"I'm not exactly sure when I met Bob Crewe, but we always saw each other around the business from the very beginning. (We) had an affinity for each other (and) still do! He was a joy to work with on all levels . . . he's a perfectionist, he's open to any outside ideas, he really knows what he wants and gets it, and most of all, he is passionate about what he does. He puts all of himself into everything he touches . . . I always loved and still do love Bob! I can go on and on about this talented gentleman, and he is just that: A 'gentle man'."
The Bob Crewe Era
by Don Charles Hampton
The Golden Boy
"(Bob Crewe) was the most incredibly handsome man I had ever met," says '60s Pop singer Diane Renay, interviewed recently on the website chachacharming.com. "He exuded talent, culture and sexuality . . . people just seemed to gather around him and follow him wherever he went. When he walked into a room, his presence was like a magnet . . . you know how kids in elementary school are often asked to write a paper about the most unforgettable character they have ever met? Well, Bob Crewe was it for me." Given his tremendous sex appeal, impeccable fashion sense and dynamic personality, Ms. Renay's feelings are probably typical of most of the ladies who've met Crewe . . . and a few of the fellas, too!
He's one of those people with so much going for them, it seems unfair! The kind of handsome face that reminds you of a matinee idol. The kind of sex appeal that leaves you breathless. The kind of charisma that immediately makes him the center of attention. The kind of drive that takes him to the top of a profession. The kind of talent that leaves his colleagues awestruck; plus the ability to recognize and cultivate talent in others. The one thing Bob Crewe doesn't have is stardom; though he tried hard to have a successful singing career, he never got the right breaks. However, with his genius for cranking out hit records, he could create stars, and did so on a regular basis. Diane Renay, Mitch Ryder, Oliver, Freddy Cannon, The Rays and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons all number among his protegés.
The lyricist responsible for such unforgettable titles as "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", "Rag Doll", "Lady Marmalade", "Silence Is Golden," "Tallahassee Lassie", "Big Girls Don't Cry", "My Eyes Adored You", "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", "Walk Like A Man" and "Sihouettes", Bob Crewe was one of Rock 'n' Roll's biggest assets in its early years. He wrote and published songs, he managed and produced artists, and he ran several record companies. He was a contemporary of legendary music men like Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Phil Spector. With them, he helped lay a foundation for the popular music we hear today. If there were a Bob Crewe theme song, it surely would be "Goin' Places," a bombastic number he wrote in 1964. The lyrics say: He's tough/Knows his stuff/'Cause he's a push, push, push, push-on baby!* They go on to praise a success-oriented dude who's a money-maker and record-breaker. That describes Crewe in a nutshell. Anyone who met him as a young man would've predicted that he was the kind of guy who'd be "goin' places" in a hurry . . . and they would've been right.
He was born Stanley Robert Crewe on November 12, 1931 in Newark, New Jersey. As a child, he showed great aptitude in both music and art, and his career would proceed along those twin tracks. He loved classical music and Jazz, especially Swing, and despite having no formal musical training, he developed into a competent Pop singer. An amateur poet, he also dabbled in songwriting; he came up with original melodies that others would transcribe for him.
As a teenager, Crewe studied at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. He turned his back on a promising career in architecture for a chance to tour Europe as a USO entertainer. After his return to the United States, music took a backseat as he parlayed his movie-star looks into a stint as a top male model. The Clint Eastwood look-alike appeared in dozens of magazine spreads and TV commercials during the late 1940s and early '50s. At the same time, he cultivated reputations as both a gifted painter and a savvy interior decorating consultant. Opportunities to cut vocal records were also flowing in his direction. So Bob Crewe had several bright career options to pursue, but music ultimately won his heart.
Bob Crewe In Philadelphia
He cut singles for Brunswick, Melba, RCA's Vik subsidiary and other labels in the early '50s, but none of them made an impact. He found himself competing in a Pop music market that was in the midst of a sea change. An exciting sound called Rock 'n' Roll had burst upon the scene. As a vocalist, Crewe was firmly Jazz-oriented and had no desire to be an Elvis Presley clone; however, he was keen to try his hand at writing songs in this new style. In 1953, he met Frank Slay Jr., a young bandleader from Texas who was similarly inclined, and struck up a writing partnership with him.
