By Linda Kor
When Tommy DeVito, a founding member of internationally renowned band The Four Seasons, stopped in Holbrook on June 10, it was to visit with old friends and people in the community. He recalled his stay in Holbrook back in the days when Holbrook had more neon than Las Vegas and how his humble beginnings allowed him to appreciate the achievements of his musical career.
DeVito began that musical career performing in the mid-1940s at the tender age of 11. He was born in the New Jersey city of Belleville and grew up poor, looking for ways to make whatever money he could to help his family.
“I’d played air guitar since I was nine and country music was my first love. I don’t care for the new stuff now, but back then that was all I’d listen to and I’d sit there just strummin’ the air,” stated DeVito.
“Times were different then. People think its rough now, but kids have no clue. I remember my older brother bought me my first guitar when I was 11. Back then it cost a nickel to ride the bus and my brother spent 10 cents to go back and forth on the bus to buy me that guitar. The problem was he bought the wrong kind. It was a steel string lap guitar and my fingers would be torn to shreds if I played it. So he had to bring it back and exchange it, but the bringing back didn’t bother him, it was the 10 cents to take the bus again that just about killed him,” recalled DeVito.
When DeVito played, it was on the street corner as people threw coins into a hat. He recalled that shortly after getting his new guitar, he and his brother were dividing the day’s earnings when they ended up with some extra change.
“We gave most to my mom, some for me and some for Mike, and we had 35 cents left over. Mike decided it should be his and I disagreed. I took my new guitar and bashed it over his head. He chased me all the way home with that guitar around his neck, which is something I laugh about now, but then…,” DeVito recalled with a laugh.
By the mid-1950s DeVito had formed a band called the Variety Trio with Hank Majewski and DeVito’s twin brother Nick. They were performing under that name when a local boy by the name of Frankie Castelluccio, who later became known as Frankie Valli, joined the group.
A short while later they renamed themselves The Four Lovers and left New Jersey on their way to fame and fortune. That trip led to an extended stay in Holbrook when their vehicle broke down.
“It was 1956 and Holbrook was the place to be back then and everyone came through here. Vegas had nothin’ on Holbrook. We performed at the Motaurant for about three weeks and it was poppin’ around here. You wouldn’t believe it, there was more neon on these streets than Vegas at the time,” DeVito recalled.
Holbrook resident Leo Maestas recalled being employed as a 12-year-old bus boy at the Motaurant, which is now the Butterfield Stage Co.
“Bud Smithson owned the Motaurant and it was a really classy place. We wore the jackets and cummerbunds, and had to learn proper etiquette to serve the patrons. We would take home $30 to $50 a night in tips, and that was over 50 years ago,” stated Maestas.
While in Holbrook, the group stayed at the home of Bill Fischer and his wife Betty, and between performances the band would go bowling at the west end of town. Maestas recalled losing a lot of money to DeVito and other band members over the games they played, but it was all in good fun and made for lasting friendships.
“We had so much fun when they were staying with us, they were really terrific people and we became fast friends,” recalled Betty, whose husband Bill recently passed away.
Once the group left Holbrook they made their way to Las Vegas and changed their name to The Four Seasons. The band, now consisting of DeVito, Valli, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi, took off with hit songs such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like A Man.”
“Back then agents weren’t organized like they are now. Back then they’d turn their backs to a map, take a handful of darts and toss them over their shoulder. Where they landed is where we went,” stated DeVito.
The Four Seasons’ rise to fame came rapidly after that, with Valli’s powerful falsetto causing fans to go wild.
“When we first started out in Vegas, we were pulling in about $1,000 a week; then suddenly, it became $120,000 per day! It was crazy. We’d been performing in houses of a couple hundred people and then we had audiences of 100,000 people, it made your head spin,” recalled DeVito.
It was a big change for the Jersey boys, who all came from humble beginnings. Their combined musical talent and memorable songs had the group rapidly rising up the music charts and their songs become international favorites.
“Gaudio was a genius at writing songs. He wrote ‘Sherry’ in 20 minutes and it sold nine million copies. But you know, none of the songs about girls were about any woman in particular except one,” DeVito recalled.
