Saturday, September 22, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Frankie Valli working his way back to Ruth Eckerd Hall ... again

One night in the ’90s, Frankie Valli was leaving Ruth Eckerd Hall after a less than sold-out gig.

He was drawing okay on the road, not great, occasionally sharing the bill with an act like Dion or the Four Tops to help fill seats. The band was tight, the songs were all there, but something just wasn’t connecting.

"We saw crowds going down, and we needed to tweak something," recalled Robby Robinson, Valli’s longtime keyboardist and musical director. "The public knew all these songs, but they didn’t really get it."

A few years later came Jersey Boys, the Broadway smash about Valli’s life that stoked renewed interest in his life story and ’60s and ’70s hits. Ever since, Valli’s revitalized roadshow has been in high demand from coast to coast.

But whether times were fat or lean for Valli, he’s always had Ruth Eckerd Hall. When his Four Seasons return there on Friday and Saturday, he’ll break the venue’s record for most concerts ever by a single artist — 30 concerts in 35 years, surpassing the 28-show tie shared by Johnny Mathis and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Rarely does a marriage between headliner and venue last so long, especially with a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer like Valli. But after coming to Ruth Eckerd Hall almost every year for a generation, Clearwater is like a second home on the road. Valli has friends here, visits local restaurants, hobnobs with athletes in town for spring training and once counseled Jon Gruden at a local Hooters.

"Florida has been a very, very good market for us," said Valli, 83. "I do like the gulf side of Florida a lot. It’s probably one of my favorite places."

• • •

Certain artists just fit certain venues, and it works. Country star Brad Paisley has played the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheater every year since 2005. New York jam band Donna the Buffalo has played a New Year’s Eve run at Skipper’s Smokehouse every year since 2011.

Valli played other venues before, and even after, Ruth Eckerd Hall opened in 1983: the Clearwater Auditorium in 1964, St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Center in 1970 and 1975, Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Hall in 1971 and 1985, a Tampa motel called King Arthur’s Inn in 1972.

But they’re all gone, and Valli’s still touring. That’s why he’s hitting 30 shows at Ruth Eckerd when other artists could not.

"Some have retired, in the case of an Anne Murray; or (in the case of) George Carlin, passed away," said Bobby Rossi, the venue’s executive vice president for entertainment. "But here’s a guy who has kicked it into another gear with no signs of stopping."

It wouldn’t have happened without Jersey Boys. The musical galvanized interest in the Four Seasons’ rise in New Jersey, and re-introduced songs like Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You to a younger audience. Since Jersey Boys debuted in 2004, Valli has played Ruth Eckerd Hall every year, often selling out well in advance.

"I’m playing bigger venues than I did in the ’60s and ’70s," Valli said. "It’s awful nice to know that you’ve made an impact, and from the time you were here doing what you did, your success came because what you were doing was something that people liked."

Jersey Boys spawned a cottage industry of Valli-esque vocal acts — the Hit Men, the Midtown Men, the Modern Gentlemen, Under the Streetlamp — some of whom have also played Ruth Eckerd Hall. Jersey Boys itself will go up there in late March.

Some of Valli’s popularity here could be due to the state’s retirees and snowbirds from New York and New Jersey, although Valli said his ticket sales are pretty good everywhere.

"It has nothing to do with where the location is, whether it’s East Coast, West Coast, Midwest. None of that really matters," he said. "The fact that you’re out there entertaining them and making them happy is what it’s all about — they’re loving what you’re doing, and you’re loving the fact that they’re loving it."

• • •

One thing probably doesn’t hurt Valli’s draw in Clearwater: He often visits around the time the Yankees arrive in Tampa for spring training.

"George Steinbrenner once threatened to fire me because I went to a Frankie Valli show instead of being at the stadium," said Ray Negron, a longtime community adviser with the Yankees who has seen at least 20 Ruth Eckerd shows. "How could you not love this man? It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, coming from New York, people love what this man represents."

