tickets on New York’s Great White Way. Jersey Boys received the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical and the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Musical Recording, which was certified gold and is still often at the top of the Billboard chart of best-selling show CDs.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground. Read more of Robin's stories at VegasDeLuxe.com.