March 29, 2017 Interview – Lee Shapiro of The Hit Men
Music can re-energize the senses. In fact, no matter how far removed, almost instantly upon re-introduction, we can be transported back to the time and place when we first heard a particular song. Re-capturing the powerful magic of it all, Lee Shapiro leads an all-star band consisting of Lead Guitarist/Vocalist Jimmy Ryan, Bassist/Vocalist Jeff Ganz, Keyboardist/Percussionist/Vocalist Russ Velazquez, and Drummer/Vocalist Steve Murphy who come together calling themselves The Hit Men.
Who exactly are The Hit Men? Collectively, they are a group of musicians who have worked hand in hand with Frankie Valli, Carly Simon, Tommy James, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Cheap Trick , Elton John, Paul McCartney, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, Blood Sweat & Tears, and many, many more.
Unifying their years of experience, they bring audiences around the USA live shows that are authentic as well as entertaining. Recently we sat down with Lee Shapiro to talk his time as part of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, his relationship with Frankie Valli, the idea behind The Hit Men, the will to succeed, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in music for over four decades now, and in that time you have worked with Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, among many others. First tell us, what has this incredible journey been like?
Lee Shapiro – At the time, I started it when I was a kid, it was just all happening. Interestingly enough, as I started to look back on it, it almost looks like you could plot it on a little life map. It seems to all make sense. There’s no way you could have planned what I did, but when I looked back and I can see the trip. It’s been quite something in retrospect. At the time, it’s just your life going by, but when you look back, you go, “Oh my goodness, look at all these people that I got to work with in the field I chose.”
CrypticRock.com – It has to be a surreal feeling looking back in retrospect, for sure. You joined up with Frankie Valli back in 1973 and you were only nineteen at the time. Being so young, what was that experience like becoming part of such a legendary Rock band?
Lee Shapiro – Well, what it was, Bob Gaudio, as depicted in Jersey Boys, he was no longer going to tour. The band hadn’t had a hit in a while; they were touring successfully, but they weren’t on the radio. They were looking to get a younger group of guys together so they could compete in the ’70s version of the Pop industry, like opposed to the ’60s when they were so successful.
I went down, auditioned, and the rest of the band was there. Joey Long was kind of running the business end of it. He was an original Four Season with Frankie. Joey had called me. When I went down there and Frankie walked in at the rehearsal, I was 19 and I was like “Oh my god, that’s the guy.” He put music in front of me, which happened to be “Dawn,” and he said, “Can you play this?” I put my hands on the keys, played, and he sang “Pretty as a midsummer’s morn’ They call her…” I stopped and he looked at me and said, “What’s the matter?” I said, “Man, you sound just like the radio.” Everybody laughed at me, I was only 19, but it was quite something.
CrypticRock.com – That sounds like a very cool first impression. You are a key component of the fantastic, 1975’s Who Loves You, as well as 1977’s Helicon. What was it like working in the studio with Frankie and the rest of the band arranging these songs together?
Lee Shapiro – It was an amazing experience, that I sold myself to the Seasons, as not only would I play keyboards, but I would also do the arranging. That is because, most of the reason why they would be replacing with me, is that every time they wanted to do a new song that was an arranger. they had to keep coming back to the city and have the great Charlie Calello (the original arranger of the Four Seasons), who is also a mentor of mine, do charts. They wanted to be able to put a new song in somewhere in Montana, then they would have to come all the way to the east coast again. They hired me and they called me on it, when we hit the studio to do those records, they let me do whatever I wanted. I just couldn’t believe it.
The first project I did was the strings for Who Loves You album. I had sixteen violins and cellos in front of me. Gaudio was behind the glass at the console, I raised my hands, the track starts, everybody started playing, and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. They played it perfectly. We went and did it a couple of times, then Gaudio said, “Ok, that’s a take.” He never told me to change anything, I couldn’t believe it! I was very amazed, flattered, and rewarded beyond what I could describe of being in a recording session with a live string session, with a hit writer/producer, and a star singer literally from Glen Rock, New Jersey (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – That is a fantastic story. Those albums, and the songs that made up those albums, really launched the band back onto the radio. It brought the Four Seasons into present time sounds of the ’70s, it was a pivotal time for the band.
