During the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, groups such as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and Tommy James and the Shondells enjoyed a lot of success. So did individual musicians like Barry Manilow and Elton John.
The Hit Men, a group of musicians and creative composers who played with those big names, are today finding success on their own. The Hit Men will be bringing many of their hits to The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa on Friday, Oct. 16.
The group features Lee Shapiro (Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, Barry Manilow), Gerry Polci, (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), Jimmy Ryan (Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, Elton John), Larry Gates (Phoebe Snow, Carole King, Desmond Child) and Russ Velazquez (Sting, The Ramones, Chicago).
Shapiro explained during a recent phone interview how the Hit Men came to be.
“The way that it worked was Gerry Polci (drums) and I back in the ’70s were two (members) of the Four Seasons. When we left in the ’80s, there were no new records, and just the hits that we had,” Shapiro said. “We left the group in the ’80s to pursue our careers on our own, but with the success of Jersey Boys, and seeing Franki in the studio—we’ve had a pretty good friendship that goes back decades—he said, ‘If you want to start to play again, go do it.’ We did; we had a rehearsal, we recruited the finest of New York I had known throughout my career.
“Gerry and I—who hadn’t played in a room together for 35 years—we looked at each other and said it was unbelievable. It was like we never stopped doing it. We started five years ago playing low-level gigs just to be heard, and our agent asked if we wanted to pursue it. Now we play 70 dates a year and have the time of our lives.”
The material selected for live shows is based on a personal connection to each of the songs, Shapiro said.
“Our show is always taken from the same treasure trove: We only play songs if we were on the record, if we were on the tour, if we were the artists, or if we performed with the artists,” he said. “We are not a tribute band on any level, and we’re not actors. We tell stories onstage about the past, and we were there; what we were telling you is exactly what happened. When people hear our show, it’s not only just hearing the music, but we tell the stories, and we also include visuals that show us back in the day of the songs we are doing.”
Every member has a vote as to what they play, Shapiro said.
“Basically, our feeling is such that no one in the group has ever done anything other than be a musician, a producer, or an artist in some form or another,” he said. “There’s a lot of respect that we have for each other when it comes to what we think. There are five of us, and it’s majority rules: 3 to 2 wins every time, and we’re comfortable not being married to our own opinion. No one is going to have a stupid opinion; it’s only going to be a differing one, so we’ll give it a shot.”
Many side men and backup musicians have gone underappreciated for the roles they played in various hits. However, Shapiro said he doesn’t feel underappreciated.
“It depends on what we’re underappreciated for, and in what way. Our band proves one thing: The audience is loyal,” he said. “Even though Frankie Valli isn’t standing there, or Carly Simon, the audience comes out. They come out because they know we were in the band, played on the record or were on the tour. From that standpoint, it’s very rewarding. … I can appreciate the fact that (the starring musicians were) always there, and it was their company; I was asked to join it and I came in. It was great, and I have no bad feelings at all about it.”
The Hit Men are currently finishing up the recording of their third album.
“We’re doing songs that we’ve never had in the show before,” he said. “What we do with our CDs is record the songs we’ll do in the show for the following year. The next CD will have other Four Seasons songs, other Carly Simon songs, other Jim Croce songs, and things that we were part of with those artists.”
The group’s system gives them a considerable amount of downtime and the ability to work together, even though the members live in different cities.
“We play 70 dates a year, so that’s only 20 percent of the year,” Shapiro said. “If someone told us you could work two or three days a week, I’m sure you’d go for it. That’s one part of it. We all have families, so we’ll go out for three dates and come back for eight or nine (days), or go out for two and come back for six.
“Recently, our drummer moved from New Jersey to Florida, and our guitarist moved from Long Island to Iowa. It hasn’t inconvenienced us at all. With Skype meetings and sending audio files across the Internet and into the studio, there’s very little difference at all in the collaboration.”
The Hit Men will perform at 9 p.m., Friday, Oct. 16, at The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $25 to $45. For tickets or more information, call 888-999-1995, or visit www.hotwatercasino.com.