The short version: A terrific collection that includes nearly all of the Four Seasons’ original albums and most of their biggest chart hits. Missing is an early Christmas album, a later album recorded for Motown, and a live reunion album. Also missing are a few hits and B-sides. All stereo, except for a handful of tracks. Rhino’s original release incorrectly substituted incorrect songs on two of the albums (see end of review for details). A worthwhile collection for those who want to get beyond the hits.
More than fifty years after the Four Seasons first topped the charts with “Sherry,” it’s hard to remember just how incredibly successful they were. In addition to their manufactured battle with Vee-Jay labelmates, the Beatles, the group was an unstoppable hit-making machine through the end of the decade, and took a curtain call for a pair of 1975 hits. If that weren’t enough, their lead vocalist had a parallel career that saw him charting regularly as a solo artist, with his own encore for 1978’s “Grease.” Though they occasionally used material from outside writers, the bulk of the group’s hits came from keyboardist Bob Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe, and their arrangements were handled steadily by Charles Calello, who’d sung with Valli in the predecessor Four Lovers.
Between 1962 and 1970, the group released fifteen albums, including three each in 1963, 1964 and 1965, and despite the songwriting talent evident in the group’s hits, it was inevitable that the albums would be padded with lesser material. Which doesn’t mean that the album tracks were nothing more than an afterthought, but just that there are few – particularly on the early albums – that match the effervescent genius of the hits. The group’s harmonies and Valli’s leads are always superbly musical, and there are charming album tracks on every release. But listeners familiar with the hit-making Four Seasons of 1960s AM radio will only find that group scattered throughout this 18-disc collection. On the other hand, the albums reveal a compelling picture of the group’s growth from doo-wop roots to sophisticated conceptual material and adult contemporary pop.
Their debut album is bookended by the hits “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Sherry,” which takes a bit of the color out of doo-wop styled covers of the 1920’s standards “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” as well as a cover of the then-contemporary theme from Never on Sunday. Still, there’s real charm in a cover of J. Lawrence Cook’s “Peanuts,” and the 50s-styled vocal drama of Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol” is a hoot. The group’s early albums continued to follow the same template, with a couple of blazingly brilliant hits fleshed out with originals, Tin Pan Alley standards and covers of pop hits like “Silhouettes” (which, not coincidentally, was co-written by Bob Crewe in 1957), a peppy take on Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and a rich vocal rendering of the Mello-Kings “Tonite, Tonite.”
Many of the group’s covers are fairly obscure today, including Billy and Lillie’s “Lucky Ladybug,” the Shepherd Sisters’ “Alone” and the Snow White soundtrack’s “One Song.” Even when covering well-known material, the productions often added original touches, such as the whining organ and Latin rhythm on the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You,” the percussive backing vocals on Maurice Williams’ “Stay,” and a radically reimagined version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” Gaudio and Crewe wrote many interesting B-sides and album tracks, including “Soon (I’ll Be Home Again),” “That’s the Only Way,” “Melancholy” and “Don’t Cry Elena,” but occasionally dropped in filler, such as “Dumb Drum.”
The Four Seasons label, Vee Jay, continued to release their records well into 1966, even though the quartet bid them farewell with 1964’s “New Mexican Rose” and the album Folk Nanny. The latter had nothing to do with the folk revival in sound or material, and was composed almost entirely of previously released recordings. The group had been banking material in advance of their departure from Vee Jay, and arrived at Phillips ready for a blistering chart run. “Dawn (Go Away)” was released as a single in January, and quickly followed by the folk-flavored album Born to Wander and the showcase LP Dawn (Go Away) and 11 Other Great Songs. The former included covers of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Phil Ochs’ little known (but quite stirring) “New Town,” as well as several Bob Gaudio originals that deftly melded touches of twelve string and banjo with Brothers Four-styled harmonies. Also included was the group’s original version of Gaudio and Crewe’s “Silence is Golden,” which would become a 1967 hit for the Tremeloes, and the Beach Boys pastiche “No Surfin’ Today.”
The Four Seasons’ dalliance with folk music lasted for just one album, after which they returned to their earlier pattern with Dawn (Go Away) and 11 Other Great Songs: a hit single, covers of earlier doo-wop and vocal group hits, and a sprinkling of originals. As before, there were original touches in the cover songs, such as the revised melody line and twangy guitar of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” the odd rhythm backing and instrumental flourishes given to “16 Candles,” and the doo-wop falsetto meets marching beat arrangement of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” The group finally broke free of the 1950s with 1965’s Rag Doll, an album written entirely by Bob Gaudio and various partners. In addition to three hits (“Rag Doll,” “Save It For Me” and “Ronnie”), there are many fine album tracks, including “The Touch of You,” originally waxed by Lenny O. Henry, the sweetly longing “Funny Face,” and forlorn “The Setting Sun.” In the face of the British Invasion, the Four Seasons showed they had the writing, performing, arranging and producing talent to compete.
