Frankie Valli TitleBecoming a bit of a debate this. Do you go and see your heroes in their later years or not? Do you leave it to those old vinyls and grainy images to tell the story or do you expect the passage of the years to have taken a bit of a toll and turn up regardless?

Circumstances meant it would have been ridiculously easy for me to get to Manchester to see one of rock n roll’s true originals. Now about 80 years old, this guy has been taking money off of people for singing to them since 1955. His band, admittedly along with Motown and The Beach Boys, almost single-handedly held their own against the British invasion in the early to mid-sixties, enjoyed some absolutely classic hits in the later sixties, had a string of solo international hits in the seventies before his band came back to produce albums and singles which defined American FM radio in the mid to late seventies. During this period they made a record which for many people defines ‘great night out’ and is probably one of the most played ‘feelgood tunes’ ever. He is Frankie Valli, front man of The Four Seasons, the man who inspired “The Jersey Boys” and upon whom the storyline is based and who I wasn’t particularly surprised to see twinkling away on the BBC Breakfast sofa a couple of mornings previous.

In amongst the questions about collar size, stage costume fabric colours etc etc one of the presenters asked him if he could still reach the high notes, some of the earlier tunes having stratospheric highs. ‘Yes, I can,’ came the answer. And guess what?

He can.

The set was split into two halves with a straightforward intermission between the two halves of the show (oh come on, the guy is 80-ish!). The band are on the lavish side of what you’d expect; an array of the best musicians in the business, a horn section which could and did Blow (and you need it with some of the arrangements) and four relatively youthful male singers who were just what was needed. Frankie Valli can still hit the high notes; his voice still has that fantastic slightly nasal quality but fabulous range and emotional power that engages so completely but the support given by the backing singers complemented him brilliantly – sweeping in to add some depth when he ran out of air on occasion, thickening out the sound where it was needed but NOT by ‘becoming’ Frankie Valli. Yer man himself did all that.

The band took the stage and swung into a swinging, greasy “Grease” and popped through a couple of earlier originals – “Dawn” being a particular high point. They then montage the fabulous “My Eyes Adored You” with a welcome acknowledgement that Brit fans got this one first before it broke in the States, along with other hits which were recorded as solo pieces for Private Stock records in the seventies, “Fallen Angel” and “Swearing to God”. This was followed by an intriguing run through various sixties covers from the ‘Frankie Valli “Romances The Sixties” album released a couple of years or so back, featuring “Spanish Harlem”, The Everly Bros “Let It Be Me”, an interesting choice of crowd-pleaser mixing The Temptations “My Girl” with The Young Rascals summer of ’67 beauty “Groovin’” before rounding out with a gorgeous falsetto on Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs “Stay”.

Two ways of looking at this or course, you could reflect on during the ‘intermission’; Either it’s a bit of a cop – out especially when your own back catalogue will be dripping gems which will not get an airing tonight; or, (and I prefer this version) if anyone has the solid – gold right to cover this stuff and do so with affection and understanding, Mr V has earned the right about fifty times over.

The referee blows the whistle for the second half and the band strikes up with “Working my Way Back to You” (and yes, millions still think this is a Detroit Spinners original – many of whom would no doubt be flummoxed by the later Bay City Rollers ‘cover’, “Bye-Bye Baby”) followed by a rabble-rousing “Opus 17”, one of many hits adopted by soul and Northern fans everywhere at the time. A particular high spot for me in more ways than one was the sumptuous harmonies on “Silence Is Golden”, a UK number 1 for The Tremeloes but originally and in global terms a double-A-sided ‘flip’ hit on the back of “Rag Doll” (in the days when records has ‘sides’.)

All stage lights set to stun (note to person with follow-spot; it’s the little guy in the middle who keeps singing, OK?) and smoke effects on full and it’s time for Frankie to set to cruise for a couple whilst he ‘leans’ on the band a bit whilst they perform a spirited “Who Loves You” and everybody’s favourite dance-like-your-dad song “December ’63”. He stayed on stage and did the odd bit and led the audience vocal contributions – and that’s absolutely as it should be as Frankie didn’t actually perform ‘lead’ vocal on either of these although his contributions are clear and obvious on the originals. And the Showbiz wasn’t overdone either; the band intro was probably a bit too long and of course there were plenty of opportunities for the audience to indulge in communal karaoke but it never became overly gooey and happy-clappy for its own sake (pet hate of mine). It always seems to me the Americans are the masters of this, especially those who have learned their craft and paid ‘proper’ dues and I shudder to think how many live gigs this guy has played. I’d be surprised if it is less than the Beatles, Stones and The Who – added together.

We were then treated to a joyously-arranged and lovingly sung “Can’t Take my Eyes Off You”, which was worth the ticket price alone, before the final dash through a melange of Four Seasons greatest hits. This started with a show-stopping acapella “Sherry” and included “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll” and of course “Let’s Hang On”.