With Crewe as demo singer, they managed to place several original compositions with record company A & R reps in the mid-50s; however, they always hated how their songs sounded after staff producers got finished with them. They feared that these inferior recordings would bring their writing careers to a premature end, so in late 1956, they decided to produce their own masters. The team would start a label, sign acts, and market their own product. Crewe was acquainted with music publisher Gene Goodman, the brother of '30s Swing King Benny Goodman; somehow, he persuaded Gene to finance the launch of a new Rock 'n' Roll-oriented record company. Based in New York City, XYZ Records was the first of several labels Crewe would run. On this and all future business projects, he hired his older brother Dan as administrator. Dan Crewe always took care of the business end so Bob could concentrate on the creative side.
The label's first signing was a doo-wop outfit known as The Rays, who'd cut some early Crewe/Slay material while signed to Chess Records. The Rays' debut single on XYZ, "My Steady Girl", was a flop, as were subsequent releases by Les Seevers, The Chancellors, and Hank and Frank. However, a Rays record called "Silhouettes", broke for a hit after Crewe gave a demo copy to Hy Lit, the most popular deejay in Philadelphia. Realizing that their tiny imprint lacked the clout to break a record nationally, Crewe and Slay sold the master to Cameo Records. "Silhouettes" became a solid smash, vaulting into Billboard's Pop and R & B Top Five during the Fall of 1957. Soon afterward, the partners dissolved XYZ Records and began freelancing. During the late '50s, Philly was the undisputed hub of the Rock scene, so they moved their base of operations there. The team's work with Swan Records duo Billy and Lillie in 1958 yielded a pair of novelty best-sellers, "La Dee Dah" and "Lucky Ladybug". The names Bob Crewe and Frank Slay, Jr. were finally starting to carry weight.
At the suggestion of "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark, who was a major stockholder in Swan Records, they started working with an energetic young singer/songwriter named Freddy Cannon. He brought them a self-produced demo called "Rock 'n' Roll Baby" which boasted a pounding rhythm and blistering guitar solos. The team got together with Cannon and completely revamped the song. Crewe renamed it and penned additional lyrics, and Slay wrote a churning big band arrangement to complement the guitar track. The single they cut sounded so raucous, Swan initially refused to issue it. Finally, Crewe and Slay's pleading secured a release for "Tallahassie Lassie", and it went on to be one of the Top hits of 1959.
Under the team's direction, Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon cut several albums and a string of best-selling dance rockers. Cannon's thunderous remakes of "'Way Down Yonder In New Orleans" and "Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy" reflected Bob Crewe's love of Swing standards; both scored big on the charts. Although less successful, original numbers like "Humdinger", "Happy Shades Of Blue" and "Buzz-Buzz-A-Diddle-It" gave Crewe the chance to perfect his skills as a Pop lyricist. His ability to turn a phrase was nothing less than diabolical; rockin' rhymes don't get much better than she's my bell-ringin' witty ditty California city kitty/Swell-of-a-belle-of-a-girl! The songs he penned for Cannon during this period boast some of the cleverest lyrics ever committed to wax.
While freelancing on the East Coast, Crewe got to know many music business heavyweights of the day. Dick Clark was a friend, Roulette Records co-founder George Goldner was a friendly acquaintance, and he had frequent contact with Swan Records' CEO Bernie Binnick and Cameo Records' head honcho Bernie Lowe. Atlantic Records' A & R chief Jerry Wexler became his close friend and mentor. "I learned a lot from Jerry Wexler," he says in the music industry tome Off The Record. "Jerry always said, 'if you want to know how much promotion is being done on your record, just consider how much you're doing and cut that by 90%' . . . you have to get on the phone, you have to be in contact with people (and) keep the dialogue running." Crewe took Wexler's words to heart, and became highly skilled at getting singles played on the radio. Recalling the Payola scandal that rocked Swan and other labels in the late '50s, he insisted: "I never got into it. I gave parties instead, and everybody had a grand time!" Over the years, Bob Crewe's party-giving proclivities would become a source of legend. Sometimes, when he needed rowdy-sounding backing tracks for a record, he'd stage those parties right in the studio!
In early 1959, Crewe and Slay revived their XYZ imprint after reaching a distribution agreement with United Artists Records. Even though they managed to lure The Rays back to their label, no big hits resulted from this deal. In 1961, Crewe severed his production partnership with Slay to concentrate anew on his singing career. The year before, he'd signed an artist contract with Morty Craft's Warwick label and scored his first chart record: A Bobby Darin-styled remake of Yale University's "Whiffenpoof Song". Two rather idiosyncratic Adult Pop albums would follow, featuring jazzy arrangements by Ralph Burns. Much to Crewe's disappointment, subsequent singles stiffed and his business relationship with Morty Craft came to an abrupt end. Pop stardom proved as elusive as ever. He then relocated to Hollywood with dreams of writing and producing movie soundtrack music. His considerable charms weren't enough to open the right doors in Tinseltown, though; he returned to New York City frustrated and broke. He basically had to start over again and re-establish himself as a hit producer.
