The Most Beloved Season of All

Fans and friends will miss the talent and warmth of Joe Long

America’s Fab Four: Joe Long, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito

This column is a total change of pace—even for my ill-defined niche here on Substack. This is not about politics or policy. It’s not about anything that’s wrong with the planet. It’s about something that was right with the planet for 88 years—the presence of Joseph LaBracio, better known as Joe Long. Joe, who died from complications of COVID-19 on April 21, was one of the most prominent players in the illustrious history of the Four Seasons, the pop singing group immortalized by their harmony-rich music and the Broadway smash musical Jersey Boys. He is the second Season to lose a battle with the coronavirus, following the death of Tommy DeVito last year.

Those who know the group only from Jersey Boys think of the Four Seasons as Frankie Valli, the lead singer with the golden falsetto; DeVito, the bad-boy founder of the band and its lead guitarist; Bob Gaudio, the quietly brilliant songwriter and keyboard player; and Nick Massi, the eccentric bass guitarist and vocal arranger. This was the quartet’s lineup when they burst onto the scene in 1962 with three straight No. 1 hits: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.” Nearly 60 years later, Frankie and his latest lineup of Seasons are still touring. The music has been ubiquitous for decades: in dozens of movies from The Deer Hunter to Jennifer Lopez’s more recent Hustlers, and in countless TV shows, from The Sopranos to The Crown.

The writers of Jersey Boys, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, did a masterful job (four Tonys! more than 11 years on Broadway!), but they could not possibly cram the entire history of the Four Seasons into two and a half hours on stage. The musical is great as far as it goes, but it focuses mainly on the Seasons’ struggle to achieve their first breakthrough and the early years of their hitmaking. Dramatic necessity and convenience dictated that the play give Joe Long short shrift. But the fact is that Nick Massi stayed with the group only three years after “Sherry” hit the pop charts and was soon replaced as bass player and bass singer by Joe, who remained in the Seasons for 10 years—some of their most successful and creative years.

I became a Seasons fan at age 12, from the moment Sherry came out with her red dress on. Yet, growing up on a farm in rural Tennessee, I never saw Nick Massi in person. By the time I first saw the group in Nashville in 1967, Joe was as familiar as any of the Four, always smiling as he sang and played his unusual left-handed bass. I can’t make a personal comparison with the brief Massi era, but by all accounts from old-timers, Joe helped lift the Seasons’ live performances to a higher level, giving them a new personality and warmth. With a gift for stage banter, Joe became the group’s unofficial MC, introducing songs and kidding around with the other Seasons, especially Tommy. Joe was just as warm and vibrant offstage. While all the Seasons sometimes greeted fans after concerts and signed autographs, only Joe took a real interest in the fans and became friends with hundreds of them. He was the least pretentious and most approachable rock star you could ever meet. Without a doubt, Joe was the Season most beloved by the most loyal fans.

Joe helped make some of the Seasons’ best records, including “Opus 17,” “Tell It to the Rain,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “C’mon Marianne” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” In particular, he was on one of the Seasons’ most enduring classics, a Gaudio composition called “Beggin’.” With its emo lyrics and distinctive interplay of drums, bass and piano, the song was a modest hit in 1967 and apparently way ahead of its time. It became by far the Seasons’ biggest hit in the 21st Century, when a remix of the original version topped the British dance chart in 2007, a hip-hop treatment by a duo called Madcon became a sensation on several continents, and American Idol winner Phillip Phillips sang the song on that must-see TV show. One of many anachronisms in Jersey Boys is that it shows Massi singing on “Beggin’,” even though he had already been replaced by Joe when that song was recorded.

The talented Mr. Long also helped create two of the very best Seasons albums. The first was an imaginative, musically diverse album of social commentary encased in a satirical newspaper called The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. So different from the Seasons usual fare, it was not immediately successful, but it has aged well and been repeatedly rereleased on CD, minus most of the newspaper. The Rock Snob’s Dictionary lists Gazette as one of “Ten Lost Masterpieces.” A couple of years later the Seasons signed with Motown and produced the magnificent Chameleon album. It also started slow, but one of its tracks, “The Night,” later became a monster hit in Europe. English fans admired that Motown album so much that, when the Internet arrived, they created a website called Chameleon. Neither The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette nor Chameleon, showcases for Joe’s singing and bass playing, are mentioned in Jersey Boys.

