“Bullshit artist,” you say? Utter … bullshit.
So insists 84-year-old Tommy DeVito, founder of the Four Seasons, who’s itching to answer back after this writer’s oral history of Jersey Boys—the musical based on the group—was published in Vegas Seven earlier this year. Among the comments was this quote from Jersey Boys co-writer Rick Elice, recalling the genesis of the plot and characters:
“The audience … [would] recognize that Tommy is a bullshit artist from the first words out of his mouth.”
While Elice’s comment irked DeVito, a longtime Las Vegan, one senses he’s torn: still disgruntled over his depiction in a show that hit Broadway nearly eight years ago and Vegas five years ago (now at Paris Las Vegas) but grateful for his revival in the public eye. And unsure how to express that ambivalence.
Nonetheless, he deserves his say about that—and his colorful life.
What was your reaction to Elice’s comment?
When I read Seven, I was like, “What was the statement I said that was bullshit?” I don’t care what they say about me, but I know he’s wrong. I started this thing, so when I hear things, it’s more sensitive to me.
Publicly, you seemed OK with the musical, even attending the Broadway opening, so what bothers you—an incident that was misrepresented or your overall characterization or Elice’s statement?
I don’t think I was as rough as they wanna make me, and I like to see the truth and only the truth. Yeah, I went to jail seven or eight times. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it. My neighborhood was rough. If you come out alive, that’s an achievement. Whatever happened when I was out there scuffling and getting arrested and doing things I wasn’t supposed to do, that was my life.
I was around mob guys all my life. [Mob boss] Gyp DeCarlo (depicted in Jersey Boys) was a really, really good friend of mine. I didn’t ask him what he did when he woke up in the morning—“How many guys ya gonna kill today?” I still talk to his wife at least once a week. But there was so much bad in there that it turned good. I remember [co-writer] Marshall Brickman said, “I wish I had two Tommy DeVitos to write about.” I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
What did prison teach you?
You can learn an awful lot there, especially at a place like Rahway [now East Jersey State Prison]. There should be more places like Rahway. You make your balls, they call it. If you don’t, they’re gonna stab you in the back or hit you with a pipe. I did it in the first couple of days, just hit somebody with a pipe from the bushes. From that day on, they walked that way instead of walking toward me.
Favorite Seasons song?
I was partial to “Rag Doll,” the way it happened. Gaudio and I came out of the studio in New York. Every time you came out, some little kid would clean your windshield, and you’d give them a buck. This little girl ran up and was cleaning the window. Bob only had five dollars. I said, “Give her the five dollars, what’s the difference?” She was so poor, like a little rag doll. Bob called me about an hour later and said, “You gotta come up here.” He played it for me. It was great.
You’ve had extreme highs and lows in life. What was the highest high?
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was the cream of my life. We were lucky at the time we [formed the Four Seasons], but I can’t say we weren’t talented. Frankie [Valli] and his three-and-a-half octave range—I picked him when he was 15, hangin’ on the corner. And Bob Gaudio with his ingenuity in writing these songs, and Nick Massi was a master of harmony.
Do you still communicate with Valli and Gaudio?
I talked to Frankie two months ago. Every once in a while he’ll call and say, “How ya doin?” I have to give him a lot of credit. I respect what he accomplished, but he went through a lot with the family, losing his daughter. I lost a son, 26 years old. I thought it was [drugs], but it was bad rhythm in his heart. Frankie’s kind of sick himself. I take up prayers for him, whether I’m mad at him or not. I call Bob once in a while.
Despite quibbles with the story, has Jersey Boys been a positive in your life?
I thought to myself, what a shot in the arm, after all the stuff I went through. It’s phenomenal. Like, you’re not through with it. It’s a nice feeling at this age.