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The Hit Men perform at Mahaffey Theater April 19.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Hit Men, the legendary musicians behind the legends of rock and roll, will perform Friday, April 19, 8 p.m., at The Duke Energy Center for the Arts – Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg.

Tickets start at $35. Call 727-300-2000 or visit www.themahaffey.com.

These four performers lived rock and roll history as they sang, played or recorded with some of the biggest names in the music biz, including icons such as Elton John, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Carly Simon, Frankie Valli, as well as members of Journey, The Rascals, Three Dog Night, The Turtles and The Who. Audiences know these songs by heart: “Who Loves You,” “Oh, What A Night,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Pinball Wizard,” and “Joy to the World.”

Not a tribute band, The Hit Men are the actual musicians and singers heard on the original records and in concert. In this fantastic multimedia show, The Hit Men bring on the hits by artists they have performed with on stage and in the recording studio.

The Hit Men will take audience members behind the scenes with “insider” stories about what it was like on the road and in the recording sessions with rock royalty.

“When we share our experiences and tell stories, we aren’t reciting a script,” said Steve Murphy. “When we tell you how Warren Beatty got thrown out of Carly Simon’s dressing room at the Troubador in Los Angeles in 1971, you know it’s true because Jimmy Ryan was the one who did it.”

The Hit Men feature Lee Shapiro, keyboards/vocals and Frankie Valli’s former musical director; Jimmy Ryan, lead guitar/vocals and Carly Simon’s former musical director; Russ Velazquez, keyboards/percussion/vocals; Jeff Ganz, bass/vocals; and Steve Murphy, drums/vocals. The Hit Men are being recognized by the Nashville museum that honors the talented but often overlooked musicians who actually played on the greatest recordings of all time. Classic rock’s unique super-group of legendary side men recently were selected by the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville to receive a special award “for their years of dedication to the music, and the countless miles … that they have traveled in delivering so many hits throughout the world.” They will be celebrating their receipt of the prestigious Road Warrior Award later this month.

Joe Chambers, founder and CEO of the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, said that the Road Warrior recognition “is different from the honors we normally present to the musicians who have spent most of their careers in the confines of the studio.”

According to Chambers, career musicians like those found in The Hit Men not only work in the studio as session artists but also take the music to the people on the road.

“Night after night, month after month, year after year, they are out there keeping the music alive and keeping it real, seldom getting the recognition that they all richly deserve,” Chambers said. “The Musicians Hall of Fame takes great pride in recognizing The Hit Men for their years of dedication to the music, and the countless miles ― which nobody sees ― that they have traveled in delivering so many hits throughout the world.”

Exclusive interview with Lee Shapiro of The Hit Men

By Cathy Salustri, courtesy of Mahaffey Theatre

You may not know his name — or the names of the others performing alongside him in the Hit Men — but you do know his music. Lee Shapiro started his musical career with Frankie Valli — as one of the Four Seasons — and from there, well, he’s enjoyed the kind of music career most musicians dream of having. This Jersey boy gave us a morning of his time, and we couldn’t wait to pick his brain about everything from Frankie Valli to Rock and Roll Elmo.

Cathy Salustri: You grew up in the ‘60s. You were 19 when you started work with the Four Seasons. Tell us about the very beginning.

Lee Shapiro: I was 19 in 1973 and that’s when I replaced Bob Gaudio and met Frankie Valli. So, I’m 11 years old. I’m in the den with my mother and we’re watching The Ed Sullivan Show in black and white and the Four Seasons come on, and there’s Bob Gaudio, sitting at the piano. I say to my mother, “Look! The Beatles are all guitars and bass and all that stuff, but this band has a piano.” And I think, maybe I could do that someday.

Eight years later I was playing in the band and their manager came in and I replaced Bob Gaudio in the Four seasons, in 1973. And that’s that’s how I got with Frankie and I stayed with him all through the ‘70s and we recorded “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”, “Who Loves You”, “My Eyes Adored You”, “Swearin’ to God” … That was the whole second coming.

CS: How did you find your way to the Four Seasons?

LS: I was playing in a club in Garfield New Jersey. I was 18 years old and I was writing arrangements for a 17-piece big band jazz, Buddy Rich, that kind of band, because that’s the music that I was following.

[At the same time] Gaudio wanted to produce and not tour, and coincidentally, their [the Four Seasons] tour manager walked in. They were looking for someone to replace Gaudio. They had to keep coming back to New York every time they wanted to do a new song to arrange it for the band or the orchestra. They were looking for a keyboard player who could also orchestrate so they could put new material in while they were anywhere. And he walked in and saw me, and I got a call to come and audition, and I got the job and they threw me in the water and I told them all kinds of things I could do, whether I could or I couldn’t land, and I learned while doing an incredible education. To this day, I’m very close friends with Frankie; it’s a 46 year friendship.

CS: How did the music of your own teenage years influence the work you did with, say, Paul Shaffer?

LS: The relationships with all these people are all different. Paul, believe it or not, started out as the rest of us, a journeyman musician who went in and did sessions. He’s a brilliant, brilliant organ player. He started out doing some television with Saturday Night Live in the early days. I’ve worked with him on and off in sessions. I’ve produced stuff where he’s played keyboard; he’s produced stuff where I played keyboard, so we’re basically associates in the industry. It wasn’t like I went on a full Shaffer tour, but that’s true with so many of the relationships.