In fact, in the first version of Jersey Boys, produced in California in 2004 by the La Jolla Playhouse, the name Joe Long did not come up at all. When Valli and Gaudio went to La Jolla to check on this pre-Broadway tryout, one of the changes they demanded was that the writers insert the names Joe Long and Charlie Calello, who was the group’s musical arranger and briefly filled in for the departing Massi before Joe came on board. So, when the play opened on Broadway in 2005, the Frankie Valli character let the audience know when Joe Long joined the group, and you can see him singing and playing on three songs toward the end of the play. But he has no spoken lines—not exactly a complete portrayal of the most talkative Season ever. 

Jersey Boys was not the first time that history was unfair to Joe Long. In 1990, the Four Seasons were invited to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in only its fifth year of existence. Valli and Gaudio requested that both 1960s bass players, Nick and Joe, be inducted with the other three original Seasons, but the Hall didn’t want Five Seasons and flatly refused. So, as accurately shown in the climax of Jersey Boys, it was Frankie, Bob, Tommy and Nick who were inducted. Seasons fans were absolutely outraged at Joe’s being left out and they remain so to this day. Decades of protests and petitions to the Hall have been fruitless. It’s an injustice that has never been corrected.

But Joe was not at all forgotten. He may not have had a big role in Jersey Boys, but the huge success of the play focused attention on the Seasons’ legacy, and the resulting spotlight could not possibly miss the giant contribution made by Joe Long. In the last decade of his life, Joe racked up as many honors as the rest of the Seasons. He finally began to get the credit he had always deserved. And maybe this tribute of mine will help a bit to give Joe his due.

Joseph LaBracio was born on Sept. 5 in the tough Depression year of 1932 in densely populated Northern New Jersey just across the harbor from New York City—also home turf to all the other early Four Seasons except for Gaudio, who was born in the Bronx and moved to Jersey as a teenager. Joe’s birthplace was Elizabeth, just south of Newark. Unlike Massi and DeVito, who did stretches in jail for stick-ups and other petty crimes, young Joe never got into trouble with the law. As was the case with many kids of Italian heritage, Joe loved music, and he was classically trained on the piano. But his father fell ill when Joe had just finished high school, and he had to get a job to help support the family. While working in a factory, he had a run-in with a milling machine that badly damaged his left hand.

This accident would have a major impact on his future musical career. Playing keyboards was now out of the question, and the electric bass became his instrument of choice. It may seem counterintuitive, but the injury to his left hand led him to take up playing the left-handed bass. That’s because he needed his more nimble right hand to play the neck of the bass.

Thus it was that Joe would eventually became the American counterpart of Paul McCartney, the left-handed bass player for the Beatles. McCartney has been a big fan of the Seasons since the 1960s and even owns some of the publishing rights to several of the group’s earliest hits. When McCartney first met Joe, he declared, “It’s Joe Long, the second best left-handed bass player in rock and roll.” Always quick with a comeback, Joe replied, “What do you mean second best? C’mon now!”

Joe didn’t originally see himself as a rock star. The bands he played for in the early ’60s were more into jazz and blues. He had of course heard of New Jersey’s very popular Four Seasons, but wasn’t much of a fan. That changed soon after Massi abruptly quit the group in 1965. A search for the best possible Jersey-born replacement bass player turned up Joe Long, and it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Charlie Calello, the group’s musical arranger, had taken Massi’s place in concerts and on one hit single, but he was more interested in producing records for a variety of artists. Although he agreed to teach Joe all he needed to know to be Massi’s permanent replacement, Calello was so busy that the lessons never happened. Here’s how Calello described the sudden transition in his memoir Another Season: “The Seasons took a job in North Carolina, and I just couldn’t make it. On that night, Joe was called to fill in for me cold. He had never had a full-scale rehearsal with the group and didn’t feel at all comfortable with all his bass and vocal parts. Fortunately, his talent and experience got him through, and the performance went smoothly. Anyway, the crowd was screaming so loudly that no one could hear mistakes. Joe says that, feeling greatly relieved, he approached Frankie after the show, expecting a pat on the back. ‘How’d I do?’ Joe asked. Frankie said simply, ‘You could have sung louder’.” 

However shaky Joe may have felt at the start, he fit right in and became a mainstay of the group for the next decade. He was a star in the recording studio, a star on stage and a star in TV appearances. During his tenure, the Seasons enjoyed heights that few rock and rollers ever achieve. They headlined several sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, and played the Los Angeles Coliseum, Carnegie Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall and the London Palladium. Their TV credits ranged from Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is to England’s Top of the Pops.

