Working My Way Back To You: The Four Seasons; The Spinners; Boyzone

Hello there! This week our blog features a catchy pop tune, Working My Way Back To You. We will first discuss the original version by The Four Seasons. Next, we will review a cover by The Spinners and then a version by Boyzone.

The Four Seasons and Working My Way Back To You:

Nearly every rock ‘n roll group goes through a change of name, or shuffles its lineup from time to time. However, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons may have set a record for the sheer number of name changes.

First of all, Francesco Stephen Castelluccio initially began performing under the stage name Frankie Valley, and then adopted the name Frankie Tyler before settling on Frankie Valli. In 1953, at age 19, Frankie formed a band called The Variatones; then in 1956 they changed to The Four Lovers.

Between 1956 and 1958 Frankie and his bandmates performed under 18 (!!) different band names. However, in 1959 the band settled into its “classic” lineup – Frankie Valli on lead vocals, backed up by keyboardist Bob Gaudio, bassist Nick Massi and guitarist Tommy DeVito.

Here is a publicity shot of The Four Seasons, from L: Bob Gaudio; Tommy DeVito; Nick Massi; Frankie Valli.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, circa 1963.

DeVito’s friend, actor Joe Pesci, had introduced him and Valli to Bob Gaudio. Gaudio was 15 when he joined the group, after leaving the one-hit wonders The Royal Teens, for whom he wrote their smash novelty hit “Short Shorts.”  The other two band members had checkered pasts. Tommy DeVito had been in and out of prison several times, and Nick Massi had also spent time behind bars. Frankie and Tommy were also friends with mobster “Gyp” DeCarlo, who owned several of the Jersey bars where the Four Seasons performed.  All of these details were carefully covered up while the band was hot.

The band eventually chose their final name in 1960, after they failed an audition to perform at a lounge in a New Jersey bowling alley. The name of that establishment? The Four Seasons.

In 1961 Gaudio wrote a song for the Four Seasons called “Sherry.” The band’s producer Bob Crewe recorded it and shopped it around to various record companies. Eventually the group signed with Vee-Jay Records, where The Four Seasons had the distinction of being the first white group signed by the Vee-Jay label.

Vee-Jay released Sherry, and it shot straight to the top of the Billboard charts. This began a remarkable string of hits by the Four Seasons, most of which were co-written by Crewe and Gaudio. They followed up with songs such as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, and Candy Girl.

The Four Seasons developed a signature sound and almost never deviated from their winning formula. The close verbal harmonies from the Four Seasons were backed by Frankie Valli’s soaring falsetto lead vocals. Gaudio on keyboards, Massi on bass and DeVito on guitar were often supplemented by horn sections.

The band was doing great until Vee-Jay Records ran into a bizarre problem. For a couple of years, that label had been releasing American copies of records by an obscure British band, The Beatles. When the Beatles suddenly became international stars, Vee-Jay struggled to keep up with the demand.

Eventually the Beatles cancelled their contract with Vee-Jay; however, for another year the company continued to release Beatles records, until they were sued and eventually shut down. The Four Seasons then left Vee-Jay for Philips Records.

For a few years, the Four Seasons were second only to the Beach Boys in record sales by an American group. The Four Seasons was also one of the few American bands that were able to weather the British Invasion without getting wiped out.

Working My Way Back To You, written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, was released in 1966 and reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts. The song describes a man who initially treated his lover unkindly. However, now that she has gone, he is determined to repent and regain his lost love.

[CHORUS] Workin’ my way back to you, babe
With a burnin’ love inside
Yeah, I’m workin’ my way back to you, babe
And the happiness that died
I let it get away
Paying every day

When you were so in love with me
I played around like I was free
Thought I could have my cake and eat it, too
But how I cried over losin’ you

See me down and out
But I ain’t about to go livin’ my life without you
For every day I made you cry
I’m payin’, girl, till the day that I die.

Here are The Four Seasons in a “live” performance of Working My Way Back To You.

Although this is advertised as a live performance, it appears to be lip-synched. I don’t believe that the close harmonies of the Four Seasons could be reproduced this well in a live performance. Furthermore, there is no sign of the horn section that features significantly in this tune.

But what the heck, we can enjoy Frankie Valli’s trademark falsetto soaring over the top of the signature close harmonies of the Four Seasons. As we will see, the Four Seasons’ version of Working My Way Back to You is somewhat slower and more stately than the cover version by The Spinners.

By the end of the 60s, the hits had dried up for the group; in 1970 they changed their name to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, in recognition of Frankie’s pre-eminence in producing the group’s sound. However, after several lean years, the group would later score a few more big hits.

The first of these was the 1976 tune December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night), which shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. Then in 1978, Frankie Valli had a #1 hit with the title song to the musical Grease. After that, the group released a few “greatest hits” compilations that were best-sellers.

But the group would have one last moment of fame. The musical Jersey Boys, a bio-pic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, became a Broadway smash and later was turned into a hit movie, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Frankie Valli is still performing today, although his former bandmates appear to have retired. We salute the Four Seasons – they developed a signature style featuring Frankie Valli’s remarkable falsetto vocals, and churned out a string of hits over a couple of decades.  We are delighted that they would keep on keepin’ on, even after the Four Seasons bowling alley turned them down back in 1960.

The Spinners and Working My Way Back To You:

The Spinners (also known as the Detroit Spinners or the Motown Spinners) were an R&B group that formed in Ferndale, MI in 1954. They originally met as they all lived in Detroit’s Herman Gardens public housing project.

The group was originally produced by Harvey Fuqua. They had one top-25 hit in 1961 on Fuqua’s Tri-Phi Records, but were not able to repeat their success. So Fuqua passed the group on to his brother-in-law Berry Gordy, Jr, who signed them to Motown. Here is a publicity photo of the Spinners from around 1970.

