"Bob Crewe is the most underrated and overlooked writer/producer of the '60s . . . in my opinion, what makes a great producer is the amount of careers he can put in motion . . . Bob Crewe has been responsible for my career, as well as (those of) Frankie Valli, The Four Seasons, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, Freddy Cannon, Billy and Lillie, The Rays and countless other people. His creative ability, his creative style and his originality have never been equalled . . . I learned the art of record-making from him. He truly is a real genius!"
The Bob Crewe Era
by Donny Jacobs
Bob Crewe In The Studio
No matter how late Crewe stayed up reveling with celebrity friends, he stayed focused on work. The next day would invariably find him piecing together the latest release by The Four Seasons or whoever else he was producing at the time. His productions were always a patchwork affair; seldom did he ever cut songs "live" with all his musicians in the same room. The musical overdub was his favorite tool to use in the studio. He liked to spend a lot of time on details: A harp flourish here, a harmonica part there, a drum roll, a flamenco guitar riff, a weird sound effect, a dramatic pause. Those details were often as important as the basic track, if not more, and they were essential to his production style.
Arranger/producer Charlie Calello stresses that Crewe never began a recording session without first laying out his vision. "Before we would go into the studio, (Bob) would have other records as reference points and (he'd) explain how he wanted his song to sound. He would say that he liked the rhythm on one record, the strings on another . . . when he heard the concept in the studio, he would continue to make changes and adjust it until (he got) what he wanted." Crewe would move parts of a track to an earlier or later point on tape, or repeat it over and over again. "His energy was always 'up', and he constantly came up with different ideas that would shape the record," Calello says. "If there was one thing I learned from Bob Crewe, it was (that) 'the impossible takes just a bit longer'."
Anyone who observed Crewe at work couldn't help but come away impressed by his creative ability, especially once they realized he could neither read nor play music. Drummer Mark "Moogy" Klingman was one such person; in the Spring of 1968, Crewe produced a critically-acclaimed album for his band, The Glitterhouse. "Bob Crewe was a creative genius in the recording studio," Klingman writes on his website, moogymusic.com. "He depended totally on inspiration, and would always invent ideas on the spot. With The Glitterhouse, he mostly rearranged (our) songs as (we) would record them. He'd come up with ideas for vocal arrangements, and would often sing on the background vocals . . . he was the kind of record producer that turned every act into a Bob Crewe Sound. He was a bit like Phil Spector in that respect."
The most important facet of the Bob Crewe Sound was rhythm. His records always boasted strong melody lines, but what you remembered most about them was the driving sound of those tambourines, those castanets, those tack pianos, those chimes, those handclappings and fingerpops, and especially those floor boards he used for foot stomping! A couple of years after his Four Seasons productions made that stomp famous, producers Holland, Dozier and Holland borrowed it to great effect for Diana Ross and The Supremes' early hits.
Sound engineer George Schowerer recalls how painstakingly Crewe labored over his rhythm tracks. "Working with Bob was certainly an education," he says. "He could devise so many overdubs, I had to map out what I was doing in order to keep things in perspective . . . Bob would add multiple tracks of tambourines, hand claps and foot stomps. (This) was a habit he used as far back as Freddie Cannon's first songs." Crewe was relentless when it came to finding novel percussive sounds; danceability was of primary importance to him. If making a track more danceable meant using an African "hairy" drum on "Rag Doll" or hammering a radiator under the opening chords of "Jenny Take A Ride", he'd do so without hesitation. "Without a good backbone," he once said, "you ain't got nothin'!"
More often than not, that backbone was the habanera, the Cuban refrain that dominated Rock 'n' Roll in the early 1960s. It pulsed beneath Crewe's songs like a heartbeat; you can hear it in The Four Seasons' "Walk Like A Man", Diane Renay's "Navy Blue", The Walker Brothers' "Everything Under The Sun" and Oliver's "Good Morning, Starshine." You can even find it in "Okefenokee" and other Crewe/Slay productions for Freddy Cannon. No producer cut Rock 'n' Roll tangos more often or more expertly than Bob Crewe did.
He wasn't a one-trick pony when it came to Latin rhythms, though; The Four Seasons' recordings of "Let's Hang On!" and "Workin' My Way Back To You" proved he could swing a mean boogaloo, The Bob Crewe Generation's "Music To Watch Girls By" is a fine adaptation of the cha-cha-chá, Tracey Dey's "Ska-Doo-Dee-Ya" is a credible stab at Jamaican dance music, and Frankie Valli's immortal "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" is very likely the best bossa nova ever recorded. It also happens to be the fifth most performed song of the 20th century! Some producers considered Latin elements nothing more than seasoning, but Bob Crewe was one who understood how essential they were to making commercial Rock records.
