The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Four Seasons’ “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Four Seasons – “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)”

HIT #1: March 13, 1976

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

In November of 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. In February of 1964, the Beatles arrived in America, performing to millions on The Ed Sullivan Show. In between those two momentous events, one of the Four Seasons apparently got laid. History!

The Four Seasons had plenty of reasons to be nostalgic for 1963 — reasons that even go beyond the evening that one of them felt a rush like a rolling bolt of thunder, spinning his head around and taking his body under. The group had scored back-to-back #1 hits with their falsetto-damaged 1962 singles “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and they kept that streak going in 1963 with the straight-up classic “Walk Like A Man.” Late December, back in ’63, the Four Seasons might’ve been the biggest group in the world. It was a very special time for them. That changed by February of 1964.

Unlike most of their peers, the Four Seasons managed to hold on during the early days of Beatlemania. They even scored one more #1 single, the underrated “Rag Doll,” when the Beatles were first running wild, and they reliably charted through most of the ’60s. But eventually, they couldn’t keep up anymore. By the time the Four Seasons signed an ill-fated 1970 Motown deal, they seemed to be done.

But in the mid-’70s, the stars aligned just right for the Four Seasons to come back. A couple of things led to those conditions. First, there was the overriding wave of nostalgia for the early rock ‘n’ roll era, the trend that led so many covers of old songs to hit #1 in 1975. Four Seasons frontman Frankie Valli rode that wave, landing a solo #1 early in 1975 with “My Eyes Adored You,” a gloopy ballad that he’d recorded with the Four Seasons.

And then there was disco, a trend that the Four Seasons were only too happy to ride. After “My Eyes Adored You,” the Four Seasons made it into the top 10 twice in 1975, both with goofy and clumsy disco songs. The chintzy, high-stepping “Swearin’ To God” peaked at #6. (It’s a 5.) Not long after, the shrill and squelchy “Who Loves You” made it as high as #3. (That one is a 4.)

By that point, Valli wasn’t singing as much. He was gradually losing his hearing. He had otosclerosis, the disease that leaves calcium deposits on ear bones. Valli eventually had a series of surgeries that fixed it. In 1975 and 1976, two new members of the Four Seasons were taking a lot of the lead vocals: bassist Don Ciccone, formerly of fellow New Jersey band the Critters, and drummer Greg Polci. But everyone still sang in high, squeaky harmonies — a style that evoked warm memories of doo-wop but also turned out to be plenty compatible with disco beats, something that fellow falsetto bandwagon-jumpers and future Frankie Valli collaborators the Bee Gees understood better than anyone.

The Four Seasons’ comeback culminated in “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night),” a perfectly silly gem of a song that absolutely could not have existed in December of 1963. That’s because “December, 1963″ is a disco song, and there was no disco then. It’s a strange fusion. The lyrics are drunk on nostalgia, but they’re also blatantly sexual, all about a teenage kid losing his virginity. The music builds on instinctive doo-wop harmonies and nonsense syllables. But the instrumentation is pure disco: four-four beat, stabby horns, Latin-percussion breakdown, chicken-scratch guitars, squelchy bass, out-of-nowhere noodley synth solo. (Oddly enough, when “December, 1963″ hit #1, it replaced another disco song from a long-running doo-wop group who were singing old-fashioned harmonies over new-fangled drum-thumps. The difference is that the Miracles’ “Love Machine (Part 1)” is about Future Stuff as opposed to Past Stuff.)

The Four Seasons had effectively merged their own history with what was happening in 1976, and I can’t even think of a suitably ridiculous present-day analogy. Lil Jon screaming about the magic of being alive in 2005, but over rickety trap snares and SoundCloud-rap tape hiss? That doesn’t work, since crunk and trap are too musically similar. Disco and doo-wop were nothing alike, but the Four Seasons managed to make the world forget that. I can remember hearing “December, 1963″ constantly on oldies stations that otherwise never played disco. It’s like the Four Seasons, by singing about 1963 and by being the Four Seasons, had managed to convince the world that the song actually came from 1963, even though the sound is pure mid-’70s.

The song has a funny genesis. Bob Gaudio, the longtime Four Seasons keyboardist who’d co-written most of their early hits, had written a song called “December 5th, 1933,” about the end of prohibition. But Frankie Valli didn’t like the song. So Gaudio and Judy Parker, the woman who he would later marry, rewrote it, turning it into a nostalgic reverie about the Four Seasons’ golden era. Later on, Gaudio said that the song “was all about my courtship with my wife.” But that’s clearly not what it’s about — or, if it is, then it’s about the time that Gaudio and his wife had meaningless random sex 13 years earlier. Actually, now that I think about it, if that really is what it’s about, it’s kind of sweet.

Four Seasons drummer Greg Polci sings lead on “December, 1963,” and even though he doesn’t have the instantly identifiable tone of Valli, I like the enthusiasm he brings to it. Polci sounds so happy to remember this particular time that he had sex: “You know, I didn’t even know her name / But I was never gonna be the same / What a lady, what a night.” Valli sings on the bridge: “Oh, I / I got a funny feeling when she walked in the room / And I / As I recall, it ended much too soon.” (If Judy Parker wrote that line, then that’s some cold shit.) Other Four Seasons hit falsettos throughout, like they’re all getting together to reminisce about this one experience. It’s a shameless delight hearing all these guys pry open their stickiest back pages.

Amazingly enough, “December, 1963″ turned out to be the biggest single of the Four Seasons’ career. “December, 1963″ might be the main reason they later became the subjects of a huge Broadway musical and a Clint Eastwood biopic. The one Four Seasons song that everyone knows isn’t one of the huge doo-wop hits; it’s the disco jam about the time when they were making huge doo-wop hits. Frankie Valli scored one more smash in the aftermath of “December, 1963″; he’ll appear in this column again. But as a group, the Four Seasons never made the top 10 again. (Oh, what a plight.) The Four Seasons only appeared in the top 20 one more time: 1993, when a remix of “December, 1963″ crept back up the charts and peaked at #14.

That remix has its own weird little history. The Dutch DJ Ben Liebrand put it together in 1988, adding bells and congas and Slick Rick’s scratched-in voice. Five years later, Curb Records — the same label that had released the original — put the remix out in the US. It stuck around on the Hot 100 for 27 weeks — the exact same amount of time that the original had lasted.

The remixed “December, 1963″ gave the Four Seasons a whole new boost, more than 30 years after they’d first started scoring hits. But Frankie Valli wasn’t into it. Talking to Billboard, Valli said, “I’ll never like it better than when it was pure.” But “December, 1963″ was never pure. It was always an unholy amalgam of doo-wop nostalgia and disco money-chasing. That’s exactly why it ruled.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: The Diabolical Biz Markie sang an enthusiastic, atonal version of the “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” hook on “Oh What A Night,” a 1991 single from his not-that-talented brother Diamond Shell. Even if you don’t usually watch the Bonus Beats, you should watch this Bonus Beat; it’s fucking hilarious. Here’s the video:

(Biz Markie’s highest charting single, 1989’s “Just A Friend,” peaked at #9. It’s a 10. Also, somehow, “Oh What A Night” made it up to #27 on the Hot Rap Songs chart, a real achievement for a song that’s genuinely bad in a lot of entertaining ways.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Gary Wright’s dazed, mesmeric, synth-drowned prom ballad “Dream Weaver” peaked at #2 behind “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night).” It’s a 9.