"I'm hearing it in sky blue. You're giving me brown." So says a real-life character named Bob Crewe in the play and movie Jersey Boys. He's producing a recording of the song "Trance" by Billy Dixon and the Topics, and he's complaining that the group is just not singing it right. At the end of the scene the singers stomp out in disgust, but over the next decade (the 1960s) they took Crewe's advice more often than not. You see, one of the "Topics" was a little guy named Frankie Valli and under Crewe's tutelage the group achieved megastardom as the Four Seasons.
Crewe, one of the most successful songwriters and producers in pop-music history, died on Thursday at 82 after a long illness. It's a personal loss for me, because I got to know Crewe a bit when I helped produce and write liner notes for a box set of Four Seasons' hits in 2007.
Raised in Belleville, NJ, right outside Newark, Bob Crewe was just as much a scrappy Jersey boy as the four original Seasons -- Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi -- even if, by the time the Seasons came his way, he was already enough of a big-deal record producer to have moved to plush digs on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. With his gift for catchy lyrics, Crewe teamed up with composer Gaudio to form one of the best songwriting duos ever -- at least on par with Goffin and King and not all that far behind Lennon and McCartney. The Four Seasons and the Beach Boys were the only two American groups from the early '60s to survive and thrive even after the British invasion. Together Crewe and Gaudio wrote "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Rag Doll," "Silence is Golden," "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," among many other hits.
While Jersey Boys has focused everyone's attention on Crewe's work as producer and co-chief songwriter of the Four Seasons, that's far from his whole story. Crewe had hits before he found the Seasons, he had hits with other artists while also working with the Seasons, and he had hits after he and Gaudio were no longer working much together. Among Crewe's other biggest acts were the Rays ("Silhouettes"), Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels ("Sock It to Me, Baby") and Oliver ("Good Morning Starshine"). Lesley Gore started her career with superstar producer Quincy Jones, but she is just as quick to praise Crewe, who produced her late-career hit "California Nights." In 1975 he co-wrote a No. 1 hit for LaBelle (Patti Labelle's group) called "Lady Marmalade," and in 2001, a new version of it from the Moulin Rouge! movie soundtrack took Crewe's song to No. 1 again.
The "hearing sky blue -- you're giving me brown" lines were scripted by Jersey Boys writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, but Crewe really did say stuff like that. He used all sorts of gimmicks to communicate with musicians because he was not musically trained himself and could neither read nor write music. He was primarily a lyricist, but he often also contributed to the sound of a record. If a bit of melody came to him, he could hum it or sing it and have one of the Seasons try it on a keyboard or guitar. If Crewe thought some makeshift percussion was needed, he might clap his hands, stomp a studio floorboard or bang on a pipe. One day he in 1966 he came into his office and confronted Larry Santos, one of Crewe's stable of writers, who had penned the Four Seasons' hit "Candy Girl." "I've got a great song title," said Crewe. "It's 'Comin' Up in the World.' Now all we need is the song." Santos sat down with Crewe to get it done, and "Comin' Up in the World" became one of the tracks on the Seasons' Working My Way Back to You album.
Crewe wanted to be a star himself and recorded many solo records beginning in the '50s. He had the teen-idol looks for it, and was a pretty good singer, but his personal high-water mark came in 1960 when his version of "The Whiffenpoof Song" topped out at No. 96. He did much better for himself in 1966 by forming a group of musicians that he called The Bob Crewe Generation. They recorded an instrumental called "Music to Watch Girls By" that went to No. 15.
There was a touch of irony in that song title because, as was revealed in Jersey Boys, Bob Crewe was gay. His friends and industry colleagues, including the Four Seasons, knew it, but his sexual orientation was not written about and most Seasons fans had no idea. In the wake of Jersey Boys, the gay community has justifiably taken pride in Crewe's achievements. One of the stories widely circulated in the gay press concerns his writing with Gaudio of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," the classic 1967 Frankie Valli hit that has been covered hundreds of times by everyone from the Supremes to Lauryn Hill. The story is that the lyrics came to Crewe when he was in bed with another man (no, not Gaudio, who is 100% heterosexual). Though we can't know for sure if the story is true, it's entirely plausible that "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" is the greatest gay love song of all time. I didn't know that when I sang it to my future wife in her college dorm room in 1971, but the song works for straight people as well.
While most of my interactions with Crewe were by phone, I once had a leisurely and delightful lunch with him at a favorite spot of his on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Most of the conversation was off-the-record, and I'll continue to honor that. But I'll share one anecdote. Crewe said that he had to pay close attention to and cater to the personalities and preferences of his recording artists. Tina Turner, for example, was the impatient type. She breezed into one session and announced, "You'll only get one take from me today, Bob. I've got to go shopping."
Of all Crewe's productions, his personal favorite was, surprisingly, a song that he did not write. In 1966, Gaudio heard Frank Sinatra sing "I've Got You Under My Skin" in Las Vegas and had the cockamamie idea that the Four Seasons should do it. Undaunted, Crewe brought in arranger Artie Schroeck to help give this musty classic a '60s vibe, and, with the usual strong performances from Valli, Gaudio, DeVito and new Season Joe Long, the group got the re-imagined song on tape. That's how a song written in 1936 become Cole Porter's one and only Top Ten hit in the rock and roll era. And it took a great record producer to pull it off.