In a change of pace, Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent Howard Tucker spoke with Craig Pilo, the drummer for the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasonsâ€™ current touring band. Craig joined Frankie in November 2005 and continues touring with him today. He is also touring with Edgar Winter (â€œFrankensteinâ€) and Player (â€œBaby Come Backâ€). In April 2007, Craig released a solo CD, Just Play, on Rue De La Harpe Records, which has been met with rave reviews. Just Play is available at www.amazon.com, www.cdbaby.com and iTunes.
Part I: Background and the new CD, Just Play
HT: Craig, when I saw Frankie in New Jersey this past March at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, he showed his ability to maintain an incredibly high standard of excellence. But I was also blown away by you on the drums and lead guitarist Matt Baldoni. I know a bit about Mattâ€™s work as he is associated with my accounting client, a well-known guitar company, but am not as familiar with your work. First, please tell me a bit about your CD Just Play.
CP: Itâ€™s a new jazz fusion CD, enhanced and interactive with live video footage. I cover some jazz standards (â€œAutumn Leaves,â€ â€œAll Blues,â€ and â€œTeen Townâ€) in new arrangements and feature a number of â€œPilo originals.â€ I also have a Fender Rhodes rhythm section, with many notable guests including Mitchel Forman, Tom Kennedy, Ed Czach, David Enos, and Roman Dudok.
HT: Your reviews have been glowing, Craig. Jazz World Quest labels Just Play as â€œa highly dynamic jazz fusion atmosphere filled with positive energyâ€ and â€œan entertaining album of great clarity and power for fusion enthusiasts,” and calls you â€œan experimented musician whose bold personality is evident throughout the album.”
John Stevenson of ejazznews says that on Just Play, you demonstrate â€œtight, yet fluent stick workâ€ and says you have a â€œyen for selecting great tunes and accompanists.â€ Further, he says you â€œmaster of sundry styles and meters shines through and thereâ€™s chemistry galore with the likes of featured keyboardist, the stellar Mitchel Forman, as well as saxophonist Roman Dudak.â€
CP: Weâ€™re not only pleased with the reviews, Howard, weâ€™re thrilled with the airplay weâ€™ve been getting on Kanal Jazz and Bluzz Radio, Fusion Groovinâ€™ Radio, and Attention Span Radio. Furthermore, there are a few reputable radio stations (Fusion Groovin and Attention Span) that have it #2 on their requested playlists for the past month since Just Play became available. That was outright shocking. I’d be lying if I said I expected that. It’s been great.
Part II: Touring with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
HT: How did you get connected to Frankie?
CP: Dave Spurr (the previous drummer) and I got to be pretty good friends while I was subbing for him in Pat Boone’s band. I played with Frankie one time back in 2005. Later that year, Dave decided to stay closer to home as a newlywed and so he, Frankie and Robby Robinson decided to give me a try. It turned out to be a good fit for all of us.
HT: Is being on the road tough for you?
CP: Not at all, but anyone who tells you they don’t get tired after a while is lying! We have a great group of guys traveling with Frankie and I have to say Robby is the best Musical Director I’ve ever had the pleasure of working for. It makes it a lot easier when you have an MD that really has the bases covered in every direction. Robby is a wonderful arranger, a GREAT player, and an even better Musical Director He creates an environment that really encourages your creative talents and makes going to work a real pleasure. Since we all get along really well, it really makes being on the road quite bearable. There is no sibling rivalry between our two sets of brothers. We play basketball together when we’re on the road to keep in shape.
HT: I travel a lot too, Craig, and I find some of my colleagues are day people and some are night people. How do you deal with this?
CP: We all need to adjust to each other’s schedules. As you can imagine, we spend A LOT of time together. We also hang out together on the road and at home.
HT: What have you learned from Frankie?
CP: I’ve learned a lot from Frankie, but what pertains to me the most is how to back up a vocal group. For a drummer, it’s a little different experience than backing up a horn band or say, a rock band with three guitars. For a drummer to play with a vocal group, you have to play a lot softer but with the same intensity. Keeping the intensity at a low volume takes a little more concentration than playing loud all night long. It’s not hard to do, but you have to be conscious of it all the time.
Towards the end of the show, Frankie likes the energy to be at its height, but we can’t bash; it needs to be intense, but musical. With 15 guys on the stage we all have to do our part to stay below the vocals, even during the shout chorus on “Rag Doll” or “Let’s Hang On.”
HT: How does today’s performance of the Four Seasons differ from the earlier incarnations?
CP: Well, I’ve been a fan of all the versions of this band. I’ve also had the privilege of working with a lot of the band members from the past. Aside from the configuration, I think different personalities and musical abilities can really create a difference in any band. We have a really great chemistry on all fronts in the group now. Youâ€™ve heard the band yourself Howard, they really sound great, right? I also understand the earlier version of the band had the musicians singing certain parts in addition to playing their instruments.
