Episode 01: Joe Long from the Four Seasons, still blooming after a lifetime of music

During my career, I’ve been lucky to have worked with some very talented and accomplished people. Joe Long, former bass player for 11 years with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was definitely one of them.  In this honest interview, I know you will identify with his drive and  ability to overcome adversities to continue to pursue his dream as a musician which took him all over the world with a legendary group.

I confess, I learned some things about Joe's other interests that took me by surprise and made me realize that he exemplified what a true Bloomer is all about - always in a process of evolving.

Sadly, Joe passed away recently, which makes this interview even more poignant. He lived a full life.

Thanks for listening.

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Sharman Nittoli 0:14
Hi, welcome to Live Your Bloom podcast. My guest today is somebody really special to me. He's a friend, but he's also known worldwide as the bass player, former bass player for the four seasons.

I'm just going to bring him right on and let him tell his story. Hi, Joe. Thank you for coming today. I appreciate it. Oh, thanks for ask me. So how long have we known each other Joe?

Joe Long 0:40
Oh, my goodness, I left the seasons in 76. And then that you about the same time? So?

Sharman Nittoli 0:47
Yeah, yeah. We get into all of that. We'll just get into it. Just a little bit of your background. A lot of people know it. And some people don't I think it's really fascinating. So you came from what town?

Joe Long 1:00
Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Queen City of East?

Sharman Nittoli 1:04
And so what would your musical background your training,

Joe Long 1:08
I started cooking accordion lessons when I was six years old, could barely lifted anything.

And kept up with the lessons through my mid teens. Then got interested in girls, and baseball, that's always a way to stop music. Right? Girls and baseball. Yeah. But uh, at about, I guess we're over 18, I had a pretty severe accident to my left hand. Then a long, long period of convalescence and, and, you know,physical therapy, Operation surgery, I renewed my interest in music.

But I couldn't play keyboards anymore because of the damage to my left hand. And so I picked up a bass, an upright, and began listening to the radio and playing along with it. I already knew how to read music. So I could I could acclimate myself, you know, fairly easily on the fingerboard on the bass. And I began playing with the with the radio. And then when I was well enough to break out again, you know, into the real world. I began playing professionally.

Sharman Nittoli 2:17
In bands in your school? Did you have friends who were a band?

Joe Long 2:21
Yeah, I did. I did. Yeah, I, you know, I was in that little group of musicians, although I wasn't that active in high school. But I hung with musicians and baseball players. And so then after, after I began playing professionally. Having rekindled the interest in music. I began studying again, this time basis 30 concert base for a while. And I guess I had a, an idea that I might make it as a classical basis. But the rigors of concert music were just too much for my left hand.

So I bought a Fender playing rock and roll and things got a lot easier after that. Yeah, but they did. They did. Yeah.

Sharman Nittoli 3:09
So you were gigging in different places. And then you got the call for the audition.

Joe Long 3:17
Right. Exactly what happened was, in fact, I was working with your husband. Alfred, in a band. And I got a call from Tommy DeVito, the founding member of the Four Seasons, guitar player, and told me that their bass player had left abruptly, Nick Massi had left abruptly without warning and they needed a guy to replace him and I was recommended by a mutual friend, a guy named Frankie Flame, who was my agent at the time. He was also booking the Four Seasons at local concerts, you know, Jersey country. And he told me they thought he had the replacement guy who played bass and sang, you know, with a kind of a husky voice, sounds like a bass got a cold. And Tommy heard me and things just kind of worked out? Sure did.

Sharman Nittoli 4:09
Was the audition on a very difficult song, or did they test you on your harmony parts? Or both?

Joe Long 4:17
Tommy, Yeah, he was a rough guy. So when I when I met him at that music studio in a music store in Belleville, and I'm a left handed bass player by the way because of the accident. I didn't take my bass with me. So we talked for a while and then he said "I want you to play me something". I said "What Tom? I'm sorry, I don't I don't have my bass with me." And he pointed to the wall. He said "There's about 20 of them, they're hanging up there just pick one." I said "Tom, I'm left handed!" You know, you're a piano player, Sharman. If a piano keyboard gets turned upside down, you know you won't be able to play. But he wanted me to play. Yes. So he was playing the blues and you know, easy to get. Yeah. So, so I did a couple of courses just to sing Kansas City, go to Kansas City, Kansas.