But success never lasts forever, and the 1970s brought a period of turmoil and change. After the lukewarm reception of The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, radio stations stopped playing new Seasons records. Tommy’s gambling debts caused a financial crisis, and he was bought out of the group by Frankie and Bob, who years earlier had agreed with their famous “Jersey handshake” to be partners for life. Tommy’s departure meant that Valli and Gaudio were sole owners of almost all the group’s recordings, and their enterprise was ultimately reorganized under the name of The Four Seasons Partnership. Gaudio stopped performing with the group, but kept on writing many of the songs and producing some of the records. Joe had never been offered a share of the business. He and all subsequent Seasons were just employees.

Through it all, Joe stayed loyal to Frankie and the group, but his future was increasingly uncertain. Frankie had always harbored an ambition to grow old gracefully, not as a rock and roller, but as a solo singer of American standards in the mold of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. Back in 1967 he had begun recording solo albums and had a few hit singles, most notably “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” But he kept recording with the group also. 

After a dry spell Frankie suddenly topped the charts again with his 1974 solo hit “My Eyes Adored You.” And in 1975 the Four Seasons returned to the Top Ten with “Who Loves You.” It would be the last Seasons hit that Joe Long sang on. The plan was for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to go their separate ways and produce two separate income streams. Frankie would be the sophisticated solo singer he always wanted to be, and the Seasons would keep rocking and rolling, appealing to teenagers. The only problem was that Joe was much older than the other newer, younger Seasons. He was already in his 40s after all—seemingly an appropriate age for a rocker to retire—and thus Joe got a pink slip. Frankie continued to appear on some of the Seasons’ recordings, but, increasingly, they recorded separately. At concerts, Frankie would leave the stage part of the time, and let the Seasons do their own thing. The formal separation and “Farewell Tour” of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons came in 1977.

History shows that getting rid of Joe was probably not such a good idea. The fountain-of-youth plan didn’t work. The fabulous Four Seasons, one of the greatest groups in rock history, had only one more big hit, “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” after Joe left. The young post-Joe Seasons—Gerry Polci, Don Ciccone, Lee Shapiro and John Paiva—were very talented and recorded lots of songs without Frankie, many of them written by Gaudio. But they never had a big American hit on their own, and only one Top Ten record in Britain.

Meanwhile, Frankie’s solo career had another brief revival with the No. 1 hit “Grease,” but then went nowhere. He needed the name “Four Seasons.”  After two years of faltering fortunes, Frankie and Bob assembled a new Four Seasons, including some former band members and some new ones, for a “Reunited” tour. “Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons” have been successfully touring ever since, singing the golden oldies. But you could argue that after Joe left, it was not a real group any more. It was a brand name and a business. It was Frankie Valli and an ever-changing supporting cast of employee Seasons. The only constants over the last four decades have been Frankie’s still-magical singing, Bob Gaudio’s behind-the-scenes business acumen, and fresh new arrangements of old songs by Robby Robinson, the enterprise’s keyboard player and musical director.

Joe was hurt, of course, but leaving the Seasons was hardly the end of the world for him, and he never talked much about his exit. He had a parallel real life to return to. He married twice and had two children, Joey and Kimberly, whom he loved dearly. And he continued to create music. Joe put together his own bands, making several excellent recordings with a pop group he whimsically called Joe Long and LaBracio and a jazz ensemble named Jersey Bounce. He also took day jobs, including doing computer work for Dun & Bradstreet, to support his family. He was fine with being an ordinary Joe LaBracio. He almost never told his co-workers that they were sitting next to a former rock star.

I didn’t get to meet any of the idols of my teenage years until 1986, when I interviewed Valli and Gaudio for a story in Time magazine about their enduring partnership. We kept in touch, and after I left Time and Jersey Boys was mounted, I did freelance work for the Four Seasons Partnership on several projects, helping to produce CD collections, and writing liner notes and publicity material.

I met Joe Long in an entirely different way. Until he died a few years ago, my best friend in the world was Frank Rovello, whom I met on an online Four Seasons message board. Frank was the ultimate fan, and in the early 1970s he often talked his way backstage to hang with the Seasons. Everybody liked Frank, and many Seasons—especially Joe Long—remained his friends after they left the group. Frank was proud and happy to introduce me to Joe and cut me in on the benefits of knowing the former Season. He would give us copies of rare on-stage recordings made by the Seasons themselves and demo records that no one outside the group had ever heard. He was so humble, so generous, so much fun to be around. Thanks to Frank Rovello, Joe was the only Season I could call a friend. Valli and Gaudio talked to me when they needed something, and they usually responded to my requests. But Joe was the only ’60s Season to ever call me just to say “hi” and ask how I was doing.

