You might not know the names, but you know the sound. It’s high time you knew both.
Gerry Polci and Lee Shapiro were key members of the Four Seasons during the 1970s and ’80s. Polci drummed and occasionally took on lead vocals, most famously singing lead on their 1975 #1 hit “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night).” Shapiro played keyboards and acted as a musical arranger. A few decades later, they now tour with a group of musicians with similar backgrounds as the Hit Men, performing the songs they helped make so many years ago.
Polci and Shapiro took a break from recording their new holiday album to speak with REBEAT. Also present was a surprise guest: fellow Hit Man and “engineer extraordinaire” Larry Gates. They discussed breaking into the music industry, working with some of the biggest names in music history, and the occasional near-death experience.
REBEAT: How did you get involved with the Four Seasons?
LEE SHAPIRO: Oh, we’re going back! I was recommended by a fellow arranger in New Jersey. I was seen by Frankie [Valli]’s road manager who recommended to another mutual arranger friend that Frankie meet with me. They were looking for someone who could do arrangements and play keyboards and was willing to travel rather than coming back to home base. That was how I got the job.
GERRY POLCI: I was recommended by one of the members of the group that traveled with the Four Seasons. He was the road manager and also played in the horn section, and he had heard of me through local musicians and all of that in the New Jersey area. So he called me, and I went down to audition and got the gig.
Here comes an easy question, but one everyone wants to hear: what’s Frankie Valli like?
LS: About five-foot-five. Well, actually maybe five-six. But truthfully, he’s a great guy, he’s an originator, he’s a supporter of the Hit Men, and we maintain a forty-odd-year-plus friendship with him, both Gerry and I. It’s been a great relationship all these years.
So, “December 1963.” What was it like getting the call to do the vocals on that one?
GP: We had already been in the studio and recorded a few tunes for the record. So when they approached me with singing the lead on that, yeah, sure, I was a bit surprised but very much enthusiastic to go ahead and sing that song.
Did you have any idea it would become that big a hit?
GP: Well, you’re always hopeful when you record something, and everybody feels good about it. The band felt good about it. Bobby [Gaudio] and Frank felt good about it. We just said, “Wow, that really sounds good, it really has the potential to do something,” but you never know. But when it did get big — you know how huge it became — we were very fortunate to have that happen to us.
There’s a story out there, and I want to see if I can get a confirmation on this, that it was originally supposed to be about the repeal of prohibition. Is that true?
GP: It is very true, and as you can tell, that didn’t happen. So we had recorded the track, and it was a really good track that we felt very strongly about, but the guys — that’s me, Lee, [bassist] Don Ciccone, and [guitarist] John Paiva — really felt strongly that, “We can’t do a song about prohibition! No one’s gonna care or listen to this song!” And so we spoke up and voiced our opinions, and the next day Bob Gaudio and Judy Parker (who is his wife) came back with the lyrics and the melody to “December 1963.”
Is there any particular reason you were picked to do the vocals on that song?
GP: Maybe it was because I could hit the high notes, I don’t know.
LS: Gaudio always chose people as to who he thought suited the song best, and Gerry suited the song the best.
LS: Let’s throw a question to Larry Gates now. Why don’t you ask him, if you would, what it’s like to record with the five of us who’ve known each other for 50 years?
You know what? I think I will throw out that question; that’s a wonderful suggestion! So, Larry, what’s it like to record with the five of them who have known each other for so long?
LARRY GATES: Absolutely agony. [laughs] No, it’s great. It’s kind of a dream come true. Lee and I have known each other for over 50 years; we went to day camp together when we were eight years old, so it’s an unbelievable reunion, and over the years, Gerry and I have played in bands together, Lee and I have played together. We were never in this kind of situation where we were, you know, the artists, so it’s a great opportunity. It turns out that I had even met and worked with [fellow Hit Man] Jim Ryan about 25 years ago, and I didn’t remember. We call ourselves “Brothers from Different Mothers” because we have so many people that we’ve worked with in the music industry over the years in common that it’s amazing that we didn’t work together more. So, it’s the perfect fit, like a hand in a glove.
That’s something I’ve noticed. I’m one of those weirdos who still collects CDs, and you look at the liner notes enough and you’re going to notice all these session musicians showing up with all these different bands.
LS: Yeah, that happens a lot, and especially during the ’60s and ’70s, because once a sound was a hit sound, people wanted those people.
I’m just going to swerve back to The Four Seasons very briefly. Lee, you mentioned on the Hit Men Facebook page that you conducted an orchestra for the song “We’re All Alone?”
LS: Yes, Frankie had an album called Valli. It was a solo album, and on the album we recorded “We’re All Alone” and other tunes, and I had the opportunity to conduct a full orchestra. I was about 21 at the time. Frankie constantly presented all of us with those kind of opportunities, where we were perfecting our craft and learning our business while we were Four Seasons, because the opportunities kept unfolding and he kept giving us chances. That’s how we all grew, thanks to him.
That’s a big challenge for anybody, let alone a 21-year-old.