While he may have had a knack for catchy rhythm arrangements, his lack of musical training obliged him to let professional arrangers handle strings and horns. Sid Bass was his first orchestrator, a veteran from the Freddy Cannon sessions. When he wasn't available to work on "Walk Like A Man" in 1963, one of The Seasons' former sidemen pinch hit at the session. Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio liked Charlie Calello's more contemporary approach to their music, and engaged him as their full-time music director. Crewe ended up being so pleased with Calello's work, he started using him full-time, too.
"Charlie idolized (conductor) Don Costa," Crewe recalled in 1996. "He never thought he'd be as good, (but) I told him that one day, his name would be just as respected." His stellar work with The Seasons made Crewe's prediction come true; in later years, Calello would conduct music for Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra and many other stars. He was a fixture on all Bob Crewe dates until 1966, when he became a producer in his own right and started logging hits with Shirley Ellis, Lou Christie and other artists. Following his departure, Crewe split arranger duties between Herb Bernstein, Artie Schroek and Bob "Hutch" Davie. Their ambitious charts brought new textures and nuances to his productions; he used their ideas like colors in a painting.
Similarly, he used musicians as paintbrushes, and just as an artist buys the best equipment he can afford, much of his recording budget was spent on great session players. The men he would later record as the Bob Crewe Generation included keyboardist Dick Hyman, bassists Louie Mauro and Chuck Rainey, and guitarists Vinnie Bell, Al Gorgoni, Charles Macey and Eric Gale. Buddy Saltzman was the drummer Crewe used most often, but legendary New York sessionman Gary Chester also played skins for him. Concert master Gene Orloff was his string contractor, trumpet legend Bernie Glow led his brass sections, and George Devens handled percussion instruments. Crewe played percussion, too; the tambourine clashes and foot stomps heard on his productions were almost always his own handiwork.
Crewe's sessions weren't all-male affairs, though; he was partial to female backing voices. By 1964, he'd hired Ellie Greenwich as his regular vocal contractor. "(She) had access to every good singer in New York!," he raved years later. He considered Greenwich the best singer of all, and insisted that she work on as many of his studio dates as she could. Sometimes, he even had her harmonize with The Four Seasons! "I think everybody wanted (backing vocalists) who sounded like Ellie Greenwich or Dusty Springfield, really, overdubbed versions of those voices. That was the sound that was happening." Most often, he used La Greenwich in a trio that included session stalwarts Mikey Harris and Jeannie Thomas. Popularly known as "Les Girls" in New York musicians' circles, this group sometimes added a fourth singer like Valerie Simpson or Patti Austin. Girl Group vets Bernadette Carroll, Denise Ferri and Peggy Santiglia also sang background for Crewe, as did ensembles like The Glitterhouse, The Hi-Fashions and The Toys on occasion.
Every producer has his favorite recording sites, and Bob Crewe was no exception. In the 1950s, he and Frank Slay, Jr. liked to record acts at Allegro Sound Studios on Broadway. In the '60s, his favorite studio was Stea-Phillips, located inside New York's Abbey Victoria hotel. (Legend has it that the hotel caught fire while Crewe was cutting "Walk Like A Man", and he refused to leave the studio until he'd gotten a perfect take!) Olmsted Studios on 40th Street was his second favorite place to record. Sometimes, he'd take his crew over to Atlantic Records' studio where Tom Dowd would record them on his famous eight-track console. At other times, he'd book Bell Sound or A & R Recording to get the crisp, clean sound those studios were famous for. Crewe's preferred sound engineers were Gordon Clark, Bill McMeekin, Harry Yarmark and George Schowerer, who began working with him at Allegro in the late '50s.
The Labels That Had To Happen
Bob Crewe's involvement with his product didn't end at the studio door. As stated earlier, he was actively involved in promoting the records. He also managed the careers of some of his acts, and often, he put his artistic talents to use designing their album sleeves. What with the promotion, the producing, the songwriting, the publishing, the managing, the nightclubbing and his various art-related activities, he hardly had time to sleep! Yet somehow, he still wasn't busy enough: he decided to start yet another new label. However, unlike his previous enterprises, this venture would meet with considerable success.
