Gary James' Interview With Don Ciccone Of
The Four Seasons and The Critters
What a career Don Ciccone has had in popular music. He was part of Rock 'n' Roll when you knew what Rock 'n' Roll was. As a member of The Four Seasons, he toured the world with Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons,. We spoke with Don Ciccone about his time with The Four Seasons, his solo career, The Critters and of course Rock 'n' Roll in the '60s.
Q - Don, do you still get the same enjoyment from performing as you did when you started?
A - Yes. I do get the same pleasure and maybe even greater pleasure now because it's a different form. When I was younger I was kind of starstruck with the whole concept of being on stage, having hits, recording, that sort of thing. Now, it's more like reliving the accomplishments and the hard work frankly that I and some of my fellow musicians had done and reaping the rewards of a long, hard career.
Q - Are you a solo act or do you perform with The Critters?
A - I am working on a solo act right now, but I am currently appearing with a group called The Hitmen. Prior to The Hitmen I was appearing with kind of a reformed Critters, but not with the original guys. I was living in Florida and performing locally and regionally in Florida with a band called The Critters. We did a lot of the Critters songs and hits with a bunch of musicians and good singers. Then I got this idea with Lee Shapiro. Lee and I were two of The Four Seasons. I came up with an idea of putting together a band with guys that all had hits and calling the group The Hitmen. Lee and I came up with the name together. The concept was, right from the start, we knew exactly who we wanted to have in the band. So, that's the band that exists right now and it exists with three of The Four Seasons, namely myself, Lee Shapiro and Gerry Polci, that guy who sang the major part of "Oh, What A Night", which was The Four Seasons biggest hit of all time, including "Sherry", "Big Girls Don't Cry". It superseded anything by millions in sales. So, we are very proud of that, plus the fact Lee, Gerry and I were also involved in a lot of other Four Seasons' hits as well. Then we have Jim Ryan in The Hitmen as well. He's a brilliant singer, songwriter, musician, who was one of the original Critters along with me, and with Carly Simon for 21 years, her right hand man through all her hits. He was also with Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Elton John, Mick Jagger. We have a guy by the name of Larry Gates who is our bass player. He's worked with Carole King, Herbie Hancock, Desmond Child. We have Russ Velasquez, who is playing second keyboard and a brilliant musician, guitarist and bass player himself and also a great singer. Everybody in this band is a lead singer. Russ was nominated four times for his work on Sesame Street. He's also worked with LL Cool J, The Ramons, Chicago. This is a bunch of hit musicians who have influenced a lot of big artists.
Q - You have an all-star cast there.
A - Yeah. It's a terrific band.
Q - The Jersey boys stage show was just in town, advertised as "the incredible story of Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons." What was so incredible about The Four Seasons' story? Unlike so many other groups, they got a break.
A - Well, it's not quite that way. The fact of the matter is, it's like boxing. There's always another boxer who can outbox the guy who is the champ. That's always going to be the case whether you have a group like The Four Seasons or somebody will say "yeah, but that guy from
The Tokens who did "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" had a great falsetto. And what about
Lou Christie? He had a great falsetto. "Lightning Strikes" and "Gypsy Cried". All of those things are true. Those guys had hits. But the fact of the matter is, the story of The Four Seasons goes deeper than a record company finding somebody who had a great falsetto. It had to do with the songs Bob Gaudio wrote. It had to do with the way their success came about. It had to do with what happened internally in that group where if you were told what was about to happen you would feel there was no way this group was ever going to be a success. Through all the adversity and the trials and tribulations that happened in this group's history, it still became a hit. I'm saying it kind of cryptically right now because I don't want to give away the actual story of The Jersey Boys.
Q - At one point were you writing jingles?
A - Yes. Somewhere along the 1980s, I think it was 1980, I had an offer from an advertising agency to write a spot, I don't even remember what it was, but for some product, and I did and it happened successfully. I did two or three jingles that year because of it and the next year I wound up doing five or six because I was still one of The Four Seasons and still performing a pretty busy schedule. By 1982, I had left The Four Seasons and went full swing into jingles and I ran my own jingle company, which I'm proud to say won a lot of awards. That jingle company lasted until about 1991 or so.