The question was harmony ports. He said, right, I want you to meet the other guys. That would be Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio. The next day I went to Tommy's house in Belleville, New Jersey. I'm sorry. He was living by that time in Montclair, New Jersey. And Frankie and Bobby were there. And Bobby said, here, sing this sing that play this, you know. And it was revealed that he was laying out some parts for and he, you know what it was all over? He said, Yeah. You know, we kind of liked what you're doing. He says, so if you want the gig, it's yours.

He says, By the way, are you familiar with the Four Seasons now? Sharman, remember, I told you before I was I was not a rock and roll player. I played some rock. After I left I got better, you know, with the hand accident. But prior to that I listened mostly to jazz. I didn't want to lose this gig. So I said, "Oh, the Four Seasons", I said," it's my favorite band in the whole world is in fact, your record. Don't Hang On is my favorite. He said "Well, listen, it's Let's Hang On, but you got the gig. Anyway.

Sharman Nittoli 7:51
I know that you did some conducting for the Seasons to do that. Did you go back to school again? How did that come about? Taking some I was taking some classes by mail.

Joe Long 8:09
I forget what you call those things. But, you know, the mail, Berklee College up in Boston for good school. I took some lessons in dance band, arranging and conducting.

So I had, you know, and then the fact that I could read, you know, since I was a kid, I was I was able to score. And so, so yeah, you know, I had I had not actual experience, but had plenty of training. You know, I know, I know, the mechanics of doing it. And follow through in the circus. You know, one more point I'd like to make.

The Detroit beautiful hotel, Night Club, I'm sorry. And they had a big band, book arrangement, Big Band chart. And there was a there was a 12 or 13 piece orchestra there. For the rehearsal leader, so I can't conduct I don't know anything about it. So go to the Soho journal, you know how to do a YouTube. That was it. Right? Like so I rehearsed the band and conducted the show. And from then on, I acted as their conductor.

Sharman Nittoli 9:21
See, that's called preparation and opportunity. The opportunity came up and we were ready to go there you go. The whole the whole singer life be prepared. Now, we've talked about this before, how we both like to study and get theory and knowledge. But do you think with today's artists that it's as necessary, do you think that a lot of these artists are edgy, you know, trained musically they know their theory, they know their chords, or is it a different game?

Now? That's a great question. And the answer because one side of me says study, learn all you can know every facet of what you're doing.

Joe Long 10:08
But you know, if you want to make a quick living, do you really need all of that? So I think I think the happy medium is to, to study enough so that you got more than just a casual working knowledge of your instrument, or of your craft, know a little bit more about it than just going out there and then feeling your way through it, it does my heart good, though, when I do see kids who are still serious and still studying, making that good music, you know, kids playing classic flute playing classical strings, or some young kid playing drums, you know, playing the heck out of those things. So I know that the kids are still seeing that there is an element of out there that is still serious. They still want to study? Well, I admire those people. And I guess my general advice to all young people is study as much as you can get as much education as much learning as you can, as much practical experience as you can, and then go up. And nowadays, they have to combine it with the whole digital aspect.

Sharman Nittoli 11:19
You know, but I've always I agree with you on that. I'm ambivalent, because many people are very successful, and really good writers and really don't have a lot of musical training. So, but that wasn't our experience. So, you know, we lived in a different a different time when you had if you really wanted to get past just, you know, playing the gigs in the local joints. Yeah, that to get that go that extra step. You had to know a little bit more. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

What were some of the highlights of of the Seasons, like what what was something that was just met be completely memorable to you?

Joe Long 11:59
I'll start off with the most memorable, because you mentioned conducting before. And we were lucky enough in 69 to be approached by Frank Sinatra, and he asked us to tour with him. And we did that for the better part of a year, most of 69.

And Sinatra used to use an orchestra. In fact, he is the best, the best gangster musicians that I've ever heard in my entire entire lifetime. See, these guys were magnificent. And that orchestra, played the whole show, played our show Sinatra show, it was in the middle. But we had our key guys, our drummer, our guitar player, our keyboards, but other than that, we use the orchestra. So I got to conduct the Frank Sinatra orchestra for months. And I was like, Oh, my God, you know, going down the list.

