Tommy DeVito, who co-founded the vocal group that became the Four Seasons, has died aged 92 after contracting Covid-19. DeVito’s bandmates Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio announced the news on social media.
DeVito, who played lead guitar and sang baritone with the New Jersey group, died on Monday in Las Vegas after being admitted to hospital with the virus, Variety reports.
His friend actor Joe Pesci paid tribute. “The time he spent as part of the Four Seasons produced some of the most iconic music of that era and continues to inspire young musicians to this day. I will always remember him for his great voice and for the character that he was.”
Valli joined DeVito’s fledgling group in 1956. In 1960, Gaudio and Nick Massi joined and the band named themselves the Four Seasons. Two years later, they released their debut album, Sherry & 11 Others, which produced three No 1 singles. “It was crazy,” DeVito told the Las Vegas Sun. “We went from making $1,000 a week to $1,000 a day.”
From 1962 to 1964, the doo-wop group matched the Beach Boys for record sales in the US. They would then compete for popularity with the Beatles, a rivalry stoked by the bands’ shared record label, Vee-Jay, surviving the onslaught of the so-called British Invasion.
It was not to last. DeVito quit the band in April 1970. He claimed he was tired of touring, but it later emerged that he had accrued significant gambling debts and an insurmountable tax bill that Valli and Gaudio absorbed in exchange for buying him out of the group. The Four Seasons then signed to Motown, producing a number of singles that failed to bother the US charts.
Their story would inspire the long-running musical Jersey Boys, which premiered in 2005. “It’s a classic American story,” said Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the book alongside Rick Elice. “It’s rags to riches, and back to rags.” It was turned into a film in 2014.
The character of DeVito narrated the first of the musical’s four “seasons”, or parts, which in part detailed his relationship with local mafia boss Gyp DeCarlo. Says the fictional DeVito: “If you’re from my neighbourhood, you’ve got three ways out – you could join the army, you could get mobbed up, or you could become a star.”
The real life DeVito took the latter two routes out of Belleville, New Jersey, where he was born Gaetano DeVito, the youngest of nine, on 19 June 1928. He witnessed craps games on the way to church and gambling in the church basement, and according to Jersey Boys co-writer Elice, revered Al Capone more than fellow Jersey singer Frank Sinatra.
He dealt in petty crime and improved his guitar skills during a spell in prison. “There’s a lot of things I’d never do today that I did back then as a kid,” he told Goldmine magazine in 2008.
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His music career started when he began playing guitar for tips aged 12. “My parents were elated that we were bringing home eight bucks a night or so,” he said.
After quitting the group, DeVito worked as a card dealer in Las Vegas for three years. DeVito was close with the Joe Pesci, who put him on the payroll as an assistant and had his character in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob film GoodFellas named for him. That year, the Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“How do I want to be remembered?” DeVito told Jersey Boys Blog in 2006. “First, I’d want people to remember all of the great music the Four Seasons did together. Then, I’d also want people to know that everyone makes mistakes – nobody’s perfect. I’m not ashamed to admit it – I’ve been punished, did some jail time and I’ve paid my dues.”