08 October 2007
"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.
"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 Don Charles Hampton
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