In fact in 1971. We filled it twice. And when you were the first group to do that, so. So yeah, they were like great experiences, great. Great memories. You know, I hope you have some great pictures.

There is one on the wall, you know, it would be tough to show. But it's me at a rehearsal conducting Sinatra.

Sharman Nittoli 13:36
Wow! That's a great one.

Joe Long 13:38
Oh, I'll send it to you.

Sharman Nittoli 13:42
Yeah, please do, please do. So I'm going to skip now to when you left the seasons, and who did you come back to work with you?

Joe Long 13:52
I had just met you through well, your husband, Alfred. And we go back to the mid 50s. We will do the dirt. And he had his little local band. I had my local band. And, and we got to know each other because musicians get to know each other, you know, like all like doctors, no doctors, lawyers. No. Right. And so I knew well, who was alit back then? I knew l from back then. And we got tight. And in fact, when he married and had his first child, I christened his daughter, I'm godfather.

Sharman Nittoli 14:33

Joe Long 14:33
Yeah, yeah. But when I left the seasons he had he was working with you. A very successful local band.

Sharman Nittoli 14:52
Was it Chelsea Warehouse?

Joe Long 14:58
Chelsea, yeah. He and I had the idea of putting something together and using Chelsea as the source for the for the musicians. Yeah. And you came along for the ride.

Sharman Nittoli 15:13
I might have just joined Chelsea, I wasn't in Chelsea too long. Okay, yeah. And he always says, you know, "Op until you came in the group, we went to Florida every winter. But once you got the new group, all the good stuff stopped. We stopped making money." Ha ha.

But at that time, the business supported these big show bands, there was a lot of places to play. We went on the road, different times just a lot of work. Absolutely. There were times we were working seven nights a week, we were working the cocktail hours. And even after that, we were working this "After Hours" joint that was from two to six in the morning. I mean, just a lot of work, you know. So yeah, and seven piece bands, 10 piece bands. And we used to all go out and support each other in a friendly competition, you know. Yeah.

Joe Long 16:09
And if you worked the club that close, let's say we're close in the next calendar year for all the bands that finished it, to run out to the other clubs.

And it was it was a whole, great, great atmosphere back then for musicians. So we had a run with that we did some recording.

Sharman Nittoli 16:29
And then we changed it drastically because Atlantic City opened up. Yes. And that was a fun.

Joe Long 16:36
That was a fun group that I think I've told you this in the past. So I'm telling you now, I've been playing music, professionally since 1954 or five, that's a lot of years. And I've been through all kinds of I play with all kinds of bands and singers and played shows dancers and magicians juggling, play everything. The band that we put together after the rock band, after Joe La Bracio, Jersey bounce, I guess you want, you know, that was the most fun I ever had playing with a band that I still think of that band as my favorite band that I've ever played with. It was fun. And musicianship, you know, it was great.

Sharman Nittoli 17:28
We worked so hard. We wanted to be good.

Joe Long 17:37
It wasn't just to Our harmony and yeah, exactly how many needs to be spent at your house hours- rehearsing for hours.

Sharman Nittoli 17:49
Then I would say everybody bought a tape and cassette tape recorder, because that's what it was, you know, just recording your part. Take it home.

Joe Long 18:00
That was but let's see the results. Yeah. Prove that we're on the right track. I mean, I mean, we you know, we remember we we just did something that no other band was doing in the area.

Sharman Nittoli 18:17
And our first gig we headed down Atlantic City, remember on the rotating stage? Jazz legends. Four Freshmen, Maxine Brown, Bill Hailey & the Comets, and John Hendricks was on there.

Joe Long 18:36
We held our own. Yeah, it was quite an experience. You know, we were all dressed in the right clothes.

Sharman Nittoli 18:44
Hunting down the vintage clothes of which there was a lot of.

Joe Long 18:51
if you if you haven't if you haven't thought about this one for a while, I'll refresh your memory. We're doing a gig in in Bloomfield, New Jersey, somewhere around here and there was a benefit going on in one of the clubs and another club and we were asked to, to go down here and maybe do a set. Yeah. And then we walked in it was loud rock music, you know, it was fine. We did. So we got up there you know, acoustic piano drums our play tenor which nobody heard nobody even know what it was sax with little tenor sax. And me playing upright bass.

