Bob Crewe in the studio.
No matter how late Crewe stayed up reveling with celebrity friends, he stayed focused on work. The next day would invariably find him piecing together the latest release by The Four Seasons or whoever else he was producing at the time. His productions were always a patchwork affair; seldom did he ever cut songs “live” with all his musicians in the same room. The musical overdub was his favorite tool to use in the studio. He liked to spend a lot of time on details: A harp flourish here, a harmonica part there, a drum roll, a flamenco guitar riff, a weird sound effect, a dramatic pause. Those details were often as important as the basic track, if not more, and they were essential to his production style.
Arranger/producer Charlie Calello stresses that Crewe never began a recording session without first laying out his vision. “Before we would go into the studio, (Bob) would have other records as reference points and (he’d) explain how he wanted his song to sound. He would say that he liked the rhythm on one record, the strings on another . . . when he heard the concept in the studio, he would continue to make changes and adjust it until (he got) what he wanted.” Crewe would move parts of a track to an earlier or later point on tape, or repeat it over and over again. “His energy was always ‘up’, and he constantly came up with different ideas that would shape the record,” Calello says. “If there was one thing I learned from Bob Crewe, it was (that) ‘the impossible takes just a bit longer’.”
Anyone who observed Crewe at work couldn’t help but come away impressed by his creative ability, especially once they realized he could neither read nor play music. Drummer Mark “Moogy” Klingman was one such person; in the Spring of 1968, Crewe produced a critically-acclaimed album for his band, The Glitterhouse. “Bob Crewe was a creative genius in the recording studio,” Klingman writes on his website, moogymusic.com. “He depended totally on inspiration, and would always invent ideas on the spot. With The Glitterhouse, he mostly rearranged (our) songs as (we) would record them. He’d come up with ideas for vocal arrangements, and would often sing on the background vocals . . . he was the kind of record producer that turned every act into a Bob Crewe Sound. He was a bit like Phil Spector in that respect.”
The most important facet of the Bob Crewe Sound was rhythm. His records always boasted strong melody lines, but what you remembered most about them was the driving sound of those tambourines, those castanets, those tack pianos, those chimes, those handclappings and fingerpops, and especially those floor boards he used for foot stomping! A couple of years after his Four Seasons productions made that stomp famous, producers Holland, Dozier and Holland borrowed it to great effect for Diana Ross and The Supremes’ early hits.
Sound engineer George Schowerer recalls how painstakingly Crewe labored over his rhythm tracks. “Working with Bob was certainly an education,” he says. “He could devise so many overdubs, I had to map out what I was doing in order to keep things in perspective . . . Bob would add multiple tracks of tambourines, hand claps and foot stomps. (This) was a habit he used as far back as Freddie Cannon’s first songs.” Crewe was relentless when it came to finding novel percussive sounds; danceability was of primary importance to him. If making a track more danceable meant using an African “hairy” drum on “Rag Doll” or hammering a radiator under the opening chords of “Jenny Take A Ride”, he’d do so without hesitation. “Without a good backbone,” he once said, “you ain’t got nothin’!”
More often than not, that backbone was the habanera, the Cuban refrain that dominated Rock ‘n’ Roll in the early 1960s. It pulsed beneath Crewe’s songs like a heartbeat; you can hear it in The Four Seasons’ “Walk Like A Man”, Diane Renay’s “Navy Blue”, The Walker Brothers’ “Everything Under The Sun” and Oliver’s “Good Morning, Starshine.” You can even find it in “Okefenokee” and other Crewe/Slay productions for Freddy Cannon. No producer cut Rock ‘n’ Roll tangos more often or more expertly than Bob Crewe did.
He wasn’t a one-trick pony when it came to Latin rhythms, though; The Four Seasons’ recordings of “Let’s Hang On!” and “Workin’ My Way Back To You” proved he could swing a mean boogaloo, The Bob Crewe Generation’s “Music To Watch Girls By” is a fine adaptation of the cha-cha-chá, Tracey Dey’s “Ska-Doo-Dee-Ya” is a credible stab at Jamaican dance music, and Frankie Valli’s immortal “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” is very likely the best bossa nova ever recorded. It also happens to be the fifth most performed song of the 20th century! Some producers considered Latin elements nothing more than seasoning, but Bob Crewe was one who understood how essential they were to making commercial Rock records. —Don Charles Hampton