I was recently sitting with Liberty DeVitto, one of the all-time great drummers in music. Liberty is best known for his work with Billy Joel. One of my favorite people in the music business happens to be the young drummer for the Frankie Valli band, Craig Pilo. Craig has always told me that his two favorite drummers are Ringo Starr and Liberty DeVitto. I mentioned this to Liberty and asked him if he would send Craig a video to say hello. While sending a nice greeting to Craig, Liberty said, “How could I not say hello to someone that works for the Man?” referring to Frankie Valli. As cool as it was to have Craig receive a greeting from one of his heroes, it was also nice to hear one of the all-time great musicians talk so glowingly about Frankie Valli. Liberty referred to Frankie as “one of the true all-time greats in the music business.” Earlier this week, Frankie was honored in Brooklyn for his lifetime achievements by some of the biggest stars in the world including Robert De Niro. A few of the greats born in New Jersey include Bruce Springsteen and of course maybe the biggest of them all, Frank Sinatra. However, when they talk about the “Jersey Boy” you know that they are referring to Mr. Frankie Valli.
Frankie is performing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center tonight and next week he will be at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. While at The Mohegan Sun, Frankie and the Hotel are donating tickets to the Cristian Rivera Foundation, which funds research for children with Pontine Glioma, an inoperable brain tumor. This donation helped the foundation raise several thousand dollars for the fight for a cure.
I recently had some alone time with one of my all-time heroes, who the wonderful singer Jose Feliciano calls “incredible.” Frankie was very candid and honest in our Q&A. I think that you will learn a few things about the man that Steven Van Zandt calls “our Sinatra.”
Negron: Frankie Valli, last month you were in Florida performing during the same time the Yankees had their spring training. I’ve never seen Ruth Eckerd Hall as crazy as it was that night.
Valli: I know, almost as crazy as going to see a Yankee game.
Negron: Frankie, you had two Yankee greats, Willie Randolph and Ron Guidry there at Ruth Eckerd Hall. They were so excited to see you; they were so excited to meet you. How was that?
Valli: It was very exciting for me to meet them too, because I’ve never met them personally and I’ve been a Yankee fan ever since I was a kid. I like the Yankees and in the National League I used to like the Giants and the day of Stan Musial and guys like that.
Negron: Well Frankie, you don’t realize the magnitude of what you mean to a lot of these guys. In the clubhouse we play your music and we have played your music since I was a bat boy there. The aspect of Frankie Valli being all over the place like that, what does it mean to you?
Valli: Well it’s a lot more than I ever expected. I never thought it would have that kind of an impact. I just have a lot of gratitude and I’m very happy for everything that’s gone on in my life.
Negron: Frank Sinatra once asked me, “Kid, what are you, a Michael Jackson fan?” And I said, “I’m a Frankie Valli fan.” This was in 1978. And Sinatra started chuckling and he said, “Frankie is a nice boy.” What does that mean to you?
Valli: He was really a great guy. I was so pleased to meet him, become friends with him, and spend a lot of private time around him; certainly one of a kind. They threw the mold away when he went.
Negron: After all of these years, I mean so many people, Steve Van Zandt, all these different guys, Reggie Jackson said, “Hey, he’s our Sinatra,” talking about you.
Valli: Reggie was a phenomenal baseball player. I think a lot of people had him a little wrong with attitude and all that. I don’t think he was mean like everybody made him out to be. He took a lot of heat and that was his way of giving a little heat back.
Negron: Did you ever have a relationship with Billy Martin?
Valli: Not really a personal relationship, but he was really a very strong personality. He would take anybody on; he was that kind of guy. It wouldn’t matter if it was the president of the United States or one of his competitors.
Negron: I was very close to Billy Martin and when I talk to a lot of players from that time and then I talk to the people that work for you that call you boss, you remind me the most of Billy, just from the standpoint of the heart. Billy was someone that I really loved and at the same time could be intimidating to me. Sometimes you intimidate me, Frankie, because you are strong and I see the strength that your guys see in you and how you lead them.
Valli: Sometimes they need a little intimidation. It’s all a part of what it’s all about. I love everybody that works for me, but there are certain things that I expect and I want them exactly that way. I don’t expect any more from any of them that I expect of myself so it’s not like I’m beating them up. I beat myself up with things I’m not doing and things that are not right.
Negron: Do you ever feel like with Billy Martin, he was like the type of guy that wasn’t afraid of anybody and if someone overstepped, you knew about it?
