Pop­u­lar­ity con­tin­ues

‘Jer­sey Boys’ nos­tal­gia fades, but the ‘Hit Men’ play on

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY DAVID PORTER

Five years ago, some mu­si­cians who had played with Frankie Valli and the Four Sea­sons dur­ing his come­back in the 1970s rounded up some of their friends, slicked back what hair they had left and set out on a tour to cap­i­tal­ize on the suc­cess of Broad­way’s “Jer­sey Boys.’’

“It was kind of, ‘Let’s see if this works. If not, we’ll have fun; it’ll be great, and we’ll try it a cou­ple of times,’’’ key­boardist Lee Shapiro said this week as the group pre­pared to play a show at the New Jer­sey shore.

To­day, the Hit Men are show­ing no signs of slow­ing down. They have played hun­dreds of shows across the coun­try - in­clud­ing at Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago re­sort and have gigs booked through next May.

Along the way, they’ve over­come the deaths of two group mem­bers and the fad­ing of the “Jer­sey Boys’’ phe­nom­e­non to carve out a niche in the lu­cra­tive pop mu­sic nos­tal­gia uni­verse. “Jer­sey Boys’’ is a juke­box mu­si­cal chron­i­cling Valli’s ca­reer.

The call­ing card of the Hit Men is their decades of ex­pe­ri­ence and mu­si­cian­ship honed while tour­ing and record­ing with a who’s who of rock’s golden era. It’s a list that in­cludes El­ton John, Carly Si­mon, Todd Rund­gren, Jour­ney, Cheap Trick, Rod Ste­wart, the Ra­mones, Lou Reed, Jim Croce and Chicago.

“It’s a type of mu­sic that’s very pop­u­lar with our au­di­ences,’’ said David Fil­ner, vice-pres­i­dent for mu­si­cal op­er­a­tions at Ar­tis_ Naples, in Naples, Florida, which has booked the Hit Men sev­eral times. “They put on a great show, and they have a very in­ter­est­ing story be­cause they’ve

been in­volved in so many su­per groups.’’

Songs from some of those col­lab­o­ra­tions form the back­bone of the shows, each ac­com­pa­nied with a back­story. Gui­tarist Jimmy Ryan, for ex­am­ple, re­counts how his in­ter­est in a fe­male co-worker at a Green­wich Vil­lage record store was thwarted be­cause she was dat­ing his boss. But the two kept in touch and when the co-worker, Si­mon, needed a guitar player for her first al­bum, she reached out, be­gin­ning a mu­si­cal part­ner­ship that lasted more than 20 years.

Shapiro is the group’s last di­rect link to Valli. Drum­mer Gerry Polci, fa­mous for his vo­cals on the Four Sea­sons hit “De­cem­ber 1963 (Oh What A Night), left the group last year. Don Cic­cone, also one of the Four Sea­sons in the ‘70s, helped form the Hit Men and per­formed with them un­til his death last year at age 70.

The group also lost Larry

Gates, a friend of Shapiro’s since child­hood and a long­time ses­sion bas­sist who backed Ca­role King and nu­mer­ous oth­ers, to mul­ti­ple myeloma last De­cem­ber. His re­place­ment, Jeff Ganz, has a lengthy mu­si­cal re­sume that in­cludes play­ing with the late, leg­endary blues gui­tarist Johnny Win­ter and disco icons The Vil­lage Peo­ple.

Drum­mer Steve Mur­phy and singer-key­boardist Rus­sell Velasquez knew each other from ex­ten­sive vo­cal ses­sion work in New York do­ing com­mer­cial jin­gles and other projects. Velasquez, the band’s chief on­stage prankster and au­di­ence-en­gager, is also an Em­mynom­i­nated com­poser and ar­ranger for his work on Sesame Street. Mur­phy has played be­hind dozens of ma­jor pop and rock acts and, like Velasquez, is a pow­er­house vocalist as well.

“One of the rea­sons the singing is so good is that none of us ever stopped, and that’s a re­ally cru­cial fac­tor,’’ said Ryan, 70.


Discs by The Hit Men are on dis­play for sale dur­ing a show at the Axelrod Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter in Deal Park, N.J. Five years af­ter hit­ting the road to cap­i­tal­ize on the pop­u­lar­ity of Broad­way’s “Jer­sey Boys,” a group of mu­si­cians who played with Frankie Valli and the Four Sea­sons and other groups are still at it. The Hit Men have played hun­dreds of shows across the coun­try and are re­leas­ing a new song, “You Can’t Fight Love.”

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