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Robby Robinson is more than just a keyboard player, writer, producer and conductor. You might consider him the fifth Season—a kind of honorary Jersey Boy. But there is nothing merely honorary about his contributions to the Four Seasons’ live show. Robinson is the music director.
“I conduct the orchestra,” he says on the phone from LA. “I hire and fire the musicians.” It’s a big job for a guy from, as Robinson describes it, “a small town called Litchfield, Ill. A little farm town.” He spent some quality time in our neck of the woods, too. “I worked and gigged around St. Louis for a few years. It was back in the days of Michael McDonald and REO Speedwagon.” In 1976, Robinson followed his dreams to Los Angeles. He’d been gigging around LA for a while before finding the chance to become a Valli boy. “A friend of mine from Illinois was working with Frankie,” Robinson explains. “They were looking for another guy, and he recommended me.” They hit it off, and Robinson has been working closely with Frankie Valli since 1978.
Like the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were influenced by the Four Freshmen, whose soothing, vanilla harmonies epitomized the era of boys and girls sharing a milkshake. Valli’s band coincided with the changing weather of pop music, the era before “Lightning Strikes” (a song arguably inspired by his sound) and after Russ Hamilton’s “Rainbow.” The Four Seasons’ hits included “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll” and “Sherry.” They were often described as the East Coast Beach Boys—but whereas the falsetto in the latter band was provided by Brian Wilson, who also famously composed the group’s music, many of the Four Seasons’ most well-known songs were written by a more obscure pop genius. “Bob Gaudio had been the primary songwriter of most of the hits,” says Robinson. “He was like the Brian Wilson of the Four Seasons.” And, like Wilson, he produced most of those records. But Valli’s been productive on the other side of the recording-studio window, too. “He produced most of Neil Diamond’s big hits in the ‘70s,” Robinson points out, “and he’s produced Sinatra—a lot of other stuff.” Not once did Valli’s side projects mean abandoning the Four Seasons. Like the combo’s summer-fall-winter-spring namesake, the Seasons kept coming back. “Frankie was never separated from the group,” says Robinson. “It was always in tandem. He would record songs on his own, and also with the group. He’s a class act all the way.”
Valli has gone to the head of that class. While other vintage combos have sadly succumbed to the “oldies-act” circuit, the Four Seasons are selling out major venues. There’s no doubt the success of Jersey Boys has helped to put Valli back in the spotlight—where he’s always shined. The upbeat musical, which traces the Four Seasons’ story from “Rag Doll” to riches, has won the band a new legion of fans—specifically teenagers, the demographic that made up the band’s original following. Though the adolescents of yesterday are now Valli’s age, to them his forever-true falsetto and good-time vibe will always be contemporaneous. At 77, Valli is still entertaining the masses, but never thoughts of retirement. Robinson, who’ll be on stage himself, promises a show that will be, quite frankly, spectacular. Not only will it live up to Valli’s usual standard of excellence, “I guarantee it will be much more than you anticipated,” he says. I can’t help but believe him. Not everything from Jersey is a Shore thing.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons perform at the Fox Theatre on Saturday, October 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $49.50-$79.50. For more information, call 314-53-1678, or click here.