Bob Crewe: Songwriter and producer who became the driving force behind Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

Crewe's track record rivalled Phil Spector's and yet he was unknown outside the industry

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The Independent Online

One of the major factors behind the success of the stage musical Jersey Boys is that the story of the Four Seasons was new to most theatregoers. The only familiar group member was Frankie Valli, and few knew of their songwriter and producer, Bob Crewe. His track record rivalled Phil Spector's and yet he was unknown outside the industry.

He was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1930 and raised in nearby Belleville. He could sing and took a few piano lessons but mostly his musical education came from listening to jazz and swing records. He was a talented artist who was praised by Andy Warhol, but once he had met a young pianist from Texas, Frank Slay, he wanted to make records.

With a $5,000 loan from Benny Goodman's brother, Gene, they wrote and produced for the Brooklyn doo-wop group the Rays, for their own XYZ label. Crewe gave a copy of "Silhouettes" to a radio DJ, Hy Lit of WFIL. He put it on his turntable and went to sleep as the record played over and over. When he awoke it was so embedded in his mind that he thought it was wonderful. He raved about it on air and other DJs followed suit. It went to No 7 on the US charts, while their B-side, "Daddy Cool", was covered successfully by the Diamonds.

Both songs have become rock'n'roll standards with "Silhouettes" having chart success for Herman's Hermits (1965) and Cliff Richard (1990) and "Daddy Cool" for Darts (1977). A full version of "Silhouettes" by Bob Dylan with the Band is about to be released on the 6CD set The Basement Tapes. They wrote more rock'n'roll hits with "La Dee Dah" and "Lucky Ladybug" for Billy and Lillie. "La Dee Dah" was a UK hit for the 15-year-old Scottish singer Jackie Dennis, who proudly performed in a kilt.

Billy and Lillie recorded for the Swan label, and Slay and Crewe had hits with another Swan signing, Freddy Cannon. They wrote "Tallahassee Lassie" (a UK hit for Tommy Steele), "Okefenokee" and "Buzz Buzz A-Diddle It" (revived by Matchbox in 1980). The aggressive drumming on "Tallahassee Lassie" led to the singer's nickname of Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon. Crewe produced his revival of "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" and hit on the idea of every song title in an album being a place name. The result, The Explosive Freddy Cannon, was No 1 on the UK's first album chart in February 1960. When one of Cannon's singles, "The Urge", was played on Juke Box Jury, Katie Boyle remarked, "It's obscene but I love it."

Crewe had been working with a New York quartet, the Four Seasons, and when he saw their lead singer, Frankie Valli, singing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" in a comic falsetto he knew he had the hit sound. He told their keyboard player, Bob Gaudio, to write something that jumped up an octave. Gaudio wrote "Jackie" as a tribute to the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, and Crewe changed it to "Sherry". The public loved Valli's soaring vocals and the single topped the US charts for five weeks with the follow-up, the similar sounding "Big Girls Don't Cry" doing exactly the same. With their harsher, grittier sound, they were the east coast rivals to the Beach Boys on the west.

Crewe determined how to use that sound in other settings and he produced "Dawn (Go Away)", "Rag Doll" (written with Gaudio) and "Let's Hang On" (written with Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell). He considered the Four Seasons' revival of "I've Got You Under My Skin" to be his best production and he produced their novelty single, "Don't Think Twice" as the Wonder Who?

Four songs he wrote for Frankie Valli and/or the Four Seasons became major hits for other artists. The Walker Brothers' echo-drenched "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" was a UK No 1 in 1966; the Tremeloes went to the top with "Silence Is Golden" in 1967; Andy Williams sang "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" in 1968; and the Bay City Rollers took "Bye Bye Baby" to No 1 in 1975. Most of the time Crewe wrote lyrics and he saw his songs as little movies. He would tell his co-writers or musicians the sound he wanted by describing colours, and he incorporated the phrase, "A deep shade of blue is always there" into the lyric for "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore".

In 1964 he co-wrote the US hit "Navy Blue" by Diane Renay, with Eddie Rambeau. This led to him forming the DynoVoice and New Voice labels and he produced a US hit for Rambeau, "Concrete And Clay". DynoVoice's biggest hit came when he reworked Bach's Minuet In G as "A Lover's Concerto" for the Toys. He had little success with Billy Lee and the Rivieras until he renamed them Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels; they had hits with wild uptempo revivals like "Jenny Take A Ride" and "Devil With A Blue Dress On" (both 1966).

Crewe released his own singles, including a bizarre Bobby Darin-styled "Maggie May" in 1964. In 1967 he had an instrumental hit with "Music To Watch Girls Go By", a fuller version of a Diet Pepsi ad, performed by the Bob Crewe Generation and sounding very like a Herb Alpert record. A vocal version became a hit for Andy Williams and there is also the wacky "Music To Watch Space Girls By" from Leonard Nimoy. Crewe followed his US hit with "The Miniskirts In Moscow". In 1968 he wrote and produced the soundtrack for the sci-fi film Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda.

In 1969 Crewe produced two million-selling singles for the singer Oliver, "Good Morning Starshine" from Hair and "Jean" from The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. After this, he moved into disco and wrote and produced hits for Disco-Tex and his Sex-O-Lettes with Sir Monti Rock III, notably "Get Dancin'" and "I Wanna Dance Wit' Choo". Around the same time, he and Kenny Nolan wrote "Lady Marmalade (Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi Ce Soir)", a worldwide hit for Labelle in 1975. It was also a UK chart-topper for All Saints in 1998 and three years later for Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink from the film, Moulin Rouge.

Crewe became involved in Broadway by producing the cast album for Leader Of The Pack, a musical based around the songwriter Ellie Greenwich. He was proud of the success of Jersey Boys, but he was not as camp as that in real life. He returned to painting and had some exhibitions but following a fall he spent his final years in a rest home.

SPENCER LEIGH

Robert Stanley Crewe, songwriter and record producer: born Newark, New Jersey 12 November 1930; died Scarborough, Maine 11 September 2014.

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