Lee Shapiro – Without any question, and that was the intention. I have to say to Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli’s credit, they are business partners, they are the Four Seasons as far as on a business level. Nobody would sign them, so they went and spent their own money and made Who Loves You. They took it around like someone who had never had a hit. These people were coming off of millions and millions of hits, but the record industry is a cruel thing. They took it around and finally Mike Curb had a subsidiary label at Warner Brothers, it was called Warners Curb. He heard it and he believed in it. They took off having made the investment themselves. They proved that if you believe in something and someone tells you no, simply ask someone else. They are living proof of how that can be successful.
CrypticRock.com – That is quite inspiring for sure. Since your time in the Four Seasons, you have been still very active in music and you have your band The Hit Men. What inspired the formation of The Hit Men?
Lee Shapiro – Jersey Boys inspired the formation of The Hit Men. I’ve been friends with Frankie for 40 years. When he’s in town, I will go over to a session and hang out. I did that about 6 years ago; he was in the city and was dealing with Jersey Boys recording.
I said, “You know Frankie, through all these years with all of my different adventures with Barry Manilow, Tommy James, and everybody else, everyone asks me the same question. Why don’t you get the guys together and do a Four Seasons thing with the success of Jersey Boys?” So I asked him, “Hey Frank, what do you think if I do this?” At that point, I was in my late ’50s, I had other successes, and this is something I think I’d like to revisit. He was very supportive, he said, “Sure man, go on and do it, you can do it. You were one of the Four Seasons, there’s no restrictions.”
So I paid $1,200 to a local club in Teaneck, NJ to let us do The Hit Men and play in their club. We played one more job, we lost money, in NYC at BB Kings Club because they put us in a Monday night on Christmas week. The only important part about that, our now current agent there that night, he came over and said, “You know, I think I could really launch you guys if you are willing to make this more of a hobby.” We said, “Sure, we will give it a shot.” Now we are in our seventh year and we do fifty dates a year. Since then, it’s taken on a life of it’s own.
CrypticRock.com – That is fantastic. The Hit Men are comprised of a great group of seasoned musicians. The band has been touring regularly all over the country as you stated. What can one expect from a night out seeing The Hit Men?
Lee Shapiro – This is our little catch phrase, and it’s prepared, but I’m going to say it to you anyway, “We guarantee people who come to see our show will leave the show happier and younger than when they got there.” There’s nothing to discuss, we absolutely time travel and transport our audience back to the ’70s. What we do is we play the songs the way we recorded them, the way we toured and played them. Our song list is made up of the hit songs that we either created ourselves, participated in, or toured with the artists. While we are playing them, we have a video of ourselves playing them back in the day. For instance, we do “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” which I was on and did the arranging on, and projected behind the band is me with Frankie and the original band from The Midnight Special in 1977 playing the song.
The experience is more than just hearing the songs, you hear the songs authentically, we don’t have backing tracks, we don’t have pre-records. It’s a 5 piece band, sometimes 8 piece with our horn section. We play the songs the way we played them and the guys are the best singers I’ve ever heard. The history of it, nostalgically, is depicted in the video and the stories that we tell are not scripted because we were there. If I tell you a Frankie Valli story or how the song “Mony Mony” came to be and how Tommy James wrote it, that’s cause we were either there or the artist told us. It makes it a very spontaneous, but honest evening.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like a really great time. Regardless of one’s age, a lot of these songs are classic songs and everyone knows these tracks.
Lee Shapiro – It is interesting, my parents’ version of a standard was Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, and Tony Bennett, who is thankfully still with us. Our version of standards now are the very songs I played such as “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” and “Hanky Panky.” Maybe the younger generation will have standards like N’Sync and people in their ’30s will remember Spice Girls. It speaks to your youth, what happens is my daughter grew up in a house where this stuff was played. She knows all the songs too and she’s in her ’30s. It’s truly for all ages and family, it really is.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed completely. Many people in their thirties and forties grew up with this music being played in their home. It is something you can connect with, regardless if you were of age when the music was being made.
Lee Shapiro – Sure, many people in their thirties and forties love The Beatles, then there’s a whole bunch the same age who have no idea who The Beatles are. It depends on if you are the oldest child or the youngest in your family as to what you heard.
CrypticRock.com – That is true. You had mentioned working with Tommy James; also a great musician. What was it like working with him?
Lee Shapiro – I met Tommy because when I joined Frankie we were doing Madison Square Garden with a show that was headlined by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the next act was Jay Black and The Americans, and the actual first opening act was Tommy James and the Shondells. This is the early ’70s, and I got to know Tommy as a really nice guy. After I left the Four Seasons in 1980, I got a call and he was doing a tour. I went out with him for a year and a half and toured as one of the Shondells quietly, he was a breeze.