Though plagued by a lack of funds, he managed to cut a distribution deal with London Records for two new independent labels, Topix and Perri. In order to finance these ventures, he scrounged freelance production work with Atco, Jubilee, ABC-Paramount and other established imprints. His investment yielded little of value: Releases by The Rays, Johnny Halo, Doc Bagby, Byrdie Green and The Hubb Caps all fizzled. So did releases by a has-been quartet calling themselves The Romans, but of all his Topix/Perri acts, he felt they showed the most promise.
As members of The Four Lovers, singer Frankie Valli and guitarist Tommy DeVito had bagged a minor hit on RCA Victor in 1956. Despite attempts on various labels, they hadn't gotten within shouting distance of the Pop charts since. Now working with bassist Nick Massi and ex-Royal Teens keyboardist Bob Gaudio, they spent their days acting as Bob Crewe's de facto house band and backing vocal unit. At night, they gigged at New Jersey lounges. The group cut half-a-dozen flop sides for Topix/Perri under the names Alex Alda, The Village Voices and The Topix. Their luck changed in 1961 when Crewe leased one of their masters to George Goldner's Gone Records; by then, they were calling themselves The Four Seasons.
"The first success I had with The Four Seasons . . . was a record called 'Bermuda', Crewe recalled in later years. "It was a minor hit out of Philadelphia, but . . . nothing was really happening beyond Philly. My mother and father lived in Ocean Beach, New Jersey, and I went to see The Seasons (perform) at this dive in Point Pleasant." Sitting in the audience one evening, Crewe glimpsed a side of Frankie Valli's artisty he'd never seen before. "Frankie did a thing that night that blew me away. He put a bandana over his head, took two maracas and stuck them under his coat (for breasts), and began singing 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' like (1940s cabaret singer) Nellie Lutcher, with that high voice." Crewe saw in Valli's improvised routine a gimmick he could exploit to commercial advantage. "I said to Bob (Gaudio), 'Go write a song for Frankie with that chi chi voice, and jump it an octave.'" After several false starts, Bob Gaudio came up with an infectious number called "Sherry".
"At that time," Crewe told interviewer Joe Smith, "I was confronted with the choice of either paying the rent or going back into the studio to make one more record with The Seasons . . . I decided to go in and make it, because I really believed in what we had." After the new single was finished, Bob traveled to a record convention in Miami and sold the master to a buyer from Vee Jay Records. The release generated an immediate buzz and sales were good, but "Sherry" really took off after Dick Clark booked the group for an appearance on "American Bandstand." By September of 1962, the record's piercing falsetto lead and thumping march-time tempo had won The Four Seasons a long-coveted berth atop Billboard's Hot 100 list. It would be the first of four chart-toppers for them. "Sherry" kicked off a long string of million-sellers, starting on Vee-Jay and continuing on the Philips label.
The Big Time
From late 1962 to early 1968, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons were Pop music dynamos; Crewe and Gaudio were the twin turbines that powered their engines. After "Sherry", the two men collaborated on most of the group's material. They created compelling beat ballads bathed in vivid emotions: Pity was the theme of "Rag Doll"; painful longing permeated "Ronnie" and "Silence Is Golden"; wounded pride was the subject of "Walk Like A Man"; and "Big Girls Don't Cry" was a catty revenge-fest. When Frankie Valli embarked on a parallel solo career in 1966, he became the beneficiary of the team's finest love songs: "The Proud One", "To Give", and the fabulous "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", which Crewe was inspired to write while witnessing daybreak over New York's Central Park.
Bob Gaudio's brain was bursting with memorable melodies and catchy riffs; when his musical sensibilities merged with Crewe's lyrical prowess and penchant for wicked dance beats, rarely were the results ever less than spectacular. (Yet, out of dozens of songs he produced for the group, Crewe singles out "I've Got You Under My Skin" as his favorite; ironically, it's a Cole Porter standard, not a Crewe/Gaudio original.) The innovative sound Crewe created for The Four Seasons (of which more will be said later) was so incredibly commercial, it could compete in the marketplace with blockbusters by The Beatles and other British invasion groups. Only records by The Beach Boys and the soul acts of Stax and Motown boasted similar appeal, so The Seasons were in rarified company. Whenever Pop/Rock fans saw "the Sound of Frankie Valli", "Crewe-Gaudio" and "A Bob Crewe Production" emblazoned on record labels, they knew they could expect something special. Bob Crewe made sure they were never disappointed.
