Tommy DeVito, an original member of the Four Seasons, the close-harmony quartet that rocketed to fame in the early 1960s with “Sherry” and other hits and earned new generations of fans when the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” told a semi-factual version of the group’s story, died on Monday in Henderson, Nevada. He was 92.
Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, the two surviving original members of the group, announced his death. A spokeswoman for Valli said the cause was the novel coronavirus. DeVito had moved to Las Vegas decades ago after leaving the Four Seasons in 1970.
Growing up in difficult circumstances in his native New Jersey, DeVito was, in his own words, “a hell-raiser” as a youth, but he found a purpose with music. He formed a band called the Variety Trio with one of his brothers and Nick Massi, who would become the fourth member of the Four Seasons when that group coalesced in about 1960. (Massi died in 2000 at 73.)
The key component, though, was Valli, with his falsetto vocals. In a 2008 interview with the music publication Goldmine, DeVito recalled that his trio performed regularly at a bar in Belleville, New Jersey, when Valli, a teenager six years younger than him, would sneak in to watch them play. He and the other band members knew Valli from the neighborhood and knew that he had pipes.
“I’d call him up to the stage and let him sing,” DeVito said. “He’d get off right away, because he wasn’t really supposed to be in there; he was underage.”
Before long Valli was part of the group, which went through name and lineup changes before becoming the Four Seasons. “Sherry,” the group’s breakout hit, topped the charts in 1962, and a stream of hits followed, including “Walk Like a Man” (1963) and “Rag Doll” (1964).
DeVito didn’t entirely shed his hell-raiser past; he ran up debts, for one thing, and caused tensions within the group. In 1970 he was either forced out, as some accounts say, or left because the pressures of touring had disagreed with him, as he explained it.
He quickly burned through whatever money he had from the group’s heyday and took jobs working in casinos and cleaning houses to get by.
Actor Joe Pesci, a friend since childhood (whose character in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” is named for DeVito), had lived with DeVito for a time before he was famous, and once Pesci broke through, he repaid the favor, helping DeVito out and getting him bit parts in movies, including “Casino” (1995), also directed by Scorsese.
DeVito also had some success as a record producer and recorded an album of Italian folk songs.
Seeing a version of himself portrayed in “Jersey Boys” was startling, he said. But he was comfortable with the show, which he descried as “about 85% true to life.”
“When you first see yourself being played, you look at the actor, who is Christian Hoff, and say: ‘Do I look like that? Did I talk like that? Was I really a bad guy?’” he told Goldmine. “And I was. I was pretty bad when I was a kid. There’s a lot of things I’d never do today that I did back then as a kid.”
Gaetano DeVito was born on June 19, 1928, in Belleville, the youngest of nine children. When he was still too small to hold a guitar, he borrowed an older brother’s and tried playing it while it was lying on the floor. His brother discovered him, he told The Star-Ledger of Newark in 2005, and gave him first a beating and then a counterintuitive warning.
“Now that I’ve seen you doing it,” he recalled his brother saying, “every time I come home and I don’t see you practicing, that’s a beating.”
The large DeVito family shared a flat with an uncle during the Depression, a difficult time.
“You did anything to survive,” DeVito told The Las Vegas Sun in 2008. “You’d steal milk off of porches.”
He left school after eighth grade and started playing in local establishments for modest amounts, getting into scrapes with the law from time to time. “Jersey Boys” implies that he was somehow connected to organized crime, but that was an exaggeration, he said, done for the sake of the story.
“I was never part of the mob,” he said. “They might have asked me to play a private party or something, but they paid me for it. Mostly they asked me to do benefits.”
Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
“Jersey Boys” opened on Broadway in November 2005 and ran until January 2017, one of the longest runs in Broadway history. (Clint Eastwood directed a film version in 2014.) The show won four Tony Awards, including best musical and best featured actor (Hoff).
If the musical massaged the truth a bit, DeVito generally complained about only one thing in the script: a crack about the cleanliness of his underwear.
“I was the most cleanest guy in the whole group,” he said. “I’m clean. I’m very clean.”