Tommy is the kind of talent that isn’t taught. He taught himself to play guitar, he sang like he sang, he wrote the songs he wrote, the whole thing just spilled out like that. When we rehearsed, it was much different than Frankie. Frankie’s music is charted, if you don’t play the parts it doesn’t sound like the song. Tommy’s songs are much more Rock influenced in that it’s a jam. If you listen to “Mony Mony” or “Hanky Panky,” they are jam Rock-n-Roll. It was very lighthearted, fun, and spontaneous. Tommy is a really nice man.
CrypticRock.com – It seems like you have so many great stories to tell and you actually have a video series called Stories From The Road. Can we expect more of these videos as time goes by?
Lee Shapiro – We’ve got four stories from the road out there, we are going to do it as a series. Right now, we’ve got Jimmy Ryan basically telling about his experience playing on the records with Jim Croce; he did it in honor of what would have been Jim Croce’s 74th birthday. The next one, I am telling about the time that we were playing Radio City Music Hall and I noticed that Frankie Valli’s fly was open. People go to the YouTube page and find that one, it’s a lot of fun. One of the more recently ones is Jimmy Ryan telling about the time that he’s in the studio with Carly Simon, he was her musical director for 20 years. As they are doing background vocals, Paul McCartney walked into the studio.
Then there’s another one coming out depicting Russ Velazquez’s experience of singing on Broadway, going, and being called back by the producer to go to the office. He walks in and there’s David Bowie, who had attended the show and wanted to talk to him. These things really happened and you can see the video of us depicting them and telling them all about it with some images from the day of the stars we were talking about it. Honestly, we are the only guys that can tell these stories because we are the guys that made them.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds really compelling. These are stories people love hearing. Seeing your vast experience as a touring musician, what are some of the more valuable lessons you have learned from life on the road?
Lee Shapiro – I have learned many things. The first one is from Frankie Valli – if you believe in what you are doing and it’s not going well, stick with it, because you gotta do what you believe in. He’s living proof, this man has had four careers. He had the ’60s and then it died. Then he had the ’70s, then it died. He had a solo career and that went away. Then he had Jersey Boys, and the man is 80 years old and he’s out playing! I think his philosophy is right, if you got a good product and you believe in it and it’s your calling, don’t be quick to give up when times get rough. Pursue, that’s number 1.
Number 2 came from a very odd source. With all the Rock-n-Roll people I’ve worked with, Barry Manilow, Tony Orlando, Tommy James, and a lot of these wonderful people, the greatest advice came to me from The Amazing Kreskin. The Amazing Kreskin is probably about eighty-two now. He used to be a mainstay on The Tonight Show back in the ’70s. He’s a mentalist, he is a guy who does sleight of hand and also does mental tricks. I met him doing a project for a talking book of his called Mental Power is Real and he said to me, “Lee, if you ask someone to believe in your dream and they don’t, ask someone else.” I have kept that with me for 20 odd years.
Between Frankie telling me to stay with it, and I watched him go all the way up and all the way down, and Kreskin telling me, “If you have a dream and they don’t believe in it to ask someone else,” it compelled me. I’ve never had an office job, I’ve always been able to find something I can do creatively, believe in it, and push it forward.
CrypticRock.com – That is really great and inspiring. These are all obstacles all of us face. We all face naysayers telling us our dreams are unrealistic. The truth is, sticking with something does work if you believe in it.
Lee Shapiro – And I will tell you something else, you got to be honest with yourself while you are on your quest. If you need help, and you are not sure of something, ask somebody. You don’t have to be a one man show. If you believe in your way over the person you asked, that’s acceptable too. There’s a difference in being motivated as well as committed and stubborn, you have to be honest with yourself – “I’m just letting my ego aside that I know this or do I really know this?” You have to kind of be the observer, step out of your situation, turn around, and look back at it as though you were observing it. I think you will find the answers there that would be more objective than just protecting your opinion.
CrypticRock.com – Completely agreed. It is a delicate balance of sticking with your points, but also being open to others because you may take something very interesting from that and apply it to what you are doing.