Q - Would you have written any jingles I would have heard of?
A - Well, a lot of the stuff I did was regional or local. There where some Chevy spots, some jewelry chain spots. I don't know exactly what you would have heard. It would be difficult for me to go back to that memory to come up with some of those things. I was kind of a local and regional success that I can certainly claim in the Jersey area. Jim Ryan, who I just spoke about, did a lot of jingle stuff that was national and even Larry Gates, our bass player, did a lot of jingle stuff that became national. It's just amazing when you list the things that we've done in this business. You don't realize how much you done until you start listening to stuff.
Q - You left The Four Seasons in 1982?
A - Yes.
Q - And you joined in what year?
A - The end of 1972.
Q - So, why did you leave? Had the work dried up or did you just get tired of being in the group?
A - Well, my son had just been born in 1981, toward the end of the year, in September. The work schedule was very difficult. There's a lot of things that went into making that decision, not the least of which was the fact that after a while, you know the old expression, familiarity breeds contempt?
Q - Yeah.
A - Well, I wouldn't go quite to that extreme, but after a while of living with the same guys over and over again; these aren't guys you've chosen to marry. You've just chosen to be musicians with. You wind up living with them. It's like a marriage. After a while it's like "God! I didn't choose to live like this." And you have to deal with personalities. Of course, they have to deal with mine too. Tensions start here and there and then it becomes not fun. There were no hits happening at that point. It was not fun. There wasn't a whole heck of a lot of money being made and I had a new son and I had a lot of success with The Seasons. I was looking forward to maybe moving on and building a jingle company.
Q - When you were with The Four Seasons, wasn't Frankie Valli off doing his solo career?
A - No, that's not true. It was Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons. The the intention of Bob Gaudio, Frankie's business partner and the guy who wrote most of our hits including "Who Loves You" and including "December '63, Oh What A Night", they decided what they wanted to do was break Frankie away from the band, give him a solo career and record the band as its own entity. In a way, splitting the stock so to speak and were hoping for a clever move that way. When it actually came about, Bob Gaudio showed Warner Bros. a song that he wrote. He was hoping for a record deal for The Four Seasons because The Four Seasons hadn't had a hit in six years. Hadn't had a deal. Frankie Valli had a solo deal signed with Private Stock Records. Private stock did not prevent Frankie from singing with another record company and they were shooting for Warner Bros. to be Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons. In other words, Frankie could have his own solo career while another record deal with another record company could be Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons. Frankie as a solo artist had out "My Eyes Adored You", "Swear To God". As a solo artist he had "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", "My Eyes Adored You" and "Swear To God". There was a period in 1977 when Frankie decided to go solo on tour. He had backup singers with him, a guy and two girls. He would do songs that he had hits with The Four Seasons. Let's face it, Frankie Valli was the star of The Four Seasons. All the big hits, "Big Girls Don't Cry", "Walk Like A Man", "Sherry". It was Frankie Valli's great talent and voice that made those things hits.
Q - Just like Diana Ross And The Supremes.
A - Sure. Absolutely. So Bob Gaudio writes the song "Who Loves You" and he wants to shoot for a record deal with Warner Bros. The Four Seasons hadn't had a hit in six years. After he wrote the song, we recorded it as The Four Seasons. We recorded the musical and instrumental track. There was no lead vocal on it. We had the background vocals. We had no lead vocal on it because it was Frankie's turn to go into the studio and record the lead vocal. There was some procrastination on Frankie's part. He went to England. Bob Gaudio couldn't get him to put his lead voice down on the song. He kept saying "Bob, I don't have the time to learn this. We'll do it when I come back." What happened was, Warner Bros. pushed Bob on the issue and said "we gotta hear this song." So Bob asked me if I would put down the lead vocal on the song, which I did. I did it as a reference vocal for Frankie to learn the song. Bob wound up showing it to Warner Bros. with my vocal on it. Warner Bros. not only liked the song, giving The Four Seasons" record deal at that very moment, but they told Bob that whoever this guy is, and Bob said "it's one of The Four Seasons, and they said "great, 'cause he's the new lead singer for The Four Seasons and were going to give Frankie's own solo career." That was going to satisfy everybody's dreams at that point, Frankie's, mine, Bob Gaudio's, everybody's. But Frankie got so annoyed with that decision by Warner Bros. that he insisted on taking my voice off of that song and putting his own on and discarding his own offer of a solo career. So, I was on cloud 9 for about an hour and a half and then found out he had taken my voice off.