LS: It’s true, David, however, I looked behind the control room window. First, you look out in the studio and you’ve got the best orchestral players in Los Angeles and you know it. And you look through the window, and there’s a guy who’s produced zillions of hit records, Bob Gaudio, since the beginning of his career, and Frankie Valli. You kind of get the opportunity to think to yourself, “I think I can do this! They seem to think so!”
Well, that’s a vote of confidence right there.
LS: Yeah, absolutely. Frankie was constantly throwing us into the water and watching us swim, and it worked.
So, Gerry, I’m gonna mention a date, and I think you’ll remember — July 5, 1980.
GP: Yes I do! The Four Seasons were in Philadelphia on July 5. We were playing downtown at a place called Independence Mall. It’s outdoors between two very large high rises, and it’s a very large area. They estimated that we had about 40,000 people that night, and we were doing a show obviously the day after the Fourth of July, and we had a great crowd. We’re doing the show, and there’s a storm, a surprise thunderstorm, and we didn’t realize it was going to storm as much as it did. The problem was that wind started to blow and I saw some of the towers that were holding the spotlight operators starting to sway.
Usually, if we do outdoor gigs, as soon as I get one drop of rain on me, I know it’s time to leave, but we had all these people there. A few drops started to come down, but I thought, “Oh, I gotta keep singing” because I was singing “December 1963.” I look up, and the light truss that was in front of the stage — a 40-foot light truss — started to come towards me. It was a moment that I’ll never forget, a vision that I’ll never forget. And because I had the drums in front of me and the two monitors next to me on either side, I had nowhere to go. I went down underneath my drum set and hoped for the best. Sure enough, it did hit, but it hit the bass rig first, smashed the top of that and then landed on my drum seat. So, Frankie and everybody thought I was dead, and I got out from underneath my drum set and pulled a Rocky number where I was so elated to be alive that I was jumping up and down with my arms over my head and the crowd goes crazy, going, “Ahh! He’s alive!” Then, there was torrential downpour and 40,000 people scatter like ants. It was on the news, and it was pretty crazy. It was a crazy experience for sure.
[There’s a brief pause; everyone is taken aback.]
GP: Thank you very much!
LS: You should write a book, man!
GP: I should! I might!
I can say that was very much a jaw-on-the-floor story for me. That is… pretty scary. I understand that a few people in the Four Seasons were injured during that event.
GP: Yes, Jerry Corbetta, who was with us for two or three years, he broke a bone in his hand. One of the singers got hit and was sent flying. I had some lacerations on my back. We all went to the hospital but we were fine. There were just Jerry’s broken bone, and I think the singer had a concussion. So, yeah, we got a little lapped up. Wasn’t the best.
What caused you to leave the Four Seasons?
GP: Well, that’s a very good question. I had been with the band on and off for about 15 years, and really the first time that I left was really out of wanting to do other things, wanting to see that, not that the grass was green on the other side, but to start making some attempts to do different things on my own musically. And I went back and forth a couple times with the band. Generally, it was out of creative reasons or something like that that really caused me to leave.
LS: And I left after about an eight-year stint because I wanted to be a record producer like Bob Gaudio was, and being that I had the benefit of experience and the benefit of making hit records with Frankie. I just felt that I needed to make my own and give it a try, and fortunately some good things happened and some learning experiences happened, and go figure all these years later, Gerry and I are here together with a band of guys who have similar resumes with other bands, and we ended up making a group called the Hit Men that plays the hits we made in the day.
Two quick questions to wrap up: tell us about the Hit Men, and tell us about this holiday album that’s coming up.
LS: The Hit Men are made up of Larry Gates, who has worked with Carole King, Phoebe Snow, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Havens, Vanessa Williams; Russ Velazquez, who has worked with Luther Vandross, Sting, Michael Bolton, Chicago, the Ramones, and is also a four time Emmy-nominated composer; Jim Ryan, who sings and plays guitar for us, was the founder of the Critters, he was with Carly Simon for 20 years and has recorded and played with Cat Stevens, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Jim Croce; and myself. I used to work in a car wash and I met these guys. No, I was one of the Four Seasons with Gerry, and I also collaborated on Copacabana: The Musical with Barry Manilow, and I’ve also worked with Tony Orlando. We’ve all had that kind of a career, thank goodness.
As far as the new holiday CD, the album is a Hit Men-influenced — a la the groups we’ve been with — version of popular pop and standard Christmas songs, so you’re going to hear a lot of harmony, a lot of rock ‘n’ roll influence, but you’ll know the tunes because we have Christmas songs that everyone hears this time of year, and it’s called The Hit Men: Holiday Hits and is available both via CD Baby and at our shows.
Connect with the Hit Men!
Be sure to follow the Hit Men on Facebook and tumblr, where they regularly share stories and clips. You can also follow them on Twitter. Their albums are available for purchase on CD Baby, and their tour schedule is available on their official website.
(All photos courtesy of Fran Heller of BiCoastal Productions.)