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Originally published Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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A Four Season, on forging the "Jersey Boys" sound

"Sherry" catapulted the Four Seasons to the top in 1962. The force of the song revs up to a fever pitch in "Jersey Boys," the 2005 Broadway hit that comes to the 5th Avenue Theatre on tour this week.

Seattle Times theater critic

On stage

"The Jersey Boys," previews Wednesday and Thursday, opens Friday and runs Tuesdays-Sundays through Jan. 12, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $28-$88 (888-584-4849 or www.5thavenue.org).

There is a moment in the Broadway hit musical "Jersey Boys" when something amazing happens to your ears.

Up till then, the show has been tracking several Italian-American youths in urban New Jersey — the same rough turf as that of TV's famed Jersey mobsters, the Sopranos.

The kids have been playing music, dodging in and out of trouble with the law. Then they join musical forces, choose a name (the Four Seasons), get a contract with Vee-Jay Records and come up with some catchy tunes for a debut album.

That's when we hear it: the loping bass figure. The thumping drum beat. A tambourine. And four harmonized voices topped by a Banshee falsetto.

Now the immortal lyrics pelt you like a sonic hail storm: "Shay-rreeee, Sher-ry baby! / Shay-rreeee, Sherry baby!"

"Sherry" catapulted the Four Seasons to the top in pops in 1962. And if you've heard it a thousand times or never, the force of the song revs up to a fever pitch in "Jersey Boys," the 2005 Broadway hit that comes to the 5th Avenue Theatre on tour this week.

The sheer, brute force of the Four Seasons' music drives the production like a souped-up Buick. Elaborated further in such later Four Seasons chart-toppers as "Rag Doll," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man," there is simply nothing else quite like the Four Seasons sound in American pop music.

And, says Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member and architect of its music, a surprising range of musical influences went into that unique sound.

Doing the doo-wop

The most obvious influence is doo-wop, or vocal rhythm and blues. It was first popularized in East Coast urban enclaves in the 1950s by black teens who couldn't afford to buy instruments. Instead, they created "street-corner symphonies" with intricate vocal layering.

"Yes, we did some doo-wop," recalled Gaudio, now 65, and still in the music biz. "But we also were affected by jazz-oriented vocal groups — the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo's."

Those jazzy groups were clean-cut, white singing combos who deftly rearranged pop standards and show tunes for multiple male voices. Meanwhile, the break-out doo-woppers (e.g., the Platters, the Orioles, the Five Satins) scored their hits with bluesy ballads ("Sixteen Candles") and novelty numbers ("Sh Boom").

A classical beginning

Along with doo-wop and jazz, there's also a pinch of Bach in the Four Seasons recipe. "I began training on classical piano at age 6 or so," said Gaudio, speaking on the phone from the East Coast. "I remember my mother forcing me to practice every day when I wanted to be out throwing a football. Or at least playing drums, not piano."

In 1958, at 15, the precocious Gaudio and his band of the time, the Royal Teens, cut a novelty he wrote titled "Short Shorts." A riff on a current clothing craze, the song became a hit, and landed the teenager on the road touring with such R&B greats as Jackie Wilson and Clyde McPhatter.

"One of my biggest kicks was getting to shake Louis Armstrong's hand when I was 16," Gaudio said. "He had the biggest hand I'd ever seen!"

Valli high

As "Jersey Boys" tells you, "Short Shorts" made Gaudio a minor celebrity in the Newark area where he grew up.

But the Royal Teens didn't last long. Gaudio met local guitarist Tommy DeVito. And he heard the thrilling falsetto singing of a Newark kid named Frankie Valli (then in a group with DeVito called the Four Lovers), who was introduced to him by another Jersey boy, future actor Joe Pesci.

"Frankie had an unusually strong falsetto," observed Gaudio. "There are very few singers I've ever heard who I can say that about. He can jump from full voice to falsetto so fast, he'll pin your hair back."

Most other falsetto champs of the time — Smokey Robinson, for one — used softer high tones. Valli had a vocal attack that Gaudio calls "harder, edgier, more street-oriented."

And Valli brought in another influence: Italian folk tunes, which inspired such sentimental ballads as one he recorded solo in 1953, "My Mother's Eyes." As Gaudio joined Valli, DeVito and bassist Nick Massi, the Four Lovers morphed into the Four Seasons.

"Nick and I had both sung religious music in Catholic church choirs," Gaudio recalled, "and he could kind of pull vocal parts out of the air."

Men of distinction

Singing backup for other artists, the group met the hot young record producer Bob Crewe, who became Gaudio's song-writing partner. And once the Seasons' signature sound was set, it struck solid gold.

Punchy, hard-driving and irresistible, the Four Seasons' stridently infectious tunes, about macho pride and girls sad and sassy, was like nothing else on the radio dial.

The music felt as distinctive as that of other top male vocal crews of the early 1960s: the Beach Boys (who shared a friendly rivalry with the Four Seasons, said Gaudio), Motown groups like the Temptations, and, of course, the Beatles.

The Four Seasons didn't get the artistic respect those others did, but Gaudio isn't whining. He's still getting royalties from a stack of the groups' string of hits, which stretched into the 1970s. And in 1990, the Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jumpin' for "Jersey"

Now their tunes are back in vogue, thanks to "Jersey Boys." Gaudio says he and his cohorts were initially skeptical about the show, which director Des McAnuff developed at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, en route to Broadway.

"At first we just fed the writers [Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman] facts about our backgrounds and the group history, and didn't expect much. But when we saw what they put together at La Jolla, we were just stunned by how great it was. I got much more involved because, frankly, the stakes were higher."

Cleverly telling a more dynamic backstory than most other "jukebox musicals" raiding a trove of rock oldies, "Jersey Boys" won four 2006 Tony Awards (including one for best new musical), and has spun off several touring editions.

A company will be installed at the new Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas next year. And a movie deal is likely. Wherever "Jersey Boys" plays, the music is performed onstage largely by the actors, "with a lot of integrity," said Gaudio.

The initial Broadway cast "really did their homework! And [Tony-winner] John Lloyd Young, the first Frankie on Broadway, is just an incredible talent. But all the actors who've played us have studied our records, and really trained like athletes to keep the quality up night after night."

Gaudio speaks well of Christopher Kale Jones, the actor who will reach for Valli's high notes at the 5th Avenue.

And new cast members get from Gaudio "a little bible of what not to do with the music. Rule one is, never let the band drive the vocals. Our vocals always drove the band."

Though the Four Season tunes are now oldies, Gaudio suggests "there's always room for a great new vocal harmony group.

"Boyz II Men gave it a run, Backstreet Boys. And you'll see, someone's going to come around with a new little twist. There's always room for harmony, and you can't help but get a chill when you hear it done well."

Misha Berson:

mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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