“We were in New York and we’d just come out of a recording studio and got into our car and this small, thin little girl came up and started washing our windows and asked for some change. I didn’t have anything besides a few bucks on me and Bob (Gaudio) looked at me and said, ‘Tommy give her the money, look at her she’s just a little rag doll.’ We got to our apartments and about a half an hour later I get a call from Bob and he said to come on over because he just wrote a song he wanted me to hear. It was ‘Rag Doll,’” he said.
DeVito also recalled one evening in particular when The Four Seasons were performing in England and they were approached back stage by a group of four young men.
“They were telling us how much they loved our music and that they had a band, too, and were hoping to make it big. Six months later they show up in America and everyone went crazy for The Beatles,” stated DeVito.
DeVito became caught up in a whirlwind of money and celebrities, with everything he wanted available at his fingertips. He, along with band members and close childhood friend Oscar award winning actor Joe Pesci, took in all Las Vegas had to offer as they became well-known names in the city.
“Back then you would walk into a club and the maitre d’ would yell out “Mr. D, how many tables do you need?” and the house would pay for everything. I don’t think I’ve paid for a single meal since I’ve lived in Vegas,” stated DeVito with a grin.
During the 1960s Las Vegas became a hot spot for the rich and famous, and DeVito spent his time with celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Paul Anka.
“Vegas was fabulous back then. When I went out to gamble it was a miracle if I won, but you never really win when you gamble. It’s all an illusion. When I’d be hanging with Sinatra he’d be betting $5,000 to $10,000 at a time. I wouldn’t bet when I was with him because I’d always lose big. I’d just sit back and watch,” he said.
By 1970, DeVito had grown weary of the pace demanded by a big music act. The constant travel, constant change in environment and doing the same shows night after night became more than he wanted, and he made the decision to leave The Four Seasons.
DeVito remained in Las Vegas and gave most of his money to his ex-wife and children. He took odd jobs around the city as a dealer in the gambling establishments, doing landscaping work and even cleaned houses.
His good friend Pesci kept in touch with DeVito and convinced him to take bit parts in some of the movies he was in. As a result, he received some minor roles in films such as “Casino,” “Gone Fishin’” and “The Good Shepherd.”
“I was the worst actor ever. I had two scenes in ‘Casino,’ and one was where they handed me $1,500 cash and I had to pretend that the mob had given it to me and the scene was for me to take the cash and thank them. Well, when I saw the cash I almost just took it and walked out the back door and went home. I didn’t know anything about being in front of a camera. I would turn around in a scene and look right into the camera and (Director) Martin Scorsese would walk up to me shakin’ his head, telling me to never, never look into the camera,” recalled DeVito.
Knowing that a career in front of the camera was not what he wanted, DeVito began working behind the scenes, booking, managing and producing music acts.
DeVito was enjoying a less public life when, in 2005, his life took another big turn as the musical biography of The Four Seasons, Jersey Boys, opened on Broadway and became a smash hit.
Other Jersey Boys productions have opened in Chicago, Toronto and at the Palazzo in Vegas, with more opening around the world.
According to DeVito, the tale of Jersey Boys is mostly accurate, although he says the character Tommy’s mob ties and debts are blown out of proportion.
“In the play it says they (the mob) sent me to Vegas because I was a big gambler. Who would do that, send a guy with a gambling problem to Vegas?” asked DeVito, shaking his head.
When asked how it felt to see his life portrayed by an actor on stage, DeVito stated that it was a bit disconcerting.
“When I saw Christian Hoff play my role at the La Jolla Playhouse, I thought, man, he plays me better than I play me. But it’s not easy to watch; to see how other people see you,” he said.
These days DeVito still produces music acts and travels with Pesci as they lend their names to charitable organizations for fund-raisers.
“I don’t know how other people think, but the way I was brought up you saw a lot of suffering so you appreciated the achievements. No one expected to go from 20 cents a day to $120,000 a day, no one thought about it. We were singing and playing because we loved it. Frankie would always forget he was getting paid. He never asked for it, he just loved the music,” stated DeVito.
While in Holbrook, DeVito visited with several youth in the community with aspirations of their musical talents leading them down a path of fame and fortune.
He offered them this advice: “You should always follow your dreams, because you never know where it’ll take you. There are some things you can’t plan; we didn’t plan this. I was getting coins tossed in a hat and then all this. You just never know what you can do unless you do it.”