1965 found the quartet stretching out with strings and show tunes (“Where is Love?” from Oliver and “Somewhere” from West Side Story) and returning to the ‘50s (“My Prayer” “Little Darlin’”) on The Four Seasons Entertain You. The hits continued with “Big Man in Town,” “Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” and “Toy Soldier,” though none reached the top ten; the album tracks include Gaudio and Sandy Linzer’s emotional “One Clown Cried,” and a rare songwriting contribution from bass vocalist Nick Massi, “Living Just For You.”. The group’s second album of 1965, The 4 Seasons Sing Big Hits by Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Bob Dylan, split its sides between material from Bacharach & David and Dylan. The interpretations do little to improve upon the better-known original recordings (though the Latin beat given to “Blowin’ in the Wind” is interesting, if not quite fitting), and suggest the group’s creative braintrust had run out of fresh ideas.
The Dylan cover “Don’t Think Twice,” with a bizarre falsetto vocal, was released under the name of The Wonder Who, and (somewhat incredibly) just missed the Top 10. But it was the non-LP single “Let’s Hang On” (not included here) that showed the group still had some ace material up its collective sleeves. Before the group could return to making more hits, they detoured for Live on Stage, a contractual-obligation faux-live album of standards for Vee Jay. Though “Little Boy (In Grown Up Clothes)” was released as a single (and was one of the few tracks that had the hallmarks of the Four Seasons sound), it didn’t chart, and the album remains a stylistic oddity in the group’s catalog. 1966 found the quartet returning to form with the hit “Working My Way Back to You,” and the associated album is a sleeper that’s filled with excellent new material and crisp arrangements.
Working My Way Back to You sounds re-energized on the up-tempo numbers, and the group’s dabble with folk music seemed to have a lasting impact on the songwriting of Gaudio and Crewe as they offer up the socially conscious “Beggars on Parade” and Dylan-esque “Everybody Knows My Name.” The latter works much better with Valli’s falsetto than the actual Dylan songs they’d recorded earlier. The album also includes an early version of “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” released a year before ? and the Mysterians, and there’s a hint of psych in the intro of “Too Many Memories,” showing, along with some of the album’s instrumental touches, that the group was taking in contemporary influences. Despite having only one hit single, and three tracks repeated from The Four Seasons Entertain You, this is one of the best albums in the group’s catalog.
The surge of artistic energy seemed to pause for 1967’s New Gold Hits. The album’s major hit, “C’mon Marianne,” was accompanied by two minor singles, “Beggin’” and “Lonesome Road” (the latter credited to The Wonder Who), and though there are a few compelling album tracks, including the light soul “I’m Gonna Change” and tough B-side “Dody,” the album didn’t feel particularly fresh or coherent. Worse yet, Rhino’s mastering errors (or perhaps Curb’s on the mid-90s reissue) mistakenly left the latter two tracks off the initial release of this box set! The group would spend the next 18 months working on an answer to popular music’s shift to albums, and the result was the most adventurous long player of their career.
1969’s The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is a concept album co-written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes. Holmes’ 1967 solo debut, The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes, was a cult favorite, but contained two historically important tracks. Most infamous is his original version of “Dazed and Confused,” but it was the song “Genuine Imitation Life” that brought him into the Four Seasons’ fold. The resulting album’s adventurousness – both musically and lyrically – and integrity as a collection is unlike anything else in the group’s catalog. Gaudio and Holmes built a complete album, and the group performed with a continuity of expression and consistency of purpose that had never graced their singles-based long players.
The complexity and finesse of Gaudio’s production, particularly his integration of vocal harmonies, orchestral instrumentation and studio effects is truly impressive. The tip of the hat to “Hey Jude” on the title song’s fade is only one of the album’s many charms. The Who’s Tommy proved that concept albums could break through commercially in 1969, but Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was largely ignored, scraping into the Top 100 at #85, and failing to get into the singles chart with the pre-release “Saturday’s Father.” Most likely, the group’s AM radio fans weren’t looking for such adventurous music, and those open to these sorts of sounds and socially incisive lyrics weren’t looking to the Four Seasons to produce them. It’s very clearly the group’s high-water artristic mark, and remains an impressive record to this day.
