By Philip Elms
SUPPOSE you were to chat with a music legend for two hours over coffee in Las Vegas and, a few hours later, see him portrayed in a global stage show hit.
It could happen. It did happen.
By a stroke of amazing good fortune, I was able to meet up with Four Seasons icon Joe Long to talk about the group that had provided the soundtrack to my life. Then it was on to The Palazzo to see the excellent regional production of Jersey Boys.
My wife Barbara and I were in Vegas for the wedding of our youngest daughter Victoria to Craig.It was our first trip to Sin City, so I sought some do’s and don’t’s from one of Vegas’ most famous residents. Joe said DO enjoy the scenery and the weather; DON’T gamble. When he suggested we might meet up I fairly snatched his hand off.
Here was the man who became Nick Massi’s permanent replacement as bass player and singer, a classically trained musician plucked from obscurity to join one of the world’s top pop groups at the height of their fame. Joe, now in his 70th year, kindly agreed to meet us at our hotel, The Flamingo, in the heart of The Strip at noon. The tall, unmistakable figure arrives in the casino-lined lobby spot on time. We exchange greetings and head for the coffee shop. I pick up the jug containing a mix of fat and non-fat milk and comment to Joe that it’s labelled Half and Half (cue for an album!). “Harf and harf,” says Joe, taking great delight in mimicking my English accent. Yes, it’s going to be one of those days in the company of the Seasons’ famed joker in the pack!
Joe brings personal greetings from fellow Vegas homesters Tommy DeVito and Demetri Callas. Brilliant! More than 35 years after Tommy and Joe left the group, they still see each other every day.
We discuss how it all started for Joe ... and how it finished. We touch on his favourite Four Seasons single, the concept album that split critics, fans and the group alike and how he made an unlikely return to the UK singles chart in the 21st century.
Stuart Miller’s excellent interview with Joe Long remains on the internet so I choose not to plough the same furrow. Rather, I want to get as up close and personal as possible without invading privacy.
Yet I still want Joe to confirm the astonishing story that he had made his concert debut without rehearsal. Yes, it’s true! Bob Gaudio had wanted Charles Calello to put Joe through his paces over the course of three weeks prior to performance. Unfortunately, Charles was never quite available. Come the night, Bob told him “Just do your best.” Joe did his best in front of 6,000 screaming teenagers and afterwards sought reassurance from his co-boss. “How did I do, Frankie?” “You coulda sung louder,” came the reply.
And so began a decade-long association with the group as a salaried musician (no royalties). “The money was very good, they looked after me,” Joe says, reassuringly.
He was on all the songs from 'Opus 17' through to 'Who Loves You' and enjoyed his musical journey with Gaudio.
Joe picks out the 1936 Cole Porter standard ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ as his favourite in a version arranged for the Four Seasons by Gaudio the night after seeing Frank Sinatra perform his signature song.
The musicianship on that recording “took us to a new, adult audience. Suddenly we were playing at venues that had never had a pop group before.”
We both show our age as neither can instantly recall the B-side of that one. (I had to cross the Atlantic before I could satisfy my curiosity. Ah, the wonderful ‘Huggin’ My Pillow’. Of course.)
Joe’s eyes widen as he peers across the coffee table and realises that he vaguely recognises the guy in front of him. “You’re the one who made those videos for the Chameleon Cup on YouTube, aren’t you?” I cannot deny the charge and, at Joe’s request, explain how native New Yorker Charles Alexander had come up with the idea that I should drop Seasons’ song titles into the promotional previews I did for a weekly newspaper while working as production editor. Mr Gaudio, himself, would supply prizes.
Back to business and Joe was fascinated by the development of the social essay that became Genuine Imitation Life Gazette and stayed in close touch with Bob who was collaborating with Jake Holmes. He shared Bob’s enthusiasm for the directional swerve even if Frankie and Tommy remained less convinced.
Joe recalls the emotional response to a TV studio rendition of Saturday’s Father, accompanied by a big-screen video of a small child being passed between separated parents. “The audience were crying and I had a tear in my eye, too.”
He added: “People regard that album as a failure but it still sold half a million copies...”
Joe toured the UK with the group, often MC-ing the show and doing an improvised comedy routine with Tommy. He made a lot of British friends, and has fond memories of performing at the London Palladium.
Those British friends helped to steer ‘The Night’ into the Top 10 and, years after Bob and Tommy had stopped performing, he was part of the resurgent Four Seasons who recorded the worldwide comeback hit, ‘Who Loves You’.
I tell Joe that some of us Brits have an early copy of Who Loves You with Don Ciccone on lead vocals. Joe insists this was made for demo purposes and was never intended for release. Frankie later laid down the vocal track and the rest is history.
I touch on the still-sensitive issue of Joe’s sudden departure from the evolving group in 1975. “I don’t want to name names but my face didn’t fit any more. But I’d had a great time and they (the Partnership) were very good to me.”
Not that Joe would ever entirely sever links with the Four Seasons. The cheques still arrive after old TV clips are shown; he returned to the UK charts in 2007 when the Pilooski re-edit of Beggin’ triggered a massive club hit in the UK and reached No 1 in Greece; and then there’s Jersey Boys.
His character gets a second act cameo every night in the West End, on Broadway, in Vegas and Sydney as well as the US touring show.
But clearly there’s something bugging Joe. “What do you think of the timeline of Jersey Boys?” he asks. “It’s all over the place,” I reply.
Joe ponders the situation, possibly for the thousandth time. He appreciates the theatrical requirement to present the Four Seasons as a recording entity but can’t disguise his view that his contribution to the group has been understated.
I sympathise with his feelings and point out, if it’s any comfort, that Gerry Polci, lead singer on the group’s biggest seller (December 1963 Oh What a Night), and a group member on and off for ten years, doesn’t get a mention.
It’s been a magical couple of hours in the company of this elder statesman of pop, a gifted musician who clearly retains the sharpness of wit and generosity of spirit that continues to endear him to fans the world over.
Final word goes to Joe Long: “Please pass on my best wishes to all my friends in the UK. Lynn, Casey and so many wonderful friends. If they want to come out to Vegas I’d love to see them.”