It wouldn't have been like him to rest on The Four Seasons' coattails, though, and he didn't. During the years he was racking up hits with them, he was also freelancing. Under the auspices of his production company, Genius, Inc., he cut sessions with Ben E. King, Jerry Jackson, Michael Allen, The Distant Cousins and many other acts. Most notable was his work with female vocalists like Lesley Gore, Ellie Greenwich, Ginny Arnell, Shirley Matthews, Tracey Dey and Diane Renay. Dey, a budding Jazz stylist, was his hands-down favorite; his big beat productions of her singing "I Won't Tell" and "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" are highly coveted by collectors. However, feisty Diane Renay proved to be the most commercial of Bob Crewe's girl rockers. The Top Five smash "Navy Blue" was the pinnacle of his excellent work with her, the most polyrhythmic Rock 'n' Roll tango ever played on Pop radio.
Lesley Gore's "California Nights" was his second most successful Girlpop record, a romantic walk along the beach set to quasi-psychedelic music. He gave Ellie Greenwich the only chart single she'd ever score under her own name: "I Want You To Be My Baby." Much to her surprise, the Girl Group diva found herself smack dab in the middle of a wild party, wailing her lungs out like Mitch Ryder! Crewe also worked his studio magic for The Orlons, The Shepherd Sisters, The Rag Dolls, Liza Minelli, Vikki Carr, Petula Clark and Tina Turner on a stunning unreleased version of "Everything Under The Sun."
Crewe and Gaudio's earliest songs for The Four Seasons were published by Claridge Music, a company controlled by Frank Slay, Jr. By the time the group defected from Vee-Jay to Philips Records in 1964, their publishing was split between Bob Gaudio's Gavadima Music (soon to be renamed Seasons Four) and a new firm called Saturday Music. Saturday was launched to handle Bob Crewe's copyrights, and it quickly became one of the most successful publishers in the business. That success wasn't only due to Crewe/Gaudio material; the producer discovered and signed several talented young writing teams to his company. They included Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, composers of "Workin' My Way Back To You"; Raymond Bloodworth and Larry Russell Brown, authors of "C'mon, Marianne"; Eddie Rambeau and Bud Rehak, who wrote "Navy Blue"; and Tony Cifelli and Mike Petrillo, who came up with "Tell It To The Rain."
Other Saturday staffers included arrangers Charlie Calello and Artie Schroeck, Peggy Santiglia, former lead singer of The Angels, and Gary Knight, who succeeded Bob Gaudio as Crewe's main writing partner. All talented musicians, these songwriters doubled as session players and more often than not, recording artists. They helped turn Genius, Inc. into a non-stop hit factory. With a steady stream of publishing income flowing into his bank account, Bob Crewe was able to kiss tight budgets goodbye. He now had money to pursue art and music projects at will, and enough left over to afford living quarters fit for a king.
In Andrew Loog Oldham's autobiography 2Stoned, Roberta Goldstein, another of Crewe's staff songwriters, describes his lifestyle during this period. "Bob Crewe lived wonderfully at the Dakota (Apartments). It was (a) fantasyland," she says. "Bob's home was a gathering place. I met Lionel Bart there, (The Beatles' manager) Brian Epstein, (and) Leonard Bernstein, who also lived in the Dakota. Bob's was one of the most fabulous apartments you'd ever lay eyes on . . . it was three stories of Heaven!" Crewe's 72nd Street digs became an intersection where people from the art and entertainment worlds would meet and mingle. He loved playing celebrity host, and got in the habit of throwing elaborate cocktail and dinner parties. "Bob threw a beautiful party for the (Rolling) Stones, very posh, catered by one of the finest people in the city," Goldstein remembers. "Ahmet Ertegun was there, and Harry Cohn, whose father started Columbia Pictures, (and) Liza Minelli was there. That was a damn good party!"
Festivities spilled out of the Dakota and continued into the wee hours of the morning at some of New York's trendiest nightclubs. Goldstein was frequently among Crewe's club-hopping entourage; so was Alan Stroh, the wealthy manager of Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. "I went out with Alan and Bob every night," she told Oldham. "Andy Warhol would be drooling in the corner . . . . (people would do) just anything to get to our table!"
BOB CREWE with FRANKIE VALLI
"Goin' Places" concludes with Part Two.