I was legitimately one of the Four Seasons; by the same token. I co-produced the music to Copacabana, the musical, with Barry Manilow. I never toured with him, but I co-produced his music. I toured with Tommy James as a fill-in Shondells and one of the guys had to drop out for a couple of years. I also wrote music for Chaka Khan.

We’re now doing a song by Toto called “Africa." We do that in the show. The reason we do it is because of our affiliation with the different members. But we didn’t tour with Toto; what happened was this: I was on The Sonny and Cher Show with the Four Seasons. To pre-record the music, we went into the studio and there was David Paich, and David Paich’s band became Toto, and so that’s why we incorporate these songs into our show. We don’t do any songs unless we had something to do with the making of it, or with the artist — either on tour or in the studio. We don’t play our favorite song or that because we’re not a tribute band. We have history with every song we do.

CS: When you play the songs, do the people in the audience get a sense of what your relationship is with that song?

LS: I’d have to say that they can’t miss it. We’ll preface a song with a real story. For example, Jimmy Ryan, [guitarist and singer] was with Carly Simon’s director for 21 years. He knows exactly who “You’re So Vain” was written about, because he was there when the incident happened. So, he tells his story, and projected behind us is Jimmy playing “You’re So Vain” with Carly Simon back in the ’70s. We do “Oh, What a Night” and I tell the story of how the song was originally about 1933, not 1963, and we go into the song, and as we’re playing, projected behind me is me with Frankie Valli on The Midnight Special on NBC, playing “Oh, What a Night” at age 23. It’s really a time travel experience. What you get out of a Hit Man concert is that you will leave happier and younger when you got there.

CS: What do you do when you’re not working with music?

LS: First and foremost, I love my family and I try to be with them. Just being in their company; it’s a pleasure for me. I’ve been married 41 years. I’m a statistic in my family and my wife’s family. We love each other.

Jimmy Ryan, our guitarist and our lead singer, and me both are adept at graphic arts and video editing, so we have what looks like multi-hundreds of thousands of dollar production with visuals, graphics and all kinds of effects, but it’s all done by us, so our posters, our website, our videos, our logo, our flyers, our CD jackets are all self-contained and that’s what we do on the time off. So if you look at our Facebook and you flip through the images, they’re all done by me. If you flip through the videos; you type in the Hit Men on YouTube, Jimmy created all those videos with the titles and the edits and transitions and all that, and we both love to do that. So that’s what we do.

CS: How did the Hit Men come into existence?

LS: It really, really was spawned from Jersey Boys. About the sixth year of Jersey Boys, I said, “You know, Frankie I wouldn’t have thought of this, but with the success of Jersey Boys and the songs being so much in the public awareness now, what would you think if I went out and did a show as one of the Four Seasons?”

And he said, “Lee, all of the tribute bands are restricted as to how many Four Seasons tunes they can do because we don’t want them to detract from Jersey Boys. You, however, biographically were one of the Four Seasons. Go do whatever you want and enjoy it.” He was very supportive.

At the time, we were three of the Four Seasons in the Hit Men — Don Ciccone, who recently passed away, which is a shame, Gerry Polci, who sang “Oh, What a Night” retired and got married, and I stayed. The other people in the band have the same or better resumes than I do. Our drummer Steve was on the Happy Together tour and he worked with Three Dog Night and the Turtles and Alan Parsons. I could go on … Our legacy, individually … by the time you put it together we were on 85 gold and platinum records collectively, that’s 850 songs we have to choose from that actually were hits. We don’t have to wonder what we’re going to play.

For the Mahaffey we have added four new tunes for the show. We’re going to debut them at the Mahaffey. One will be “Feels Like the First Time” by Foreigner. Dennis Elliot, the original drummer for Foreigner, sat in with us in Naples last year and played in our concert.

CS: Talk to us, please, about Rock and Roll Elmo and Rock and Roll Ernie. How did that happen?

LS: I’ll tell you, that the success of that dwarfs my entire music career. When I left the road, I formed a music jingle company in New York. We were doing music for commercials for Fisher-Price, and I look at toys and I say to my partner, “You know what? This isn’t fun.” I said to him, “What’s the biggest toy? And he said, “Tickle Me Elmo.” I said, “What do you think of Rock n Roll Elmo?”

And we looked at each other. My wife and I, for a whopping cost of $60, put a mechanism inside of an existing Elmo, put a plastic guitar in his hand and made some rock and roll music. We brought it into Mattel/Fisher-Price and they bought it, and it sold four million pieces worldwide — for a $60 investment. It can’t be done that way today — all those today that bend over and laugh and jump around? All those things are like two million dollars R&D. But when I did this, which is now coming up on almost 20 years ago, I got the relationship through my jingles. I walked in with my Rock and Roll Elmo, and when we turned it on, it started to shake and sing? That guy’s face lit up. I knew; I knew this is it.

We got a very competitive rate for “Splish Splash,” which is pertinent to Ernie with his rubber ducky, and “Rock Around The Clock” [for] telling time, and those are the songs that were in it. It went through the roof, because all the grandmas, all the parents and all the kids know the songs.