Q - He didn't want to share the spotlight.
A - That's it. He didn't want to pass the torch, pass the baton.
Q - How many gigs are you doing with The Hitmen
A - Well, it's always increasing. The group has only been around for maybe two years and we are already being booked into 2014, anywhere from 5 to 8 concerts a month.
Q - That's not bad.
A - It's pretty good considering when we were young, we were working crazy in The Four Seasons. We were doing 305 days and nights a year. That's bizarre.
Q - Could any group in any musical genre today, do that much roadwork?
A - It is a good question. I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that. I would say I wouldn't be surprised if the answer to that is probably not, with the exception of superstars like Lady Gaga, where these people are in great demand. What's happened since The Four Seasons, in my day if you will, music has kind of splintered off into so many different categories. Now you've got Rap in addition to all of those splinters. There's even categories with in Rap. I don't know if there's even one supergroup that is doing quite that much work anymore. I don't know if there's that much work around.
Q - And the infrastructure isn't around anymore. We're talking record companies, radio, promoters. This system of the past has been pushed aside.
A - Much like, this is an odd analogy, much like the Internet has destroyed the treasure finds in pawnshops because pawnshop people usually check the Internet to see what those things are worth, so the days of finding a treasure in a pawnshop are probably gone. The days of finding a needle in a haystack by a record company hiring an A&R department to go out and look for bands is probably not going to happen because that's been kind of pushed aside by American Idol, The Voice, America's Got Talent, all of those things. Those TV shows show you the best of the best. They are the ones who go out and find the great talent. So, your A&R guy sits at home, watches TV and says "okay, that's the guy I want to go after.
Q - You started off with a group called The Vibrations in Westfield, New Jersey. Did you ever play Steel Pier?
A - No. We never did. The Vibrations became The Critters and The Critters, to my knowledge, never played Steel Pier. The Critters wound up getting a record deal in New York City with Kama Sutra Productions and actually wound up on the Kapp label, but before either of the songs we recorded. I sang lead vocal on our first hit. It was a John Sebastian song called "Younger Girl". Then the next song we released was a hit and that was a song that I wrote and sang called "Mr. Dieingly Sad". That song became our biggest hit, but before either one of them came out, I was pulled into the Vietnam War. So I was in the military at that point. The Critters were reaping the benefits of the hit records that frankly I created. I say on stage now The Critters hit the road in a limo. I hit the road in a Jeep.
Q - Backup a minute here, The Critters enjoyed local popularity. How did that lead to a record deal with Kama Sutra records? Did one of they reps see the band?
A - I was a real go-getter back in those days. I wanted a hit record really bad. I felt that we were worth it. I tried every possible avenue. We all lived in New Jersey. We were 20 minutes outside of New York City. It was the heart of the music industry at that point and I was going in and out looking for cues to do these things, talking to people. What I wound up doing is, I ran into a couple of guys who ran a music store in Scotch Plains, New Jersey who said to me that they could get us a record deal. And so I hired them as the managers for The Critters. They wound up getting The Critters on Musicor label. That was Art Talmadge's label. Then there were some internal issues going on. The management was not all it was promised to be. I wound up switching to a different manager, a gentleman by the name of Jerry Davis and Jerry had some connections on the inside. He was friends with Jay Black from Jay And The Americans. Jay wound up pulling some string somewhere along the line at Kama Sutra and that wound up getting us an audition. And just getting an audition was tough back in those days and probably still is. From the audition, the people who were listening to us said "this is a great group." That's how we got the deal.
