To get his Hit Men up and running a decade ago, Lee Shapiro sought the blessing of his former boss, head Jersey Boy Frankie Valli. He wanted to play some of the Four Seasons most beloved songs.
"I asked him what he thought, and he said to me 'Lee, the tribute bands and the Broadway cast members, they have to ask permission as to what songs they can do from the Four Seasons' catalog. You don't have to,’” Shapiro said. “’You were one of the Four Seasons. Go on. Be the Hit Men. Go do it.' He was very supportive."
The Hit Men are scheduled to perform Nov. 10 at the Center for Performing Arts at Governors State University in University Park. Shapiro was a member of the Four Seasons in the '70s and served as the arranger for the band’s comeback hits, “Who Loves You” and “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night).” Shapiro left the band in the '80s and continued his musical journey performing, in the studio and onstage with the varied likes of Barry Manilow, Cher and Chuck Berry, to name just a few.
Shapiro received his blessing from Valli in 2008, three years after the Four Seasons '00's renaissance courtesy of the Broadway smash “Jersey Boys,” and the Hit Men first performed in 2010. The current lineup consists of keyboardist Shapiro, vocalist and guitarist Jimmy Ryan, percussionist and vocalist Russ Velasquez, bassist and singer Jeff Ganz and drummer/vocalist Steve Murphy.
On the onset, The Hit Men leaned heavy on Four Seasons classics and '60s and '70s rock and pop. With the additions of Ganz, who has performed with Cheap Trick and Johnny Winter, and Murphy, whose credits include work with Sting, The Turtles and Alan Parsons, the band has evolved to bring out the talents of its newer members.
."We grew with our audience and grew with the musical awareness,” Shapiro said. ”Our drummer played with Foreigner, so now we can do Foreigner songs. It's branched out more to the late '60s, '70s and early '80s. The whole thing kind of moved up a decade in a way, and as a result, the set list has changed to accommodate this."
Last year, The Hit Men released “Don’t Stop,” a collection of their interpretations of some of their former employers’ biggest hits from “Who Loves You” to “Happy Together” to “I Want to Know What Love Is.” They have also included original songs on past sets and onstage.
While each of the band members writes original material, Shapiro said their focus is on the hits that made them successful and still resonate with music fans young and old.
“We know our audience,” Shapiro said. “They want to be transported back in time. That's what we do. We're not what I would call 'creatively self-indulgent.' We have honored the experiences to know 'this (song) will get them. This will bring them back to the seventh grade. This will bring them back to college. And we do those songs and I'll guarantee the audience will leave happier and younger than when they got there."
In addition to keeping an eye on his Hit Men, Shapiro, last month, released "Lee Shapiro Plays the Greatest Hits of Frankie Valli,” a collection of Four Seasons' favorites performed by Shapiro solely on piano.
"How do you say 'thank you' to a guy that not only believed in you when you were 19 and replaced (original band member) Bob Guadio, but also gives me carte blanche because he trusts me (with the Four Seasons' catalog) and what I'll do?” he said. “The only way I could think to say 'thank you' was to do a tribute album to Frankie with the songs I recorded and performed with him over the years, and to do it in a way that no one else has done it."
FYI: The Hit Men will perform at 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at The Center for Performing Arts at Governors State University, 1 University Parkway, University Park. Tickets are $30 and $35. Call 708) 235-2222 or visit GOVST.EDU/ABOUT/CENTER_FOR_PERFORMING_ARTS/