Negron has accompanied countless coaches and players to meet Valli at Ruth Eckerd Hall, from Joe Torre to Don Zimmer to Darryl Strawberry to Wade Boggs. One time, he brought a young rookie shortstop backstage, and mentioned to the player that the only autograph Valli ever sought out was from Joe DiMaggio.

"When I told Derek Jeter that story, he had to give a ball to Frankie," Negron said. "He got a ball and said, ‘Give it to Frankie Valli. If DiMaggio gave him one, I want to be able to have said that I gave Frankie Valli a baseball.’?"

Another Tampa sports star with his own Valli moment: Jon Gruden.

After a concert in 2009, the ex-Bucs coach was invited to meet up with Valli at the original Hooters on Gulf to Bay "for one of the coolest nights I can remember," he said.

"I had just been fired from coaching and was still in the tank feeling sorry for myself," Gruden said in an email. "He said to me, ‘Hey! I was down and out until Jersey Boys came around! You’ll be just fine! Get up! Something great is about to happen!’ He picked me up and he was right. I hooked on with Monday Night Football a couple of weeks later."

There’s more to Valli’s visits than a parade of celebrity meet-and-greets. Back in 2008, his visit overlapped with a run of Jersey Boys at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts; he popped over to say hi to the cast — "a show of respect," he said.

Most trips, he clears out time to meet with old friends who live here. Singer Joey Dee, an old Jersey buddy who settled down in Palm Harbor, takes him out to dinner at spots like Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach.

"Frankie never forgets his friends or where he came from," Dee said. "I haven’t seen him since probably last year, but when we get together, whether it’s at the restaurant or backstage after the show, we’ll pick up the conversation just where we left off. It’s a wonderful relationship.

"And he never forgets to mention I’m in the audience at Ruth Eckerd Hall when he’s on stage. He gives me a heartwarming, fabulous introduction to all my neighbors and friends. It warms my heart. It really does."

• • •

Ruth Eckerd Hall has a lot planned to commemorate Valli’s record-breaking performance. There will be VIPs in the house both Saturday and Sunday, some with gifts in tow. A roadway on the Ruth Eckerd Hall campus will be renamed "Frankie Valli Alley," and he’ll get a dressing suite in his name as well (an honor previously bestowed on Ringo Starr. They’ve asked the city and state to honor him with a key or proclamation.

Valli’s record will stand a while, although probably not forever. Saxophonist Dave Koz, 54, is sitting at 22 gigs. In a few years, he might hold the crown.

But Valli was always a relentless road dog. There’s a scene in Jersey Boys where he agrees to pay off a bandmate’s debt by taking almost any gig that paid, no matter how small the club.

"You’ll be on the road till you’re 90!" someone tells him.

He’s not far off now. Valli has already announced a farewell tour of the United Kingdom, and may one day do the same in the States.

"I thought three years ago I’d probably stop," he said. "But I’m still able to go out and do it. I’m not even thinking about quitting. … I’m going to do this until I don’t want to do it. And at the present stage that I’m at right now, I do want to do it."

Indeed, Rossi is already plotting Valli’s next trip to Ruth Eckerd, which would be around this time next year. Robinson is optimistic for even more after that.

"The stage is great, the seating is great, the backstage is great and the promoter is great. What’s not to love there?" Robinson said. "Hopefully we’ll do 30 more."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Comments
SoundBytes: The Midnight Hour, Dead Prez, Derez De’Shon, nothing,nowhere. and more

SoundBytes: The Midnight Hour, Dead Prez, Derez De’Shon, nothing,nowhere. and more

— Rising emo-rap artist nothing,nowhere., who opened for Fall Out Boy last fall at Amalie Arena, will headline the Orpheum on Nov. 24, alongside Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Smrtdeath and St. Panther. Tickets are $18 and up. Click here.— ...
Published: 09/21/18
Lucero’s Ben Nichols talks about the band’s 20th anniversary, Michael Shannon’s intensity and more