Joe was kind enough to attend several Four Seasons fan confabs—sort of like Star Trek conventions without the weird costumes. Sometimes an adventurous trio of fans would gather around Joe, and together they would try to recreate the four-part harmonies of their favorite Seasons classics. 

The arrival of Jersey Boys on Broadway in 2005 was an exciting time for us Seasons fans. Gaudio gave me and Frank and our wives Opening Night tickets on the second row! The Partnership invited Joe, but because his whole family couldn’t be there that night, he decided to skip the event. During the curtain call the real Seasons joined the cast to take their bows. But there were only Three Seasons because Massi had died in 2000. Valli and Gaudio had not been on the same stage with DeVito in 15 years, since the Hall of Fame induction. It was a thrill to see them together, but not quite ideal—because of the missing Season.

The play took off like a rocket, and several of us fans were determined to get Joe to the August Wilson Theater, where every night was a sellout. We consulted with Joe, and eventually figured out a date when he, his children and a close friend of his could come to New York for the evening. Frankie Valli made his house seats available to Joe and his family. Before the show a dozen or so fans and Joe’s group gathered for dinner—at an Italian restaurant naturally. Toasts and tributes were offered, and greetings to Joe from Valli, Gaudio and other Seasons were read. But the high point of the event was when Joe’s son Joey stood up to give a toast. He said he had always loved his father and knew he was in the Four Seasons and had hit records and all that. But he had never understood how important his Dad was to so many people. Seeing the admiration and love and devotion displayed in that room that night, he said he was now even more impressed by his Dad than he had ever been before. It was an emotional moment for Joe and everyone around the big table.

After dinner, we escorted Joe to the theater and from our seats in the back tried to gauge Joe’s reaction in the fifth-row house seats. When the show was over, he seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for words, as if he had seen his life flash before his eyes. He finally summed up his response in one word: “Powerful.” Joe then took his family backstage to meet the actor who played Joe Long and the rest of the cast. Oh, what a night indeed.

Our Joe Long Night on Broadway went so well that our little fan group asked if we could get together with him regularly, and he readily agreed. After a few years of gatherings, we called ourselves the Elders, since we had all passed 60, except for a guy in his 40s or 50s whom Joe dubbed The Brat. We called Joe the Chairman of our Board. In the early days we would meet Joe near his home on the Jersey shore for a Saturday or Sunday brunch at a seaside restaurant. Joe could tell Seasons stories for hours, and we never tired of them. Over the years, our group expanded geographically, including members who lived as far away as Louisiana and South Carolina, and our “meetings” became more elaborate affairs, lasting a whole weekend. Yes, there were fans who regularly traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to spend a couple of days with Joe. On one of the weekends Frankie Valli and the latest Seasons were playing Atlantic City, and I asked the guys if I should get them tickets to see Frankie. No, they all replied—it would cut into their time with Joe.

In 2007, a few of us fans brought about something we had been hoping for ever since the Opening Night of Jersey Boys—a full reunion of Four Seasons. A big party at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS gave us our chance. The four main Jersey Boys cast members would be there, and we lobbied hard for the real Seasons, including Joe, to be there too. It worked! They all showed. How fantastic it was to see the four of them together again for the first time in 37 years—smiling and laughing as cellphones flashed and fans crowded around for autographs. The picture above is from that great night. The credit for it goes to David Cace, who later became a member of Joe’s Elders and was also a personal friend of Tommy DeVito.

The next big tribute to Joe came in 2014, when the city of Elizabeth decided that part of High Street, where Joe grew up, would be renamed Joe Long Way. Hundreds of fans lined the streets to see Joe unveil the new street sign and then joined him for a gala dinner in his honor. All the luminaries in Seasons World sent their congratulations. Tommy DeVito concluded his message this way: “The City of Elizabeth could not have chosen a finer man to honor this day than Joe Long.” Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio’s joint message began:  “Joe, we are extremely happy this day has come. It is a wonderful honor from a city in a state that we all love. You are a musician who has contributed to the legacy, and, more important, a man with integrity and a great heart.”

None of this adulation ever went to Joe’s head, though. If you looked at his email address or Facebook page, he was still happy being just Joe LaBracio. One time I asked him how it felt knowing that the name Joe Long was spoken eight times a week on Broadway. “But that’s not my name,” he replied.

