Jersey boy

Jersey boy

Local songwriter reflects on writing The Four Seasons hits

Frankie Valli, center, at his 1974 wedding at the Highlawn Pavillion in West Orange with singers and songwriters from The Four Seasons. From left, Sandy Linzer, bass player Joe Long, songwriter Michael Petrillow, and singer Bob Gaudio. 
Frankie Valli, center, at his 1974 wedding at the Highlawn Pavillion in West Orange with singers and songwriters from The Four Seasons. From left, Sandy Linzer, bass player Joe Long, songwriter Michael Petrillow, and singer Bob Gaudio. 

Sandy Linzer, who was raised on the border of Hillside and Newark, was proud to be among the select few who wrote hit songs for Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.

“I am an independent songwriter and when it was time for The Four Seasons to record I submitted songs to them,” Linzer told NJJN. “Fortunately, they picked four of them that they really liked a lot.”

And as a Jersey boy, he was thrilled when those four songs — “Dawn (Go Away),” “Let’s Hang On,” “Working My Way Back to You,” and “Opus 17” (also known as “Don’t You Worry ‘bout Me”) — were included in the popular juke box musical, Jersey Boys, based on the quintet, which formed in 1961.

After a run of more than a decade—it opened in 2005—the Broadway show is scheduled to close Jan. 15. 

“I thought the show was brilliant,” said Linzer, speaking by phone from his winter home in Boca Raton, Fla. Though he was not part of the production, he said he was financially compensated for his musical contributions.

Asked whether being Jewish was an influence on the career he has maintained since his early 20s, Linzer said no.

“I would have to say that being Jewish had nothing to do with my relationship to The Four Seasons or my songwriting,” he said. “If you grew up in Newark in those days you had friends of different persuasions and I never felt any prejudice.”

Linzer, who lives in Livingston during the warm months, said “I had a lot of friends from Weequahic and some from Hillside. I grew up among black people and Polish people and Italians and everybody else on the planet.”

He said he became a songwriter by accident. When Linzer was 21, a friend named Sal Russo came to his home and began playing guitar. “A melody jumped into my head,” said Linzer. “I sang what was in my head and we ended up writing six songs together.”

He writes words and music simultaneously. “They both come together. I never took music lessons. I hear melodies in my head and get someone to orchestrate them,” he said.

After Linzer and Russo completed the songs, “I asked him ‘What are we going to do now?’” Russo’s music teacher had a connection to The Four Seasons; after the band accepted four of the songs, they helped the pair connect with other songwriters. 

He continued writing songs for The Four Seasons for three years until the group disbanded. Eventually they reunited and had another run that led to the story of the Broadway show.

To Linzer, Valli’s unique high voice was only part of the reason for The Four Seasons’ success, as the lead singer had a keen understanding of the band’s path to success.

“Frankie is an incredible artist. He was responsible for a lot of The Four Seasons’ musical direction. He knew what he wanted to sing.”

Valli was also shrewd in surrounding himself with other talented songwriters and performers, including Bob Gaudi, Bob Crewe, and Charlie Calello.

“It was an incredible team, and I was very fortunate to be let into it,” Linzer said. “It was just the opposite of prejudice. They were very embracing of anyone they thought had talent and they were very interested in everything I was doing from the very beginning.”

After moving on from The Four Seasons, Linzer said “my success kept on going.” His first was a number one hit, “Lover’s Concerto,” for a 1966 girl-band, The Toys, for which he rearranged and added lyrics to a melody originally written by a 17th century German composer, Christian Petzold. The song may be more recognizable by the words of its first line, “How gentle is the rain?”

As a songwriter and producer, Linzer was one of many people in the pop music world to spend much time in the Brill Building, an 11-story office tower on Broadway and 49th Street, that was essentially ground zero for songwriters. 

When he visited there to promote “Lover’s Concerto,” his first stop was the office of the era’s most successful songwriting team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. “They threw me out of the building,” he said. “They hated it.”

Fortunately, he also presented it to Crewe, who “went nuts over it.” The moral of the story, he said, is “you get turned down in one place, so you knock on the next door and they think you’re a genius.”

Inspired by the big band jazz era of the 1930s and 40s, Linzer produced the first album of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band in 1976. It combined a brass and reed ensemble with a disco sensibility; the album was nominated for a Grammy.

A year later Linzer and Denny Randell co-wrote “Native New Yorker” for the disco group Odyssey, then “I Believe in You and Me” with David Wolfert. It was recorded by The Four Tops in 1983 and covered by Whitney Houston in 1996 for her film, The Preacher’s Wife.

He considers the song, which he said was an anniversary gift to his wife, Gail, to be his finest composition. They have been married for 52 years and have three children and five grandchildren.

Asked about the changes in music over a career that spanned early rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, heavy metal, punk and acid rock, fusion, and disco, Linzer said, “I have been incredibly fortunate because I happen to be a consummate chameleon. I was able to adapt to every era in every decade, whether I was writing disco music or writing for The Four Seasons or writing pop songs or special projects or movie and television themes.”

His next project is working with a singer named Kris Thomas. 

As he looks back on his early years as a songwriter with The Four Seasons, Linzer said “our background is Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Gershwins. We grew up with that music. That was our bible. Infused in those songs are great melodies, great lyrics, and there was a craft involved in writing those songs that you don’t see these days. We had beautiful melodies.”

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