FORT WAYNE – all from New Jersey. And they call themselves The Hit Men.
The intended double meaning doesn’t go unnoticed by those familiar with the HBO series The Sopranos, which featured a Jersey family involved in organized crime. The Hit Men. Get it? Bada-boom, bada-bing.
Then there is the more simplistic connotation, the music version, the throwback era of Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Those were the formative years, when Top 40 AM radio stations ruled the industry, blasting into the night every spectrum of rock ’n’ roll, from street corner doo-wop of the 1950s and early ’60s to the synthesized disco of the mid-’70s.
And the hits back then just kept on comin’. So, too, are The Hit Men, Gerry Polci, 62; Lee Shapiro, 61; Jimmy Ryan, 67; Larry Gates, 61; and Russ Velazquez, 57, who will bring a heavy dose of rock ’n’ roll nostalgia to Foellinger Theatre on Saturday night.
Yet the question must be addressed: If these guys are The Hit Men, why wasn’t the group’s name on the charts? Where were the hits?
The answer is everywhere.
While the individual names may not be recognizable, their musical accomplishments are unmistakably legendary.
Polci, a drummer, and keyboardist Shapiro were members of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, just not in the early years, which is the time frame of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Jersey Boys and the film of the same name, which opens Friday.
They were with Valli and the Four Seasons in the mid-’70s. That’s Polci singing lead on December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).
Ryan was lead guitarist with a popular mid-’60s group called The Critters, who had a hit with John Sebastian’s Younger Girl and charted with Mr. Dieingly Sad. He later backed Carly Simon, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens and others.
Gates, a bass player, is a composer and producer who has worked with Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker and Bob James. Velazquez, one of the group’s lead vocalists, has sung on hundreds of commercials and has performed with Sting, LL Cool J, Carole King and scores of others.
Some of The Hit Men, such as Gates and Shapiro, were childhood friends; the rest knew each other from the close-knit industry.
And every now and then, just for fun and memories, the guys would gather at Gates’ house in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, about 10 miles from New York City, just to sing and play.
Since Gates has a studio in his basement, that’s where they converged to lay down a couple songs. And they liked what they heard.
We got together and had a rehearsal to see what we would sound like, Shapiro says. We looked at each other, and I said, All right, Polci, I guess let’s do it.’ And he started to play Oh, What a Night,’ just like 35 years ago. And he kicks it off, and I play piano, and the other guys jump in.
And then we stopped when it was over, and we looked around at each other, and everyone started to giggle.
It was like, I guess we gotta do this.’
Says Ryan: The idea all along was just to goof off in the basement. It was not to be a touring band. Then Lee said, Why don’t we book ourselves a club date?’ So we booked a place called Mexicali, in (Teaneck,) New Jersey, and there was a line around the block.
We looked at each other and said, What the hell? Are you kidding me?’ And we weren’t even that good. That was our first attempt, and we were getting our sea legs.
That was 2010. Sitting in the crowd for their next gig, at B.B. King’s place in New York, was an agent, who suggested the group could play – should play – larger rooms. Maybe even tour.
It was the birth of The Hit Men, a gathering of five old rockers who, collectively, performed on 80 albums but thought their playing days were far behind them.
I just considered it fun to be able to sit down in a room with musicians of this caliber and have fun playing, Ryan says. And when (Shapiro) said let’s do Mexicali, I said sure. I figured we’d play a club in town or maybe do a club in New York City and just have some fun.
But then it evolved into this monster we have now, selling out big theaters, working three days a week, booked into 2016. None of us ever thought it was going to get this big.
In their concert, they rip through the old songs; the stuff they did separately 35, 40 years ago; the stuff many in their audience danced to 35, 40 years ago. Shapiro was also with Tommy James and the Shondells, so there’s some of that. There are Carly Simon tunes. And of course, the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons hits.
Ryan admits it was the Broadway success of Jersey Boys that might’ve put the match to the fuse more than anything for The Hit Men.
Gerry never wanted to go back, Ryan says of Polci. He certainly left the Four Seasons on fine terms; it was just time. Both (Polci and Shapiro) were pursuing other careers, and Lee had a number of times asked Gerry, Why don’t we do this again?’ (Quoting Polci:) No, we already did it. Without Frankie, it’s going to be silly.’ And it was a real uphill battle to get Gerry to do this.
Once Jersey Boys’ came out, we said, Gerry, if we’re ever going to do it, now is the time. We have a booster rocket here.’ If we did it in a vacuum, we’d probably do OK, but now we have the advantage of our names and faces in Broadway. Why would we not do this?
And the next thing you know .