The group’s last album for Phillips, Half & Half, benefited from their previous artistic growth, but alternating group harmony tracks with Valli solo cuts (hence the album’s title) yielded few memorable moments and little chart action. With the group’s inventiveness reigned in and Gaudio mostly giving way to outside writers, the results were polished and professional, but largely pedestrian. Highlights include Valli’s cover of Prairie Madness’ obscure B-side “Circles in the Sand,” the tight harmony vocal washes of “She Gives Me Light” and the group’s closing medley of “Any Day Now” and “Oh Happy Day.” With that, the group ended their association with Phillips, and two years later released Chameleon for the Motown subsidiary, MoWest. Though not a commercial success, and somewhat generically produced, it’s filled with Bob Gaudio originals, and worth tracking down, since it’s not included here.
While the Four Seasons’ hit-making had wound down in the first half of the 1970s, Frankie Valli’s solo career had been revived by 1974’s chart-topping “My Eyes Adored You” and the follow-on “Swearin’ to God.” But in 1975 the Four Seasons returned to the charts with “Who Loves You” and the chart-topping “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” As per their earlier releases, the album Who Loves You was constructed around the hit singles (which also included an edit of the album’s rolicking opener, “Silver Star”), with new material from Gaudio and his wife Judy Parker. As the group’s last helping of commercial chart success, the hits are memorable, and Gaudio’s production is complemented by strong lead vocals split between Valli and drummer/vocalist Gerry Polci.
The comeback was not sustained, and the follow-on Helicon closed out the Four Seasons’ two album run on Warner Brothers without a great deal of inspiration. The modern production touches that had added a winning touch to “Who Loves You” now sounded a bit stiff and perfunctory. The growling bass, synthesized keyboards and piercing guitars sound sterile in comparison to the group’s earlier records, and at odds with their warm harmonies. The single “Down the Hall” made its way to #65, and though the lead vocal is fetching, the production is distracting. Even “New York Street Song,” with its opening streetcorner harmonies gives way to disco rhythms.
Eight years later, Valli and Gaudio updated the Four Seasons sound once again for 1985’s Streetfighter. The mid-70s disco was replaced with competently synthesized mid-80s pop-rock, and though it would have fit easily into the pop mainstream, no one was biting. Sandy Linzer (who’d penned the mid-60s hits “Dawn (Go Away),” “Let’s Hang On” and “Working My Way Back to You”) wrote many of the album’s originals, and though his melodies were filled with hooks and his lyrics winningly positioned Valli as a scrappy, love-lorn underdog, his production choices haven’t aged well. A remake of the Monotones’ “Book of Love” is particularly egregious as it reaches back to the group’s doo-wop roots and buries them in keyboards, synthesized drums and primitive samples. The album closes with a pair of ballads that survive their 80s-isms.
The group’s last album (to date!), 1992’s Hope + Glory, continued to chase modern pop styles with highly synthesized arrangements (and rap from guest Chuck Wilson), but as with Streetfighter, the album didn’t click commercially. Valli’s voice still offered its unique range and qualities, and Gaudio could still write fetching melodies, but neither the songs nor the electronic productions matched the era’s best. If you could strip these tracks of their 1990s productions, you’d no doubt find some emotional resonance in the songs (“You and Your Blue Heart” seems like a good bet), but awash in driving drumbeats and cold, angular synthesizers, there’s little to love here. Worse, circling back around to the start of the box set, you realize how far the Four Seasons had traveled from their down-to-earth streetcorner roots.
This box set is a terrific journey, filled with high points and reinvention. Those looking to relive the Four Seasons they know from the radio are better off with a hits collection; but those wanting to dig deeper will find many gems among the album tracks. That said, this isn’t nearly a complete rendition of the Four Seasons catalog, as it’s missing two key studio albums (1962’s The Four Seasons Greetings and 1972’s Chameleon), live albums (including 1981’s Reunited Live) and numerous non-LP singles and B-sides. Also missing (and anthologized in a separate box set) are Frankie Valli’s solo albums. Given the distinctive qualities of Valli’s voice, the use of the Four Seasons to back many of his solo tracks, and the intermingling of Four Seasons and Valli hits on the charts, listeners didn’t always separate Valli’s records from his groups.
The albums are mastered in stereo (though “Goodnight My Love” “Big Man’s World” “Dawn” “Only Yesterday” and “Huggin’ My Pillow” are in mono), which may sound strange to those weaned on AM radio. Omnivore Records is reissuing the group’s first two albums in mono in September 2015, for those who want to experience the dominant sound of the mid-60s. Most disturbing of all are mastering errors that substitute incorrect tracks on several albums, rendering them incomplete. Rhino may have corrected these by now, but the original issue of this box incorrectly replace Rag Doll’s “On Broadway Tonight” (which is showboxed on the front cover!), and New Gold Hits’ “I’m Gonna Change,” “Dody” and “Lonesome Road.” Rhino is reported to have corrected this in a new production run, but if you got problem discs, write the label at firstname.lastname@example.org. [©2015 Hyperbolium]