'Jersey Boys' goes on, Maine-N.Y. songwriter reunion will not

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SCARBOROUGH — Bob Crewe had the Midas touch with pop music lyrics, writing and producing hits through three decades for himself and performers including Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.

Danny Cannon was one of Crewe’s many songwriting and recording partners, traveling from Buffalo, N.Y., to Crewe’s Manhattan offices and studios more than 50 years ago for a collaboration that never quite turned to gold.

Cannon, diagnosed with colon cancer in 2007, hoped this year to renew his friendship with Crewe. A neighbor in Buffalo even contacted The Forecaster to help Cannon find his former partner.

But a reunion and new conversations about old times are unlikely: Crewe, 82, lives in a local assisted living center and does not take visitors.

Cannon, 77, has been back in Buffalo since 1972 and out of the music business for about 45 years. His last single, “Across the Street,” written by Crewe and two others, cracked the Billboard Magazine Hot 100 in 1964, and was re-released in 1967.

Crewe’s work, meanwhile, has been immortalized in “Jersey Boys,” the globally successful musical using hits by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons to tell a coming-of-age story about personal and professional ups and downs, and the importance of friendship and camaraderie.

“(‘Jersey Boys’) brought me back, my memories came back,” Cannon said in a telephone interview from his Buffalo home.

Cannon, who recorded with the Vibra-Harps in the late 1950s and as Lenny O’Henry and the Short Stories through the mid-1960s, was aided in his search for Crewe by a neighbor, Leisha Williams.

“You know how you talk with your neighbors. And I was always interested in music,” Williams said. “He went from opening for James Brown to writing songs with Bob Crewe.”

Crewe’s older brother, Cumberland resident Dan Crewe, 78, said he and his sibling were raised in New Jersey, where they listened to big-band hits and Broadway music.

“(Bob) always wanted to be a singer, he was very talented,” Crewe said.

In the 1950s, Bob Crewe and Frank Slay wrote hits including “Tallahassie Lassie” for Freddy Cannon (no relation to Danny Cannon). In the mid-’70s, he wrote the Patti LaBelle hit “Lady Marmelade,” with Kenny Nolan. In between, Crewe and Bob Gaudio collaborated on hits including “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” and “My Eyes Adored You.”

Crewe was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1995.

Cannon was born in Mississippi and moved to Buffalo with his family in 1946. He began singing in the U.S. Air Force, and after his discharge, he and service companions Donnie Elbert, Charles Hargro and Donald Simmons formed the Vibra-Harps.

The quartet played a circuit around Toronto and Buffalo, usually traveling by car.

“We had jobs all over Buffalo. Now all those clubs are gone,” Cannon said.

Crewe recalled his brother and Cannon came together on a reference from Buffalo disc jockey Joey Reynolds, who also served as a talent scout for music executives.

The brothers Crewe had a rapidly growing music company, bolstered by the quick success of “Sherry.” Bob wrote and produced, and Dan handled the financial details.

“I was always the very logical, practical one, albeit with a strong inclination toward art and music,” Crewe said.

Radio stations were locally owned, and music executives traveled to get air play for their artists. It could be scandalous work, but the Crewes stayed clean.

“We refrained from payola, but we sure as hell made a lot of disc jockeys happy,” Crewe said.

The music industry was largely centered in office buildings on Broadway, and Crewe said it was competitive and closely knit.

“These were people who were primarily music aficionados” he said. “The New York scene was very familial. Everybody knew everybody. We didn’t sit around thinking of where our music would be in 50 years, that ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ would be a hit on Broadway.”

Collaborations between Bob Crewe and Danny Cannon began in the fifth floor of a Broadway office building, where producers and songwriters created hits in several rooms.

Cannon said their first single, “Cheated Heart,” was a Vibra-Harps recording, but Crewe had changed the group name to Lenny O’ Henry and the Short Stories. The quartet split apart soon after, and Cannon then recorded with backup singers that sometimes included the Four Seasons.

“Bob would take the backup singers and record them, then I’d come in and do my bit,” Cannon recalled.

“We used to argue a lot. I would write my own song and Bob would sometimes change the lyrics,” he said about the fragile partnership. “He was straight to the point, which was good.”

Cannon only recently decided it was time to try to reconnect with Crewe. Whatever disagreements they had were professional, he said, and he was saddened to learn a reunion is not possible.

“I feel awful about that,” Cannon said. “I would love to meet the man and go back to the old days and we could laugh about it.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Bob Crewe, who now requires assisted living in Scarborough, is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Danny Cannon, who wrote and recorded songs with Bob Crewe, is disappointed the two won’t reunite because of Crewe’s health.

“We didn’t sit around thinking of where our music would be in 50 years, that ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ would be a hit on Broadway,” Dan Crewe said of his partnership with his brother. Bob Crewe’s lyrics for the Four Seasons also helped score “Jersey Boys,” the musical that spawned the board game Dan Crewe holds.

Three decades of hits were recognized when Bob Crewe was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1995.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.