The Hit Men Are Some Good Old Jersey Boys

The Hit Men are: Gerry Polci, Larry Gates, Russ Velazquez, Lee Shapiro, and Jimmy Ryan.EXPAND
The Hit Men are: Gerry Polci, Larry Gates, Russ Velazquez, Lee Shapiro, and Jimmy Ryan.
Courtesy of DRPR

As one of the of the biggest hits of their career, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had every right to be stoked about the success of their single “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” The uptempo, compellingly danceable tune hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in March 1976, becoming one of the band’s most iconic songs; it's still popular today. It also capped off something of a comeback for the group on the heels of hits like “Swearin’ to God,” “Who Loves You,” and Valli's solo hit “My Eyes Adored You.”

But the lyrical content about a young man’s entry into…uh…manhood (“Oh I got a funny feeling when she walked me in the room/ And I, as I recall it ended much too soon”) was almost about something entirely different. That’s according to the Four Seasons then-keyboardist Lee Shapiro, who plays the distinctive opening piano notes on the record.

“We recorded the music tracks first and listened to them. [original Four Seasons member] Bob Gaudio, who I had replaced performing but who had stayed on to produce and write, came in with lyrics about celebrating the end of Prohibition in 1933!”, Shapiro says.

He and drummer Gerry Polci — the two youngest guys in the group — expressed strong reservations about such a musty topic. This was not easy to tell a man who had dozens of hit records and was a millionaire.

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“He flipped out!”, Shapiro laughs. “But to his credit, the next day he shows up with another lyric, the one we now know. And we were pumped in the studio and knew it was a really special song.”

The song, which Gaudio co-wrote with future wife Judy Parker, was also the only Four Seasons hit in which Frankie Valli does not sing lead. Instead it’s Polci telling the tale of deflowering, though Valli sings the chorus quoted above.

Shapiro and Gaudio – along with Jimmy Ryan, Larry Gates and Russ Velazquez – now perform as the Hit Men. They play not only songs by the Four Seasons, but other acts that the much-experienced quintet have either recorded or performed with including Tommy James and the Shondells, Carly Simon, Barry Manilow, Elton John, Jim Croce, and Cat Stevens.

A backdrop screen showing vintage photos and video, along with the performers’ spoken recollections, makes the concert much more of a multimedia experience. It makes a Hit Men show a virtual sonic time-travel machine of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is exactly what Shapiro says the group aims for.

“What we provide is time travel and youth. People come to our show and we guarantee them they will leave happier and younger,” Shapiro says.

“It’s an amazing transformation. We’re not a tribute band or actors. We’re the actual guys from the recordings or who played it with the artists in the studio or in concert. We don’t have any song in the show that one of us didn’t actually have something to do with.”

Shapiro left the Four Seaons in 1980 after seven years, feeling burnt out and not wanting to travel while the group faced dwindling record sales. But he maintained a casual friendship with Valli over the decades.

So when interest in the group and their music had a huge resurgence with the massive success of the Broadway jukebox musical Jersey Boys in 2005, Shapiro felt it might be time to take the music on the road again. And he says he got Valli — who still tours occasionally with a new Four Seasons — to give his blessing.

“I went to a recording session and Frankie was there, and I told him that Polci and I were thinking about doing this. And he was very supportive and said go ahead and do it,” Shapiro says. “Frankie is dogmatic, a pit bull of a guy. He would be still singing in Newark if nobody discovered him!”

As for his time with the group, Shapiro says it’s good memories, and the unexpected chart hits were almost a bonus.

“Gerry and I were 19, 20 years old at the time and in a big band and traveling, and they were paying us to play music! We were happy just doing that!

Shapiro adds that he’s not surprised about the success of Jersey Boys, given its story (though sometimes loosely interpreted for entertainment purposes) of young guys chasing their dreams and Sopranos-meets-doo-wop aspects.

But back to Shapiro’s most memorable hit, the one that never fails to get an audience at a Hit Men show really going. While the song of sexual adventure is relatively tame in terms of what it said compared to many of today’s chart hits (and even many of the mid-‘70s), he still chuckles at one recollection.

“I got hate mail for playing on and being the arranger of such a ‘lewd’ song!” he laughs. “But obviously, 20 million people seemed to think it was OK.”

The Hit Men perform 8 p.m. Saturday night at the Cypress Creek FACE Center, 6823 Cypresswood Dr.


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