It seemed to me that the venue was completely sold out – touts outside were trying to buy rather than sell – which was in contrast to the Paul Simon / Sting gig I went to at this venue recently at which, although it was extremely well patronised, the touts were flogging, not buying. And off the back of that tour, of course, Paul Simon gets to number 1 on the UK album chart with his latest ‘greatest hits’ compilation. (Note to record company; errr….?)

Tarnished memories? Wish he hadn’t bothered? Nope. Not even slightly. By excellent set pacing, the deployment of extremely skilful backing singers and a world-championship bunch of musicians, the world-eating class of Frankie Valli is still a top ticket. Go along whilst you can, and whilst he can.

 

Some of my Closet Classics are there mainly on musical merit, some mainly on the strength of memories they evoke, but this earns its place on both counts.  I first heard the songs on this EP during my Freshers’ Week at the University of Dundee and I still say that “September”, featured on this EP, is one of the finest pieces of guitar-playing I’ve ever heard live.

Cado Belle was one of 3 bands I saw in a hectic week (the other 2 were Frankie Miller’s Full House and Skeets Boliver, if you must know) that set the scene for 4 years of watching great bands, DJing and generally having a good time.  I did a bit of studying as well, when I had to.  I went along to the gig with my new mate Steve J (still my mate now and a bloody good bloke) in his yellow ex-GPO Morris van, which was great if you were in the passenger seat, but a bit agricultural otherwise.  It had the added advantage of being absolutely impossible to lose in a car park.

We knew nothing about the band, but it was Freshers’ Week and we were determined to do everything that was on offer, especially if it also involved having a few beers.  We discovered that Cado Belle, fronted by singer Maggie Reilly, was a great Scottish soul band with a line-up of drums, bass, keyboards, guitar and sax.  Blue-eyed soul was huge in Scotland in the mid-70s; it was actually a criminal offence to have a band in Scotland without at least 1 sax player at that time.

It’s fair to say that it wasn’t a capacity audience, but we were enthusiastic and the band was exceptional, playing material from their first (and only) album and the eponymous EP.  The set was packed with superb playing and singing from a very accomplished band (we all said “tight” in those days) and we were all having a great time.  And then the band started to play “September”.

Anyone in the audience who had ever picked up a guitar was absolutely speechless as Alan Darby’s guitar gently wept its way through the beautiful extended intro using perfectly controlled feedback over a wash of electric piano to lead the song into Maggie Reilly’s ethereal vocal.  You expected recordings of guitarists to be this good, but it was incredible to see it live.  I won’t say that it changed my life, but it was one of the events that made me realise guitar-playing was only ever going to be a hobby.  When you analyse it, it’s not really much of song because it’s only really one verse but it’s an incredibly evocative piece of music; if you were pretentious, you might even call it a tone poem.

Obviously, I bought the EP as soon as I could get my hands on it and it’s a perfect little mini album.  The other 3 songs are “It’s Over” (a Boz Scaggs classic), “Play it Once for Me” (written by Stuart MacKillop, the band’s keyboard player) and “Gimme Little Sign” (as made famous by Brenton Wood and covered by many others since, including Peter Andre).  All 4 tracks on this EP stand up on their own merits and my vinyl 12” copy has been played to death since I bought it.  I’ve played it to many people including some very gifted musicians and it always gets the same response; stunned silence followed by queries about the band and then the inevitable “Why haven’t I heard this before?”

The band split up in 1979, but maintained loose ties and worked together occasionally.  Colin Tully (saxophone and woodwind) composed the music for the Bill Forsyth film “Gregory’s Girl”, Stuart MacKillop worked with ABBA and continues to work regularly with Maggie Reilly, along with bass player Gavin Hodgson.  Maggie Reilly went on to have hits with Mike Oldfield (including “Moonlight Shadow”) and is still recording and performing.

As for Alan Darby, he’s currently working on the Queen musical “We Will Rock You” in London, but if you run a quick search, you’ll be amazed at what he’s done and the artists he’s worked with.  Strangely enough, Alan Darby’s name has cropped up in conversations decades apart with various people.  In the early 80s, a friend of mine managed a cocktail bar in Covent Garden and told me that Alan worked there as a doorman for a while, which may or may not be true.  Twenty years later, in the early Noughties, during one of many late-night chats with the late Allan Mawn, the subject of Cado Belle came up again.  Allan (who genuinely seemed to know every musician in Scotland) told me that he’d recently spoken to Alan Darby just after his return from a tour in Japan with the Bay City Rollers and that he was currently working with Lulu’s band.  It’s a long way from playing to 150 students at Dundee University Students’ Association and, no doubt, a fascinating journey.  Normally, I would fill a piece like this with links to the music but, unfortunately it just isn’t out there.  If you want to hear a little more Cado Belle, try their MySpace page.

These 4 tracks, and “September” in particular, have been favourites of mine for over 30 years.  They still sound fresh even now and they’ve created a whole set of memories and associations years after they were initially released.  Great songs and playing never get old.