Yeah, yeah. So we went into the "Ba ba do ba ba ba..... (scatting) We were done. They give us a standing ovation!

Sharman Nittoli 19:44
I remember that, we went to the Jetty was at the jetty and it was great. Oh my god. Yeah, this whole thing was 4-part harmony, but what an experience for me to learn how to arrange it. I drove into Queens at the time to take lessons with a guy named Bob Bianco with the Schillinger method of theory.

That's what I used to do, but that's how I learned. And then I just used to transcribe stuff off the record. And that's how we all learned, you know, we had a hard time in that but we had we had a good time with that.

Joe Long 20:30
We got to play good music. Yeah. It's just it was. So as I said, my favorite band, Yeah. Yeah, it was it was.

Sharman Nittoli 20:41
But now I'm gonna segue , because this show is about "Living Your Bloom". And it's for people like our age younger or older, but mostly people going through a transition that are like on the fence about what do I do next? What are my interests? Not everything we want to do to bloom has to make money for us. Sometimes it's just that this is what our interest is, you know, what do I like to do? I know someone who just likes to do make mosaics, doesn't want to make money from it, but she just likes to do it. So you have a certain hobby that surprised me. I would love for you to share that with the listeners.

Joe Long 21:17
Yeah. I'm into flight simulation. Yeah. And, and I was lucky enough in the 1970s to actually take flying lessons on my certificate came close. But the rigors of the road and I spent so much time away from my teacher away from home, I wasn't able to, to complete the course.

And say that, you know, so I just forgot about it for a while. But then back in the late 80s, a flight simulation on the PC and the computer was born. Oh, wow. flying an airplane on your computer. And I did that. Since then. It's come such a long way. So that today, you can actually pick a plane, plan a flight, pick an airport, whether choose a flight plan, create a flight plan, do the whole thing. from, you know, from the very inception, pick an airplane to fly the route and landing it at your destination. And so I really got involved in it. And that's what I do. I spent hours, hours at the computer flying different kinds of aeroplanes, different kinds of scenarios. And I think this goes for the person with the mosaics and everyone else. You keep that muscle up there cookin', workin'. .

It'll put you in good head. it'll have it'll have the rewards. And so that's what I do now. I I love to fly on my computer. You know, it's great.

Sharman Nittoli 23:18
So what did you have to get? Did you have to get the wheel that job? What did you get?

Joe Long 23:22
Yeah, well, first of all the software now I've got four different simulator programs. And they and they're relatively expensive. Then I had to buy a wheel is equipment that's a throttle throttle.by foot pedals. Then I've also got a yoke. So maybe you've seen been smaller planes we have it looks like a little steering wheel. Like I have the steering wheel. I bought that. And I've got I've got some of the stuff set up permanently on my desk. Other stuff, depending on the plan on flying. I import some of the stuff from my closet, hook it up, and that's where I fly. So yeah, I've got I've got quite an investment in, in equipment. Yeah. Well, you know, that's the thing, too, is a lot of people feel like at a certain point, I'm not going to invest all this money in myself, because all it's going to do is make me happy.

Sharman Nittoli 24:24
I'm like, what's wrong with that? You know, you know, happier people are more open minded in many ways more gracious, more. They're kinder, they're a happy person is kind of person I want to be around.

So, I thank you for sharing that. And because it's inspirational to say " Yeah, this is what I want to do and I'm going to do it and have no guilt whatsoever.

Joe Long 24:51
My kids walk in and say what are you doing? I'm okay, I'm 30 feet over Detroit.No.

Sharman Nittoli 25:02
That's great . That's great. Well, listen, I'm gonna wrap this up. And thank you so much for coming on. It's always good to talk to you anyway. But you are launching my podcast, so - fireworks. So I thank you so much. And I'm going to put, actually, it's a podcast, but if it should ever go on YouTube in any other way, I just want to put that if someone wants to reach you, they can go to your real name Joe LaBracio.

Every time I talk to him, he has something new to tell me and that's what I love about talking with him. He's a real Bloomer. Thank you so much for listening. Stay tuned for the next podcast.

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