In December of 1964, Bob and Dan Crewe cut a distribution deal with the Amy/Mala complex (forerunner of the BMG Music-affilated Arista company) and founded DynoVoice Records. Along with a sister label, New Voice, this imprint would be the outlet for product by The Toys, Eddie Rambeau, Norma Tanega, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Chicago Loop and a rather well-known studio aggregation called The Bob Crewe Generation. It would also issue movie soundtracks, the best-known being one for Barbarella, the infamous 1968 science-fiction farce starring Jane Fonda.
Of course, Crewe was too busy to do all the A & R work, so he mainly served as executive producer. DynoVoice sessions were run by capable associates like Charlie Calello, Herb Bernstein, Linzer and Randell, Al Kasha, Larry Weiss, Pete Antell, Gary Knight and Bob Gaudio. Mitch Ryder was his most consistent hitmaker, but the DynoVoice catalog also contains memorable one-off bestsellers like "A Lover's Concerto", "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog", "Concrete And Clay" and the quintessential '60s instrumental "Music To Watch Girls By". It also boasts a sizable number of non-charting cult items like "Barbarella's Theme" by The Glitterhouse, Maggie Thrett's "Soupy", Diane Renay's "The Company You Keep" and Lainie Hill's "Time Marches On". Crewe's twin imprints had a good two-year run, but diminishing returns finally closed them down in December of 1968.
The brothers Crewe immediately jumped into another recording venture, The Crewe Group of Companies. This was an umbrella corporation that operated a trio of labels: CGC, Maxwell and (inevitably) Crewe. Their artist rosters included Ben E. King, Lesley Gore, Oliver, the Soul group Faith, Hope And Charity, and The Bob Crewe Generation, along with obscure acts like The Crosstown Children, The Rationals and The Toads. Predictably, the Crewe Group failed to duplicate the success of DynoVoice Records, but it stayed in business long enough to launch some more careers.
Faith, Hope And Charity crashed R & B radio playlists with a record called "So Much Love", produced by future Disco King Van McCoy. A follow-up, "Baby, Don't Take Your Love", also did brisk sales. The act would go on to have an even more successful run on RCA Victor. Over on the Pop side, singer/songwriter Oliver made himself at home in Billboard's Top Ten countdown. Bob Crewe plucked William Swofford out of a struggling Country/Rock band and named him after the smash Broadway musical written by his friend Lionel Bart. Royalties from Crewe's shimmering productions of Oliver singing "Good Morning, Starshine" (from the Broadway musical Hair), and "Jean" (from the Oscar-winning movie The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie) kept the cash-strapped Crewe Group afloat until mid-1971. Their respective releases in the Spring and Summer of 1969 capped off a decade of marvelous recorded work.
The Disco Years
It's not surprising that Bob Crewe scored several big Disco hits in the '70s; it was all but inevitable that he would. Clearly, his '60s productions anticipated Disco music; they're the missing link that falls between Cameo-Parkway's dance novelties and Motown's big beat concertos. All three styles form part of a direct line which connects the mambo and the cha-cha-chá to the Bump and the Hustle.
Crewe's tickets to dance music immortality were the glam Rock trio LaBelle, who rode his Creole hooker fantasy "Lady Marmalade" to the top of the charts in 1974; Frankie Valli, for whom he wrote and produced the 1975 club classic "Swearin' To God"; The Eleventh Hour, with whom he waxed the cult favorite "Hollywood Hot" (1975), a revamped Bob Crewe Generation, who came back strong with "Street Talk"(1976); and the infamous Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes, for whom he crafted the high camp anthem of 1974, "Get Dancin'". His Disco Tex LP is revered by dance music aficionados; a concept album revolving around the androgynous stage persona of former Las Vegas headliner Sir Monti Rock III, it features guest vocals by Sugarloaf's Jerry Corbetta, Crewe's new songwriting partners Kenny Nolan and Cindy Bullens, old friend Freddy Cannon, and '60s beach movie soundtrack singer Lu Ann Simms. Without a doubt, this was the wildest party Crewe ever staged on wax.
As important as the aforementioned records are to Disco music, Bob Crewe made his most significant contribution to the genre not as a producer, but as an organizer. After moving to Hollywood in the mid-70s, he co-founded the Los Angeles Deejay Pool. In his book Turn The Beat Around, Disco historian Peter Shapiro explains the significance of these organizations: "The idea was that the record companies could save money by sending promotional material to one centralized office (and) the deejays would get all the new records without . . . being rejected because their club wasn't (considered) important enough." By ensuring that the best dance records would be heard in a large number of discothèques, deejay pools facilitated Disco's transition from an underground phenomenon to the cultural explosion that it became. As always, Bob Crewe was primarily interested in promoting his own product, but with LADP, he helped foment a musical revolution in the process.
