CRANFORD, N.J. (AP) — 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 Emmy-nominated 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. "If you retire for 30 years and try to start singing again, it's a muscle just like your bicep and it's going to be really hard to get going again, to have that range. Our voices have remained kind of young — we don't sound like we look."
Valli still tours with his own group. As "Jersey Boys" wound down — it ended an 11-year Broadway run in January — the Hit Men gradually tweaked their set list to reflect the band members' varied associations, though they still perform two Four Seasons medleys and a few individual songs.
Their next project is to release a new song, "You Can't Fight Love," penned by Ryan.
How long can this go on?
"Until it can't," Murphy said.
"If we win the lottery, we'll just do this more conveniently," Shapiro said. "But we'll still do it."
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