Valli: Oh there’s no doubt about it. Something I’ve learned as a kid is that you have to stand your ground; it was really very important, especially if you felt like you were right. And it was okay to be humble too, but when you are right on something it is important to stand your ground or someone was challenging you in a way that they really had no right to challenge you, because they weren’t really the one in charge. When it’s your store, you run it the way you run it. When you work for somebody you work and you do it the way they want it, that’s how it is. If you don’t like what’s happening in the store, you go and get another job in a different store. It’s really simple.
Negron: Frankie besides your talent, what do you think that’s what’s made you such a great business man?
Valli: I don’t know. I was very demanding on myself. I just didn’t expect any less from anyone that worked for me. No more, but not any less. And I am also the kind of an individual who understands that perfection is something that we all strive for and sometimes we hit it exactly and sometimes we’re off, and I accept that. As long as I know that person is giving 100 percent, that’s the key.
Negron: The last thing Frankie, me coming from New York I lived in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. I know the white boys love you but I also know the brothers and the Latinos think the world of you.
Valli: Oh I know; I’ve been very, very lucky with that. In 1963, I could remember after just having a couple of hits, I played at the Apollo Theater, probably one of the first white acts they had ever done. I’ve played it with Jerry Butler, Tina Turner, Godfrey Cambridge. I never had any problems with that, but you have to remember that I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in a mixed neighborhood. Race was never an issue. Some of the people that I admire guys like Little Jimmy Scott and Jack McDuff, who was one of the great oracle players, and Shirley Scott. I went to all the black clubs, it was always a comfort zone for me, and I’ve never had a problem with that. In high school I hung out with blacks and whites and we sung in locker rooms in the high school I went to. I lived in a housing project, a government run housing project.
Negron: Isaac Hayes was a friend of mine. He helped me actually with the addiction problem with Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Again, we talked music. Isaac said one thing about you Frankie, “The man’s got soul.” What does that mean to you?
Valli: Well, it means a lot to me because I think it’s the true part of what music is all about or artistry is all about. It’s not how great your instrument is, it’s where it’s coming from. It’s the player of the instrument-that’s what it’s really all about at the end of the day, because anybody can have an instrument, but not everybody can play it.
Negron: And not everybody can appreciate the aspect of what you bring to the party.
Valli: Well I love doing what I do; this is my whole life. I’m not a tennis player or a golfer or any of that.
Negron: But the difference between you and a Mickey Mantle or you and a Joe DiMaggio is that you go on forever.
Valli: The one thing that is, I never loss strive with my street sense. Deep down inside me I’ll always be a street kid. That’s what I am, that’s what I know. You learn to almost be able to have eyes behind your head. You can feel what’s happening around you and you immediately gravitate to it.
Negron: It’s just like when you’re rehearsing and I go backstage to watch you, because I just adore watching the aspect of your talent. But I’m always watching, like I used to do with Steinbrenner, I’m always watching like “okay he’s the boss here, don’t overstep,” you know what I’m saying Frankie?
Valli: I call things when they’re happening. One thing that I’ve learned in life that is really, very important, never collect problems and carry them. You must take it on right when it happens, this way you never really carrying a load where it’s a buildup of years of this and that. If it’s not right you have to fix it right then. You can’t say well I’ll get it right next time or the time after that. You’re going to wait three or four or five or six or ten or hundred times before you fix it? If it’s not right you stop it and fix it; “Hold up this is not right,” you’ll see me do that. I don’t do that to embarrass anybody; I do it to remind them if it’s not right we fix it. It’s not like I’m reprimanding.
Negron: If you have one message to give to the people with the dream that you had in 1950 Frankie, what would that be?
Valli: That would be it is very important in order for you to be true to anything, you must be true to yourself. There is nothing more important. You can get away from anything and anybody, but wherever you are that’s where you’ll be. You look in the mirror and there you are, so there’s no escape. So it’s better to take it on and fix it.
Negron: Frankie Valli, I love you and I thank you so much for always being so generous to me.
Valli: You deserve to be generous to, you’re a great guy. We’ve become friends because you’re a great guy and I’m not too quick to take on friends. Friend is probably one of the loosest terminologies that there is and in most cases it’s acquaintance. Friend is different.
Negron: I’m thrilled to hear that from you, I’m honored Frankie. Thank you so much brother, I love you.
Valli: Thank you Ray.
Ray Negron can be heard Saturday's from 12-2 p.m. on Impact ESPN 1050AM.
Ray Negron is a sports executive with over 40 years of experience in baseball. His first job came from a chance encounter with George Steinbrenner as a youth. He has become an American film producer, a best-selling author, and a philanthropist. His memoir is entitled, "Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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