For nearly 30 years, Lee Shapiro considered himself retired from the days of touring the world with the likes of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Little did he know how wrong he was.
"For the last three decades, people have been coming up to me and saying, 'Why can't you guys get back together?'" says Shapiro, a former keyboard player and arranger with The Four Seasons. "I had been inventing toys and producing commercials … we kind of moved on from it."
"Then, (the Four Seasons tribute musical) 'Jersey Boys' came out," Shapiro says. "I called (former Four Seasons member) Gerry Polci and said, 'Listen man, if we were ever going to do this, this would be the time.'
"So we got together the best guys we knew … and we got together in a rehearsal studio," Shapiro says. "I said, 'Let's do "Oh, What a Night."'Now, we had not been in a studio together for 35 years. We finish the song … and there was this eerie silence in the room. It was like we never got off the bike."
Shapiro knew immediately, he says, that they had something special. He called his old friend, Frankie Valli, and explained the concept of what would become The Hit Men.
"We've always stayed in touch," Shapiro says of Valli. "I said, 'Frankie, I'm not trying to trade on your brand or who you are.' He said, 'Go ahead and do it.' He thought it was great. He's a really big supporter."
The Hit Men are made up of the original performing and recording members of several megastar acts, including Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Tommy James & The Shondells, The Critters, Carly Simon, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Barry Manilow and Elton John & Kiki Dee. In addition to Shapiro and Polci, the band includes Jimmy Ryan, Larry Gates and Russ Velazquez.
The Hit Men will come to the Landis Theater in Vineland for a one-night show 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9.
Members of The Hit Men are responsible for writing or arranging well-known hits such as "Oh, What a Night," "Who Loves You," "Mr. Dieingly Sad" and "Younger Girl." The group also plays other popular songs they helped make famous such as "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Hanky Panky" and "Mony Mony."
Surprisingly, The Hit Men were not an immediate success when they formed a little more than three years ago. The first gig, Shapiro says, actually ended up costing the band $1,200. The second gig was a step up, Shapiro jokes, because they did it for free.
An agent in the audience at the group's second show liked what he heard, Shapiro says, and the group quickly took off from there.
"Now, we're working 45 dates a year … and the revenue it's creating is six, seven figures," Shapiro says. "We couldn't believe it ourselves."
The Hit Men, Shapiro says, help fill a niche when it comes to live entertainment. Boomers have both time and money to spend, and they want to hear the music they grew up listening to performed by the people who sang the original hits.
"The 50- to 75-year-old folks have nothing to listen to except tribute bands," Shapiro says. "And the tribute bands are great for what they do … but they're not us. We sound just like the records, because we were on the records."
Shapiro says the band also actively engages the audience, entertaining questions from the crowd such as, "Was there ever really a Sherri?" Or, "How did the hit song 'Who Loves You' come to be?"
"Some of the stories are hysterical," Shapiro says. "We impart some of these stories. For instance, the song 'You're So Vain.' Jim (Ryan) knows exactly who that's about. We don't blatantly say it, but you find out in the concert because we allude to it.
"I like to say these shows involve two reunions. One is the band members with each other, and two, the band with the audience. I always say 'Welcome back, we missed you.'"
Shapiro says people going to a show can expect to hear their favorite songs just as they remember them.
"For people who come over the age of 50, you can expect to go to a concert and close your eyes and be 23," Shapiro says. "That's what I promise. Come to this concert and be young. My dad is 85, and he says, 'I'm jealous of you, because you get to start your life over.' It's absolutely a joy. We'll do it until it's not fun. This is our third year and we're having a blast."