Lee Shapiro – And you don’t even know how it is going to influence you, but it will. After I left the road in the late ’80s and the ’90s, mostly I had a jingle company in New York; I was doing commercials for NBC, Coca Cola, etc, and it got to be slow. We were doing a lot of toy commercials, and then it occurred to me that the toys I was doing music for were particularly fun. My partner and I at the time figured what was the most famous and successful to, and turned out it was Tickle Me Elmo.
We were working for Fisher Price doing music for toys, and we had an idea, everybody told us, “You can’t be an inventor and do music for Mattel. You have to get on their inventor list.” Mattel owned Fisher Price, they told us they will not accept outside submissions. My personality is, when you tell me I can’t do something, that’s the nicest thing you could do for me.
Meanwhile, we made a little prototype for about $50 and I walked it over to the toy building which was down the street from where my office/studio was, we got a meeting, and they bought the damn thing. It was Rock & Roll Elmo and it sold four million pieces worldwide, it was bigger than any music project I had ever done. All because we believed that Elmo should play Rock-n-Roll, he was the biggest character of the day, we brought it in and they believed our dream.
CrypticRock.com – That is a fantastic story about vision and perseverance.
Lee Shapiro – It’s true, and it’s the biggest success of my entire career so far, that I invented Rock & Roll Elmo.
CrypticRock.com – (laughs) Who would have thought that, right?
Lee Shapiro – Yeah, really and honestly, I have been investing all along since then. I have some inventions now that are being considered by major distributors. That was certainly the biggest success I’ve ever had and yet it’s kind of like a little bit of an addiction that’s got me hooked. I’m still presenting to toy companies even though I’m still performing and recording as a Hit Man, I can’t get it out of my system. I have some things, hopefully by next year I will be able to make an announcement because I’m in contractual negotiations with a big distributor for a product that I have invented and patented. It’s slated to come next year, that’s all I’ll say about it. I’ll tell you something, everyday is another opportunity to do something exciting.
CrypticRock.com – There is no question. It will be exciting to see the product once it is released. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of the genres, what are some of your all-time favorites?
Lee Shapiro – I do and I am not so much Horror, but Science Fiction and science fact absolutely intrigue me. I am addicted to Ancient Aliens. The whole original Star Wars series from back in my day in the ’70s was scored with the master John Williams.
One of the key moments in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is when the mother ship lands and they are communicating. They have the guy with his synthesizer and he’s communicating through musical tones. Even though they are doing it visibly and visually with a guy on a synthesizer keyboard communicating with the mother ship, the audio John Williams chose uses a symphony orchestra playing the tones. It’s exactly the reverse of what’s usually done.
Usually people are synthesizing the sound of the orchestra because they don’t have the budget or because they think they can get away with it. Here, a perfect opportunity to use a synthesizer, and John Williams decides to use an orchestra to make the sounds. I thought that was the most clever moment in that kind of scoring.
CrypticRock.com – It is inventive. It is definitely different, and it made for a classic scene. It is just amazing how music in general can elevate the atmosphere of a movie, particularly in Horror and Science Fiction.
Lee Shapiro – Well look at Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) or Psycho (1960) without sound and see what you think. You need the sound. You need those high strings in the shower scene; it’s part of it with blood going down the drain and the whole bit. It’s an incredible thing. It’s a gift and it’s an art unto itself to be a film scorer.
I would have to say music, art direction, and lighting is half the battle in Sci-Fi. If it is not visually stimulating or tension causing, then it doesn’t matter how weird it is. Proof of that is how some of the most amazing Sci-Fi and Horror flicks have taken place in a room. Some of the most dramatic movies themselves have taken place in a room and you are riveted by it because how they staged it, lit it, and scored it.
The Hit Men Tour Dates:
4-1-17 Scottsdale Performing Arts Center Scottsdale, AZ
4-6-17 Cole Auditorium Hamlet, NC
4-20-17 Main Street Crossing Tomball, TX
4-21-17 Brauntex Theatre New Braunfels, TX
4-22-17 Palace Theatre Corsicana, TX
4-28-17 F.M. Kirby Center Wilkes-Barre, PA
4-29-17 Bergen Performing Arts Center Englewood, NJ
5-6-17 Niswonger Performing Arts Center Van Wert, OH
5-7-17 Arcada Theater St. Charles, IL
5-12-17 Three Rivers Casino Florence, OR
5-13-17 Three Rivers Casino Florence, OR
6-17-17 Martin Lipscomb Performing Arts Center Highlands, NC
7-20-17 The Axelrod PAC Deal, NJ
Stay tuned for additional dates to span throughout 2017