Yet his Joe Long persona kept providing new opportunities. In 2019, his close friend Al Nittoli, with whom he played in bands both before and after his time in the Four Seasons, made a movie called “Does The Band Eat” in which Joe plays himself. Available on Amazon Prime Video, the movie features Joe, Al and several of their old bandmates sitting around a lunch table reminiscing about the old days when they were trying to make it big (Joe was the only one who actually did make it big). Flashbacks with younger actors show their youthful adventures. It didn’t win an Oscar, but it took a certain boldness for Joe to start a movie career at age 86.

More successfully in recent years, Joe was the musical director of a Four Seasons tribute band called The Jersey Four. They play just about every Seasons hit, and toward the end of their show, Joe would join the group for a few numbers. What a treat it was, after all those years of missing Joe’s performances, to see Joe on stage again singing songs like “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Stay.” 

Joe even took the Jersey Four into a studio to record a new version of “I Wonder Why.” This was the only Seasons song co-written by Joe—during the Motown years—with other band members. They recorded it with Frankie singing the lead as usual, but Motown somehow lost the master, and it was never released. All we fans had for decades was a rough copy from a cassette tape. Now, thanks to Joe, we have a beautiful new rendition by the Jersey Four. They will sorely miss Joe, but their shows will go on. If you ever want to see how much Jersey people love the music of the Four Seasons, head down to one of the night clubs on the Jersey Shore when the Jersey Four are playing. To quote a line from Jersey Boys: “The crowd goes wild!”

I’ve left the best of Joe’s late-life highlights for last. On a glorious night in 2018 at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, Joe, along with the rest of the Four Seasons, was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. I was there, and, believe me, it was a big deal because this Hall of Fame is not limited to musicians and includes some pretty impressive people, from Thomas Edison to Frank Sinatra to Meryl Streep. At the 2018 ceremony, the people introducing the inductees, often already Hall of Famers themselves, were as famous as the new inductees. Bill Bradley inducted novelist Anna Quindlen. Buzz Aldrin and Whoopi Goldberg inducted the twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly, Mariano Rivera inducted Buddy Valastro of TV’s Cake Boss. Steven Van Zandt was inducted by, yes, his pal and band leader Bruce Springsteen. I could keep going on with my list of inductees, but you get my point. What an assemblage. In all my years as a journalist I had never seen so much human accomplishment represented in one room at one time. For me, without a doubt, the high point was the induction of the Four Seasons by Tommy James and Mark Ballas, the last person to play Frankie Valli on Broadway. Joe was there alongside Bob and Frankie, and Tommy was represented by his daughter Darcel Collins and his grandsons (“I ain’t flying thousands of miles for no statue,” Tommy reportedly said from his home in Las Vegas.) Frankie made a brief bow to Nick Massi. As always, Joe was the most eloquent Season. “To be honored by your home state,” Joe said, “is the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon someone, and for that I thank the New Jersey Hall of Fame. I left New Jersey to move out West for a number of years, but I kept feeling that Jersey tug, ordering me home. And I finally gave in and moved back. It was the best thing I could have done. So I guess, officially, I’m a Jersey boy once again! Thank you.” Here’s what I was thinking: Joe didn’t need to be in that Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland, sometimes referred to as “the mistake on the lake!”

To sum up Joe Long and his place in the Four Seasons, I’ll quote my late friend Frank Rovello, who wrote the following in the liner notes for the group’s Jersey Beat box set: “If Frankie Valli was the frontman and soul of the Seasons, and Bob Gaudio the songwriting genius, Joe became the heart of the group, especially on the road. Laying down the essential bass groove, creating the perfect vocal harmony, and forever trading hilarious quips with his good buddy Tommy DeVito, Joe had an unmatched stage presence that radiated warmth all the way to the last row.” 

The Four Seasons Partnership will keep thriving as before. Frankie’s latest tour of the United Kingdom, postponed twice by the pandemic, has been rescheduled for 2022. As his partner, Bob will get half of whatever Frankie earns on tour. Jersey Boys is already slated to reopen in London, and other revivals won’t be far behind. Meanwhile, “Bobby Businessman” Gaudio, as he is called in the play, is producing a Neil Diamond musical for Broadway. 

But the virus has taken Tommy, the Four Seasons’ founder. And now the virus has taken Joe, the Four Seasons’ heart. So the Four Seasons are no more. There will be no more glorious reunions.

Joe’s friends and fans can rejoice that he lived 88 very rich years and brought us so much joy, and that he was showered with so much honor in his final years. We just wish it could have gone on for a few years more.