Paul Shaffer, left, and Charles Calello (Photo courtesy of Charles Calello)
There were enough aware and discerning talent buyers at last week’s Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference to fill the New York Hilton Midtown Mercury Ballroom for a single 35-minute showcase presentation of Oh What a Night!—From Frankie Valli to Sinatra and Neil Diamond to Streisand, An Evening with Charles Calello, The Hit Man.
That it featured special guest Paul Shaffer was an added draw for Calello, an original Jersey Boy in that he was a member of Frankie Valli’s group The Four Lovers prior to its transformation into The Four Seasons. While the Newark native wasn’t an original Four Season (he was the group’s bassist for a while after the name change), he wrote all their arrangements, and as the name of his retrospective show suggests, worked with everyone from Sinatra to Diamond to Streisand, also arranging or producing hits including Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game,” Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself“ and Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes,” and co-producing with Laura Nyro her classic 1968 album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.
For Oh What a Night!, Calello conducts an 18-piece band including two vocalists and performs many of his record 38 Billboard Top 10 hits.
“I originally did the show back in the `90s when a promoter friend in New Jersey asked me to,” recalls Calello. “I said, ‘What would I do?’ I hadn’t been on stage in 25 years! He said, ‘Do your hit records!’ I’d written so many hit arrangements and consulted on so many shows by major artists that I had a good idea of what I needed to do.”
Having worked so long in the studio, Calello was actually shocked at the huge audience response when he finally played his music live in concert.
“I had no concept of the reaction from the public!” he says.
“In our own brains, no matter how talented we feel we are, we’re always insecure about how people will respond. But it was overwhelming, and gave me the desire to do it again and again. But there was something I learned a long time ago, when a musician in the studio said, ‘Charlie, there are four stages to your career: Who is Charlie Calello? We gotta get Charlie Calello! We need a young Charlie Calello! Whatever happened to Charlie Calello?’ So for me to perform, because my name was only on the records I made as the arranger and I never did any promotion of myself as a performer, I had to answer, ‘Who is Charlie Calello?’—and I was never able to get past that to get to ‘We gotta get Charlie Calello!’ So I put the show on the back burner.”
Calello had long worked in California when he moved to Florida in 1992.
“The business was no longer fun, and I intended to stop,” he says. “But after a short time I got bored and my wife got me involved with pops orchestras and I started writing for them and did a few shows with them over the years.”
Then a year ago the promoter friend who first got him to do the Oh What a Night! show concept asked him to put a big band together and do another one.
“Paul Shaffer found out about it and called me and wanted to be part of it,” says Calello. “He asked what I was doing, and I told him I was playing my hit records and he said, ‘I could sing!’ So I introduced him as a friend of mine I’d known for many years who’d recently lost his job when his boss retired, and was now unemployed and looking for things to do and wanted to try out as a singer—and I decided to give him a chance. He then walks out on stage and the audience goes crazy! He sang Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’—which I wrote the arrangement for—and sounded like Jimmy Durante!”
Calello told Shaffer afterward, “`You and I are the perfect marriage: You’ve got a name and everybody knows you--and no hit records. I have all these hit records and nobody knows me!’ But Paul is a very interesting star: Because of his role with Letterman, he’s met every conceivable person in the world that has anything to do with any kind of exposure, and between the two of us, we have a potpourri of stuff we can talk about in a show that’s never going to be the same. And the two of us together on stage have a great time.”
Calello was encouraged by music business friends to showcase at APAP in order to get more bookings.
“I’d really like to do more because they’re fun—and take me away from sitting at home writing arrangements for the rest of my life!” he says. “Today I’m supposed to write for Frankie Valli’s vocal group The Modern Gentlemen, and I’m making a little record with a local client. I make recordings for a coloring book company out of St. Louis and I’m negotiating now to do a record with a kid on The Voice, and making a decision on an opera singer--who's also a chef!--for a record of Andrea Bocelli-type stuff. I just wrote an arrangement for Joseph Leo Bwarie, who played Frankie in productions of Jersey Boys for eight years. So I’m always in the loop. It’s just a question of how to balance everything.”
In Oh What a Night!, Calello balances his prolific output of classic pop songs with stories behind them, like “Native New Yorker,” which he notes was a hit for soul band Odyssey in 1977 (and covered by Valli after), though it was originally intended for Sinatra, for whom Calello was arranging music for his show.
“Every song really has a story,” continues Calello. Of “Sweet Caroline,” he says that he recently saw an interview with Diamond saying that he didn’t like it, confirming his own doubts of Diamond’s satisfaction with it after the recording session. Still, it was one of Diamond’s biggest hits, though the only one Calello participated in.
Calello himself sings “The Name Game”—his first hit as a producer—though he expects Shaffer to do it in future shows. Other songs in his show are hits that he was a part of or became hits after covering his original contributions. They include: The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” The Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore),” Barbara Streisand’s “My Heart Belongs to Me,” Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” Oliver’s “Good Morning Starshine,” Rex Smith’s “You Take My Breath Away” and Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band’s “Cherchez La Femme,” as well as instrumentals Calello has recorded of other hits he was involved with, like Engelbert Humperdinck’s “After the Lovin’,” Juice Newton’s “Break It to Me Gently” and The Four Seasons’ “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”—his show’s namesake hit.
The finale is an instrumental medley of 15 Four Seasons hits, followed by “All By Myself.”
“For many years I didn’t understand the value of me doing a show like this,” acknowledges Calello. “But because so many artists are no longer visible, I now see the validity of having someone who’s associated with all these hit records out there performing them.”
That, he adds, and all the fun he and his audiences are having while doing them.
"Charles Calello--The Hit Man"