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.