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Little Richard, his cohorts do 'Doo Wop' for PBS

Thursday, May 17, 2001

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

It's Wednesday morning, 10 a.m. -- the morning after Little Richard rocked the oldies crowd at the Benedum Center with a raucous "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "Rip It Up" and more, and Little Anthony spoke Frankie Valli's language in a performance Pure Gold's Frankie Czuri says was "absolutely astounding," adding "He dug really deep for that one" -- and already, the stars are beginning to shine in a catered second-floor rehearsal space as they prepare for a second night of filming a PBS special.

Lou Christie leads the band in awe-inspiring versions of his biggest hits, "The Gypsy Cried" to "Lightning Strikes" to a truly incredible "I'm Gonna Make You Mine." Exactly how a man his age -- not that he even looks his age -- can sing that high so early in the morning is a better seventh wonder than some lousy pyramid.

"It's like my graduating class, if you think about it," Christie says of the gathering being documented by WQED producer T.J. Lubinsky and his crew for "Rock, Rhythm and Doo Wop," airing on PBS later this year. "A lot of us knew each other."

A native of nearby Glenwillard whose earliest radio hits were local, Christie says of the success of "Doo Wop 50" and its follow-up, "I think it took everyone by surprise that it happened this way, that it took someone from Pittsburgh to make this happen."

Christie wasn't nearly as surprised.

Standing in the window, pointing down the street to where he cut his early singles, Christie says of Pittsburgh, "It was the best for me. Because it worked. And it was all just because people loved music in this city."

As for the oldies' enduring appeal, the singer, who still performs about 100 shows a year, says, "This music was the soundtrack to our lives as teen-agers."

He's seen the other oldies specials and to him, they work, in part, because they've gotten the people who actually sang on the records together again.

"I bump into groups on the road all the time, and they're calling themselves the Marvelettes and the Drifters," he says, "and none of them were even born when those records were hits."

Not every star at this week's concerts got together with the people on the hits. The other folks who sang and played on Frankie Valli's hits are either dead or back in Jersey or wherever, but Valli's here without a backing group, and now he's doing what he can to make the local performers give him what he wants on "Let's Hang On."

It's amazing to watch him whip the whole arrangement into shape. He tells the drummer what to play ("I know it's not like on the record. But it just works better."). He coaches the singers, so many it's joked that they ought to be called the Eight Seasons. He tells the guitarist and bassist to crank the volume on the closing riff and even tells the bassist where to put the accents. It's like watching some historic session, and it kind of leaves you wondering if Valli did that in the studio.

He didn't.

At an interview in his dressing room arranged by Philly DJ Jerry Blavatt, Valli says, "I was very comfortable with the people who were producing -- Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio. But since I am the only member that works with the group anymore, I've kind of taken that over. I've made changes in the arrangements and done things a little bit more to what I felt I wanted to do -- a little bit more in the pocket, like that drum thing we were working on. It's a little bit more modern than what was done in the very early '60s."

Not that Valli has a problem with the way they did things in the early '60s.

He's happy -- "very much so" -- with the way his hits have held up after all these years.

"I think that's been an incredible factor for us," he says, "that the records we made do hold up. There are probably very few groups who get as much play as we do on oldies radio."

As for the morning rehearsal, Valli says, "When I went up there, it just wasn't feeling right. And it's nobody's fault. I didn't bring a conductor or anything."

At first, when asked to do the show, he told them he would host it but he wouldn't sing.

Going into last night's concert, Valli hadn't performed in a year.

"I took a year off," he says. "And I'm just getting ready to get back in it. It'll be with a whole new entourage. I've hired all new singers and players and everything. But I want to do it on a limited basis. Summer tours with packages, maybe a Christmas show. I'm not looking to be all over the board. I want to stay home and be with my kids."

Of modern music, Valli says, "I think the new Latin influence is just incredible. It reminds me a lot of the enthusiasm musically that there was in the '50s and '60s. It's melodic. It's not rapping -- not that all rap is bad. Some of it is terrific. But I don't think for a guy that's been around as long as I have that I want to be out there chasing the market. I'm at a point in my life where I want to do the things that I want to do."

And at this point, that means moving in more of a jazz direction.

On recordings.

As far as shows, though, Valli plans to play the hits.

"All hits," he says. "Nothing but hits all night long, a lot like what the folks at PBS are doing."

He credits the PBS specials with "opening a whole new thing for people who were really the innovators, the people who really started this whole business."

And it's nice, he says, to be a part of that. "For me, it's like a homecoming, to see Lloyd Price and Jerry Butler and Lenny Welch and Joey D and the Earls and the Encinos. I've worked with most of these people through my life and probably in the last 20 or 25 years, I've hardly seen any of them."

He didn't spend his whole time here in Pittsburgh at the Benedum.

"I went looking for sneakers," he says, with a laugh. "I couldn't find a pair. I was looking for a pair of black ones. And I wanted running sneakers."

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