Q - Had you not gone into the service, would The Critters have gone on to even greater fame?
A - I do think that. I know that sounds awfully pretentious, but I really do think that because I was an extremely prolific writer. I was writing things that were unlike the things that were out at the time, and that was in vogue to come up with catchy things that were kind of avant-garde and always those new frontieres. But I do believe we would've got a lot more hits and I can't prove that other than to put out an anthology of things I was writing at the time which has never actually come out.
Q - Does and anthology mean you have them written down or recorded?
A - Well, I spent an awful lot of time recording in my life. I don't remember exactly which ones I have on recordings. I'm currently going through all the things I've written recently and I'm having an absolute ball putting together things that I want to do for a solo act that I will eventually create.
Q - You were in the Air Force?
A - That's right.
Q - What did you do in the Air Force?
A - Oh, my gosh. I wanted to get involved in electronics. At the draft board they said "that's great. We'll get you into electronics. But right now we only have openings in mechanics. So, you'll go into mechanics, you'll go through the schooling and all you have to do is tell them you want to switch to electronics." Yeah, right. That never happens. So I wound up staying in the mechanical aspects of airplanes. However, in the process of that period of time, my test scores were noted and who knows what ever else. They wanted to pull me out and put me through officer training school and make me a fighter pilot. I liked that idea because the whole concept of flying an F-4 was thrilling to me and still is. The problem was, I had just fallen in love with a woman that I had met and wanted to start a family and my job would have been to fly a jet and drop napalm on other families. There was something wrong with that concept. I don't know. I love my country. I would do what I need to do to protect our freedom here. It's controversial as to whether that was the way to protect our freedom. I see both sides of it – especially now that I'm older. The concept is still what I believe in. I would do what I need to do to protect the freedom of the country I love.
Q - You spent two years in the Air Force?
A - No, four.
Q - Usually when you are drafted it's two years, isn't it?
A - Yes. When you are drafted it's two. I was about to be drafted into the Army, which would have meant front lines or I had the option to think about it and say if I'm going to wind up in the Army, is that where I want to be? Be on the front line for two years or do I want to be in something that could enhance my life, like the Air Force. Maybe I could get to be a fighter pilot. I was thinking of all kinds of things like that. It sounded like a real exciting adventure until you get in there and start realizing what it's all about. All of a sudden your views start changing. This is no game. This is serious stuff here.
Q - After the Air Force you formed a lead sheet company. What's that?
A - When you see a piece of sheet music that you buy in the store, you'll see the music lines and it has notes written on those lines. That's the melody of the song. It often has like a little guitar neck symbols above the musical notes that show the chords to be played against those notes, and underneath it the melody line you'll see lyrics written. That's a lead sheet. And the sheets have to be written for every song composed so that the publishing company of the big record companies could get the songs copyrighted. That absolutely had to be on paper and turn into the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
Q - How long did you have that company?
A - Good question. From 1971 to 1974. I was still doing lead sheets when I became one of The Four Seasons.
Q - Do you remember some of the lead sheets you did?
A - Yes, I sure do. I did the entire "Aabandoned Luncheonette" album by Hall And Oates. That "Make The Whole World Sing", written by Bruce Johnston and recorded by Barry Manilow. I was working for almost every major record company, publishing company, in New York City with an a year's time.
Q - And it was just you in this company?
A - Just me. They would give me tapes of songs that their writers were writing and I would go home and crank out these things by listening to the tapes and writing down the music onto the music sheets, the lyrics and the chords that they were accompanying them by, and then I would turn them back into the company and they would pay me and they would send the copies off to the Library of Congress for copyright.
Q - You have a recorded product out today?
A - Yes. If you were to go to Amazon or CD Baby you would find a CD that I had out called "Lost And Found". I think that's the most recent thing I did.
Q - Are you related to Madonna?
A - I don't know. I never looked into it. I've always liked the Madonna's material and there's a good possibility we're related in some way. There's probably some relation there, but I have no idea what it would be.