As far as being modern, Frankie would be able to give you a better answer, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d say that the current line up and configuration is a good attempt to make the show a little more modern while still being respectful of the original music. The presentation of the material now has four pretty strong back up singers (two sets of brothers, actually) supported by a ten-piece band. The singers as youâ€™ve seen are now free to move a little since they aren’t holding instruments, and the rhythm section is able to focus on playing their best. There is a part of me that gets to enjoy watching and listening as much as being absorbed as a performer on stage.
HT: Does the audience ever speak to you about the original and earlier Four Seasons?
CP: I’ve been told a lot of people miss the original mix and that’s fine. How can you not like the original or early versions of the band? They were all great! It’s all good. Frankie is definitely one of those people who is able to stay relevant. I think part of it has to do with the fact that he keeps updating his show and asks for near perfection from himself every single night and he expects the same from us.
HT: Were you a 4 Seasons’ fan growing up? Did you know their music, or are you too young?
CP: Well, I listened to the Big Band sound growing up and didn’t really listen to pop music at all until I was older. My parents hipped me to a lot of stuff and of course Frankie was among the records – yes, records, as in, not CD’s! So to answer the question, no I wasn’t a fan until maybe high school or later. But I was certainly aware of his contribution to music and I knew a couple of his hits. “Sherry,” “Big Girls,” and “Grease.” I was unaware of how many of his other songs I knew until they sent me the rehearsal CD to learn the show.
When I received the CD to learn the show I almost fell off the chair at how many of his hits I actually did know! It was like, “That’s Frankie Valli? That is too? This one too? Holy #$%@! …”
Part III: Career Outside the Four Seasons
HT: What did you do in your career prior to touring with Frankie?
CP: I’ve been pretty fortunate to play with some really great people. A few of the highlights have been playing with Maynard Ferguson, Billy Vera, Pat Boone, Player, The Red Elvises, and more recently Edgar Winter.
I was actually pretty busy with a lot of stuff when I started with Frankie in November of 2005. I was traveling a lot with Pat Boone; we had just done two weeks in Ireland over the summer. I was also working a lot with Angela Carole Brown promoting a CD she had just finished (The Slow Club) a year earlier. My own solo CD was already two years in the making, and I was also busy on television projects with “The Osbornes” and “Boston Legal.”
HT: As one of the older baby boomers, I don’t even recall Pat Boone too well….I can think of two songs, “April Love” and “Love Letters in the Sand”. What sort of crowd does he attract and what does he do in his act?
CP: Pat did a lot of cover songs; he was a contemporary of Elvis. His show definitely caters to a more mature crowd. In addition to the two songs you mentioned, he did “Tutty Fruitty,” “Bernadine,” the “Theme from Exodus,” and actually had a charted single a few years ago called “Under God” that I played on. He’s done hundreds of songs and has probably had 50 hits. Pat is a great guy and I loved his band. Everyone involved with Pat is a class act.
HT: From my recollection, both Player (“Baby Come Back”) and Edgar Winter (“Frankenstein”) are certainly from my era. What do they cover in their acts? Does Ronn Moss (“The Bold and the Beautiful”) still perform with Player?
CP: Peter Beckett from Player, in addition to being a great singer, has also had some success as a writer. He’s written songs for others such as “Twist of Fate” for Olivia Newton John, and has done music for several movies. I was actually part of two of the movies he did, “Basic”– he sang “Black Betty” for the closing cue and “Dirty Dancing II”– he sang “High School Hop.” He also did some music for the movie “Rock Star” and “Terminator 3.”
Edgarâ€™s gig is great, I really enjoy it. In addition to “Frankenstein,” he did “Free Ride” which was a big hit, and then like Player and Pat Boone, he has several others hits that sadly, weren’t as popular as they should have been. Edgar is a really great guy and he has a smoking band.
Ronn Moss still performs with Player. He’s a good bass player and really sings well. There are a few pictures from a video he did on my website in the Ronn Moss folder. Being a soap star (“The Bold and the Beautiful”), there are always a lot of women around!
HT: What do you do for the TV shows? Do you actually write or just play background?
CP: I have written the three tunes that appear on my solo CD. They were easy, and came to me naturally, with no struggle. It is a personal goal of mine to write more stuff, but if and when I do, it will be more so to write something I feel is worthy rather than for profit. I don’t know if I have a hit song in me or not, and I’m not sure if that’s even a goal, but writing for me will be a form of expression and feeling and something I will stand behind. As far as what I did for TV shows, it was mostly play drums on the bumpers. I have never written anything for television. I worked directly for the composers in all instances. It was cool work, but now the trend seems to be more to use drum machines and loops rather than live players. It was fun while it lasted! I did appear in several shows for a few seconds at a time (“Sabrina,” “Ally McBeal,” “Las Vegas,” and a few others that escape me at the moment) mostly in a band/bar scene and I was playing the drums in whatever band was there.
HT: Last question, Craig. Any interesting travel/security stories while traveling abroad?
CP: There are too many to list here. But going in and out of Canada lately has proven to be a little stressful. If one of your guitarist friends in our group, Howard, who shall remain nameless, could remember his passport, it might help us out from time to time!
Thank you to Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent Howard Tucker and the multi-talented Craig Pilo for this extraordinary interview!