An Interview with Lee Shapiro of The Hit Men!
For those who are unfamiliar with The Hit Men, they are a group of talented musicians who have performed on dozens of hit records. Like Motown’s Funk Brothers and LA’s Wrecking Crew, The Hit Men helped to rocket a huge number of songs straight to the top of the Billboard charts.
Individually, the five current members of The Hit Men — guitarist Jimmy Ryan, keyboardist Lee Shapiro, bassist Jeff Ganz, vocalist Russ Velazquez, and drummer Steve Murphy — have appeared on over 85 albums and, as a result of their work, they have been rewarded with multiple Gold and Platinum recordings.
Lead guitarist and vocalist Jimmy Ryan started out as a musician with the ’60s band, The Critters, who scored with “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” a Top 20 hit from 1966. Working with Carly Simon, Ryan arranged, co-wrote, and performed on some of her greatest recordings including “Anticipation” and “Let The River Run.” In addition, Ryan also worked with such world-class artists as Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Paul McCartney.
Vocalist and keyboardist Russ Velazquez collaborated with Sting, The Ramones, LL Cool J, Luther Vandross, Paula Abdul, and Korn, among others.
Bassist Jeff Ganz recorded and toured with such well-known artists as Chuck Berry, Johnny Winter, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Vanilla Fudge, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Cheap Trick.
Drummer and vocalist Steve Murphy worked as a singer, producer, engineer, and musician for such artists as The Alan Parsons Project, Eric Burdon and The Animals, Three Dog Night’s Chuck Negron, Todd Rundgren, Mickey Dolenz, Gary Puckett, and Mitch Ryder.
New Jersey-based keyboardist Lee Shapiro is the founding member of The Hit Men. Lee was responsible for the arrangements on some of the biggest recordings by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. He also collaborated with the likes of Barry Manilow, Tony Orlando, and Tommy James.
Shapiro’s band, The Hit Men, will perform live this Friday, October 20, 2017 at 8pm at The Shea Center of the Performing Arts on the campus of William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.
Spotlight Central recently had an opportunity to chat with Shapiro about the group’s upcoming performance, in addition to Shapiro’s life as a young musician working with some other “Jersey Boys” — Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.
Spotlight Central: As a youngster, how did you get involved in music?
Lee Shapiro: I saw a cousin get all kinds of attention playing the piano when I was seven, and I wanted to play, so my parents bought me a piano. But I wasn’t allowed to take lessons for six months — they wanted to see if I would take to it myself. By the time the six months went by, I could pretty much play by ear, so they figured I should get lessons, and I did.
Spotlight Central: What kind of music did you listen to as a child?
Lee Shapiro: Needless to say, I was a big Beatles fan, but believe it or not, my real love was big band jazz like Count Basie and Buddy Rich — the real big band sound. So, because of that, I became an orchestrator and did that through high school. And, eventually, I was discovered by the Four Seasons leading an 18-piece jazz band in Garfield, NJ, when I was 18 years old.
Spotlight Central: Is it true that you saw The Four Seasons when you were younger and told your parents you could be part of that band because they had a keyboard player?
Lee Shapiro: It was 1964. I was eleven and had been taking piano lessons for three years. The Four Seasons were playing “Dawn” and Bob Guadio — who I’m still in touch with — was sitting at the piano and playing. And I said to my mother, “Look! This band has a piano player in it — not just guitars and drums like the other rock bands — I could do that someday!” And I never thought about it again, but eight years later, I was a part of The Four Seasons.
Spotlight Central: What was it like working with The Four Seasons in the studio recording songs like “Who Loves You” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”?
Lee Shapiro: Well, the hit records had ended for The Four Seasons in the late ’60s. With the new band — myself, Don Ciccone, Gerry Polchi, and Frankie — Bob Gaudio felt he had the vehicle to try to be competitive in the ’70s style of music. He had written “Who Loves You,” so we went in and recorded it, and he asked me to write a string line for it. In the studio, we had a room full of very talented classical string players. I raised my hands to conduct, they rolled the tape, the strings went down, and there I was — I had just orchestrated for a hit record and that was really the beginning of the rest of my career.
Spotlight Central: Not to mention a great record, too!
Lee Shapiro: Well, thanks — and just to give you a little backstory here: The Four Seasons had sold around 15 million records, but the tide of music had changed to the point where Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli — without a record deal — had to fund that record out of their own pockets and then go with their hat in their hands to Warner Brothers and say, “Even though we’re The Four Seasons, would you please put this out? We believe in it.” And they took a shot — which paid off, because the whole success thing started all over again — but it wasn’t easy, even for them, back then.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of The Four Seasons, we understand that you are going to be performing this Friday at The Shea Center for the Performing Arts in Wayne, NJ, with your current band, The Hit Men. What can audience members expect to experience at this concert?
Lee Shapiro: This is our seventh year with the band — and the band is still evolving — so in addition to some of The Four Seasons’ and Tommy James’ tunes we’ve always done, we’ll also incorporate the work of some of our new members of the band and their musical legacies, which are incredible.
With the passing of our late brother, Larry Gates on bass, we now have Jeffrey Ganz whom we’ve all known for 35 years and who was hand-picked by Larry for the band before his passing. Jeff Ganz has played bass with Cheap Trick and Johnny Winter, and the list just goes on and on and on and on. And our new drummer, Steve Murphy, has played with Three Dog Night, Foreigner, and Journey, so we’ve incorporated really early ’70s music into the show in addition to the inclusion of those great late-‘60s songs.
And the evolution of The Hit Men has continued even further in that we just released our new CD called Don’t Stop. We have a new original song written by our lead guitarist and vocalist, Jimmy Ryan — who wrote for The Critters back in the day — called “You Can’t Fight Love,” and we even have a music video of it, too, so we’re back in the big leagues, my friend! [Laughs] So we now have new original music and an original music video in addition to all the fantastic hits we’ve all had the blessings to be able to collaborate on.
Spotlight Central: Sounds great — is there anything else you’d like to add?
Lee Shapiro: Yes. In an odd twist of fate, our late bass player, Larry Gates — who I knew for 55 years prior to his passing — has a daughter, Ariana Gates, who just graduated from William Paterson University’s music department. Unfortunately, her father didn’t live to see her graduate, but I’m her Uncle Lee, and I did. At 21, she’s a very talented singer and a sought-after songwriter, and she will be the opening act for her father’s band, The Hit Men, this Friday. She’s going to perform some of her own original tunes and she will also perform a song in tribute to her late father. All of us in The Hit Men couldn’t be prouder of her and we’re thrilled to have her on the bill with us that night, so we hope everyone will come out and enjoy this very special performance!
For tickets and/or more information for the Friday, October 20, 2017 8pm performance of The Hit Men at William Paterson University’s Shea Center for the Performing Arts in Wayne, NJ, please go to tickets.wpunj.edu. To learn more about The Hit Men, please go to thehitmenlive.com.