Lucero’s Ben Nichols talks about the band’s 20th anniversary, Michael Shannon’s intensity and more

Ben Nichols is friendly with Michael Shannon. His brother, director Jeff Nichols, has cast Shannon in all five of his films. And the Oscar-nominated actor stars in a video — a short film, really — for Long Way Back Home, the new single by Nichols’ ro...
Published: 09/20/18
Lucero’s Ben Nichols talks Michael Shannon’s intensity, the band’s chances at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and more

Lucero’s Ben Nichols talks Michael Shannon’s intensity, the band’s chances at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and more

This is the 20th year of Lucero, the crusty, punk- and alt-country-accented Memphis rockers who've made many an enjoyable sojourn to Tampa Bay over the years. But don't go thinking it's made Ben Nichols newly nostalgic for his early work."It's funny,...
Published: 09/20/18
Rae Sremmurd to headline USF Homecoming concert at Yuengling Center in Tampa

Rae Sremmurd to headline USF Homecoming concert at Yuengling Center in Tampa

The University of South Florida's homecoming week is just around the corner, and the school has just booked a nice headliner for its annual centerpiece concert.Chart-topping hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd will headline the annual USF Homecoming concert on ...
Published: 09/20/18
Dickey Betts in critical condition, facing brain surgery after ‘freak accident’ near Sarasota; upcoming concerts canceled

Dickey Betts in critical condition, facing brain surgery after ‘freak accident’ near Sarasota; upcoming concerts canceled

Months after returning to the stage after years of retirement, legendary Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts is "critical but stable" after a "freak accident" at his home in Sarasota County, according to his website.The site says Betts was ou...
Published: 09/19/18
Maroon 5 to Headline Super Bowl Halftime Show

Maroon 5 to Headline Super Bowl Halftime Show

A band will once again take the stage at the Super Bowl halftime show.The pop group Maroon 5 is scheduled to headline the annual 13-minute extravaganza this February at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, according to two sources familiar with the plan...
Published: 09/19/18
Ticket window: Carol Burnett, John Mellencamp and Sarah Brightman on sale this week

Ticket window: Carol Burnett, John Mellencamp and Sarah Brightman on sale this week

Tickets for the following events go on sale this week:• Carol Burnett, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater, $72.50-$257.50, on Sale at noon Friday at the box office, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, or by calling (727) 791-7400.• Shawn Colvin,...
Published: 09/19/18
Country Music on the Bay festival bringing Scotty McCreery, Wynonna, Jerrod Niemann to St. Petersburg

Country Music on the Bay festival bringing Scotty McCreery, Wynonna, Jerrod Niemann to St. Petersburg

An all-new country music festival is coming to St. Petersburg.Country Music on the Bay will hit Vinoy Park on Oct. 13, with a lineup that includes American Idol alum Scotty McCreery, Jerrod Niemann (Drink to That All Night), Wynonna and the Big Noise...
Published: 09/19/18
Weekend concert picks: Niall Horan, Maren Morris, Lucero and more

Weekend concert picks: Niall Horan, Maren Morris, Lucero and more

UPWARD DIRECTION: Niall Horan, Maren MorrisHarry Styles is the biggest star, rakish as always and selling out arenas. Zayn and Liam Payne have the best pop hits (Pillowtalk, Strip That Down, Get Low). Louis Tomlinson is biding his time while anxious ...
Published: 09/19/18
Clearwater’s Hispanic Heritage festival expands to two days; Gente de Zona, Olga Tanon lead lineup

Clearwater’s Hispanic Heritage festival expands to two days; Gente de Zona, Olga Tanon lead lineup

A big festival in Clearwater is getting even bigger.The annual 92.5 Maxima Hispanic Heritage concert — officially known as the Maxima Concerto Herencia Hispana — will expand from one day to two in 2018. It'll take place Oct. 13 and 14 at ...
Published: 09/19/18