Atlantic Records artists The Spinners. image: Getty Images.

The Spinners had only limited commercial success with Motown, so Berry Gordy had the boys perform various jobs for his record label.  The Spinners really earned their salaries, taking on tasks that included shipping clerks, chauffeurs, and road managers. Eventually Aretha Franklin recommended that the group sign with Atlantic Records.

In the 1970s, the Spinners hit the jackpot at Atlantic, working with producer Thom Bell. The group’s 1973 album Spinners spawned at least 3 chart-busters, beginning with the song I’ll Be Around, that reached #3 on the Billboard Top 100 songs.

And a single from their next album, a collaboration with Dionne Warwick called Then Came You, hit #1 on the Billboard playlists. This sustained success put the Spinners in the company of such great R&B ensembles as The Temptations and The Four Tops.

The Spinners were unusual in that three of their members, Bobby Smith, Henry Fambrough and Philippe Wynne, each sang lead on some of the group’s hit songs. The Spinners appeared in the 1979 movie The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, playing an R&B band. The movie was a stinker, but the film’s soundtrack was a successful album.

The song Working My Way Back to You (combined with Forgive Me, Girl) was one of the last big hits for the Spinners. It was released in 1979 and in spring 1980 it hit #2 on the charts, just behind Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.

Here is the audio of the Spinners record, Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me, Girl.

You can see the influence of disco here, with the pulsating, insistent drum beat. It is backed by the terrific harmonies of the Spinners, fronted here by Jonathan Edwards on lead vocals (and also featuring the sonorous bass voice of Pervis Jackson). Isn’t this an infectious song?

So here are The Spinners in a live version of Working My Way Back To You/Forgive Me, Girl. This is from a concert in Waukesha, WI in July of 2014.

It’s great to see the band in live performance. We get the Motown-inspired choreographed dance moves, paired with the impressive vocal harmonies.  At the 2:30 mark, the group shifts to Forgive Me, Girl for a minute before a segue back to Working My Way Back to You.

By this time, all of the original singers from The Spinners had passed away, except for Henry Fambrough. It’s hard to believe, but the Spinners are still touring, even 65 years after their formation! They are extremely popular at ‘oldies’ concerts, and it’s still great to see the ensemble singing their great old hits — they can still bring it!

The Spinners have been nominated as finalists for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times – in 2011, 2014 and 2015. They have been unsuccessful every time.  But we are rooting for the boys, and hope they get inducted as they richly deserve.

Boyzone and Working My Way Back To You:

Boyzone was an Irish boy band that found success in Ireland and the U.K. During their heyday they placed over 20 songs in both the U.K. and Irish pop charts, with 6 singles reaching #1 in the U.K. and 9 in Ireland. As we have seen for several other performers, they became a really big group in the U.K. (they were the 2nd biggest boy band ever in the U.K.), while remaining virtually unknown in the U.S.

All boy bands are “synthetic;” they are assembled by an impresario who carefully plans their every song, harmony and dance move. In this case the entrepreneur was Louis Walsh, who placed an ad in Irish newspapers for young men interested in forming a vocal group.

The 300 applicants were recorded singing a particular tune, and then Walsh and his associates interviewed 10 finalists. After a bit of shuffling of personnel, the group settled on a quintet consisting of Stephen Gately, Keith Duffy, Shane Lynch, Ronan Keating and Mikey Graham. Below is a photo of Boyzone.

The Irish 90s boy band Boyzone.

Boyzone then followed the classic “boy band” routine. They were rehearsed and  meticulously orchestrated, and then given a number of songs to cover. The group’s first hit was their 1994 cover of Working My Way Back to You by the Four Seasons.

So here is Boyzone and the music video for the song Working My Way Back to You.

This song features Stephen Gately on lead vocals. It was filmed at Digges Lane Dance Studios.  The video features the boys rehearsing their dance steps, spliced together with insertions of some impressive moves.

This tune reached #3 on the British pop charts. At this point, Boyzone was on their way. They became teen idols in Ireland and the U.K., and continued to find success in both record sales and European tours. After a few years in the spotlight, Ronan Keating began to write original songs for Boyzone.

For a few more years, Boyzone continued their run of success. Meat Loaf covered one of Keating’s tunes, and tenor Luciano Pavarotti joined the boys in an Italian tour. After that, the results were predictable. Creative differences arose between members of the group. Ronan Keating began issuing solo records.

In 1999, the band announced that they were “taking a break to pursue solo projects.” Then in 2008, Boyzone re-united and toured during 2008 and 2009. However, in Oct. 2009 Stephen Gately died suddenly in Majorca.

Following Gately’s death, the remaining four Boyzone members have reunited for a few more tours and a couple of albums. They continued to have remarkable success in Ireland, the U.K. and Europe, although they never made a dent in the American market.

I never fail to marvel at the success of the “boy band” concept. These groups invariably follow the same playbook – an ad for male singers in a trade magazine, followed by auditions, then a choice of band members (using exactly the same “cookie cutter” method for selecting various desired characteristics – a hunky bass, a couple of teen idols, a rebel, a nerd, all pretty good dancers), and endless coaching on vocal styles, ensemble dancing, and charisma. Then a record release accompanied by breathless publicity, young teen girls screaming at their performances, and establishment as teen idols.

It is remarkable how many times this hackneyed formula has worked. In some cases the Svengali entrepreneur has formed a second or even third boy band using exactly the same formula. In a few instances I enjoy the songs, even though it is easy to see the hand of the puppet-master behind the product.

Oh well, Boyzone had a successful run, they are decent singers, and the four surviving members continue to perform today. We wish them all the best.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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