Even though his hit streak extended into the '70s, that decade was not a particularly happy one for him. He endured a rocky tenure as a Motown Records staff producer, where he clashed creatively with Berry Gordy, Jr. Later, he struggled with writer's block and alcohol addiction. At one particularly low point, he got drunk and destroyed all the music industry awards he'd accumulated over the years. An attempt to revive his dormant singing career in 1977 nearly ended his life; shortly after longtime mentor Jerry Wexler produced a new album for him in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Crewe fell victim to a crippling hit-and-run car accident. The crime was never solved, and many months of slow, painful rehabilitation followed.
He overcame his obstacles and re-emerged in the '80s, writing new material with Jerry Corbetta, and grooming fresh talent under the auspices of CC Trax, a new production company. In 1985, he answered Ellie Greenwich's call to produce the cast album of Leader Of The Pack, a Broadway musical about her life and career. The two-record set was nominated for a Grammy award. That same year, Crewe was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. Since then, he's chosen to concentrate on various multimedia art projects. He operates his own art studio in Los Angeles and stages regular exhibits of his paintings and sculptures. He's also busy writing an autobiography. The details of his fascinating life would make one Hell of a musical! Chances are the 75-year-old renaissance man will live to see himself in a starring role on the Great White Way. If so, it won't be the first time.
Bob Crewe On Broadway
For decades, Bob Crewe's name was known only in art and music business circles, but that changed in 2005. That's the year a show called Jersey Boys opened on Broadway. In this Tony Award-winning musical drama, based on the memoirs of Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, Crewe was revealed as the eccentric genius whose production wizardry propelled The Four Seasons to superstardom. Actor Peter Gregus' flamboyant portrayal also had the effect of "outing" Crewe as a bisexual man. An open secret inside the music business, Bob Crewe's sexual orientation was something fans of his work had long speculated about. The LGBT community was eager to finally acknowledge someone so richly accomplished as one of its own; Crewe's recognition as a Gay icon was long overdue.
Purely by coincidence, he's had occasion to work with several talented Gay and bisexual musicians over the years, including Sir Monti Rock III, Lesley Gore, Norma Tanega and Mitch Ryder. He didn't need LesBiGay artists in the studio to create music with a Gay sensibility, though; the arch-camp appeal of certain waxings by The Shepherd Sisters ("Don't Mention My Name") The Four Seasons ("New Mexican Rose"), their alter-egos The Wonder Who? ("Don't Think Twice"), Tracey Dey ("Jerry") and, in particular, Diane Renay ("Kiss Me, Sailor"), are certainly proof of that! These delightful kinds of recordings are what caused many a Gay Pop/Rock fan to suspect that Bob Crewe was a kindred spirit.
They've also led some people to think of Bob Crewe as a King of Kitsch, Rock 'n' Roll's equivalent of an Andy Warhol or a John Waters. That's hardly an accurate assessment. They've mistaken embellishment for exaggeration! Crewe approached musicmaking every bit as seriously as his contemporaries did; he just had a highly theatrical style. That style involved injecting a generous dose of humor into his songs when appropriate. It also involved giving records a larger-than-life quality, which all of his best productions have. His body of work reflects great conceptual vision, and would make any musician proud. What makes it all the more remarkable is the fact that Bob Crewe isn't a musician! He's a gifted audio-visual artist who possesses the power to dazzle you, regardless of which medium he chooses to work in.
What an amazing résumé he has! Singer, songwriter, producer, publisher, painter, sculptor, celebrity host, fashion model, consultant, entrepreneur and now, author . . . it's almost like he's lived several lifetimes at once. What new vistas beckon him? What creative challenge will he take on next? His many admirers can hardly wait to find out.
ELLIE GREENWICH with BOB CREWE
words and music by Bob Crewe, Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell,
copyright ©1964 EMI Longitude Music (BMI). All photos courtesy of George Schowerer.
words and music by Bob Crewe, Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell,
copyright ©1964 EMI Longitude Music (BMI). All photos courtesy of George Schowerer.
Special thanks to Charlie Calello, Ellie Greenwich, Laura Pinto, George Schowerer and Michael V. Skeen