"Capitol Fourth": Big crowds, big variety

Yes, there really is musical variety on TV ... but only if you promise fireworks and more. There's a terrific range to this year's "Capitol Fourth" concert on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Each year, PBS’ 4th-of-July concert – like the
holiday itself – offers consummate variety.

Pop, country and Broadway share a night with the National
Symphony.  The music crosses styles and
generations; this year, it ranges from Phillip Phillips, 23, to Frankie Valli,

“It’s going to be a real honor to share the stage with him,”
said Phillips, who was born 28 years after “Sherry” became the first of Valli’s
seven No. 1 singles.

Valli has never done the “Capitol Fourth” concert, but he’s
sung nearby. In 1982, he was hired for the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“Those guys mortgaged their homes to put (the Memorial project) together,” he
said. “I just couldn’t take money from them.”

Phillips did the Fourth concert two years ago, when he was still
adjusting to the notion of crowds. Before winning “American Idol,” he had
worked Georgia clubs. “The most would be 100 people or so,” he said. “Maybe
200.” PBS’ Fourth concerts (in Washington, D.C.) bring crowds estimated as high
as 500,000.

In some ways, these guys are similar. Valli recalls years of
doing small New Jersey clubs.

Phillips’ day job was in his dad’s pawn shop, a fine setting
for someone who would observe and sing about people. “You see so many different
kinds of people and hear so many stories.”

Valli had a similar working-guy start. “I was a florist,
worked construction, went to school to be a hair-dresser …. I grew up really
poor. I might have had a very tragic end; a lot of the kids I knew did.”

But there was always music, ever since he sang “White
Christmas” in elementary school. “I always like to sing and I liked the feeling
of a large audience.”

The first concert he went to was Frank Sinatra, who would
later be his friend. An early admirer was Texas Jean Valley, a country singer
who heard him and pointed him toward an agent; he used her surname (almost),
when switching from Casteluccio to Valli.

Things started slowly, in a group that was called the Varietones,
the Four Lovers and the Four Seasons. Eventually, it added Bob Gaudio, who had
already co-written a top-five single when he was 15. “I wasn’t terribly
impressed by the song he’d done, ‘Short Shorts,’” Valli admits. But he was soon
impressed by his elegant arrangements; no longer a performer, Gaudio remains key
to shaping the Valli sound.

That sound has thrived through 18 top-10 singles and a
career that never stops. “When we reach a certain age, we don’t stop talking,”
Valli said, “so why stop singing? You might lose a note or two at the top, but
you make up for it with other things.”

Phillips has had only one top-10 single, but it was big –
the song “Idol” chose as his first single. “I was worried about that,” he
grants. “I’m a writer and I wanted to have some part in (writing) the song.”

“Idol” had been a tough ride, complicated by a kidney-stone
problem that often left him lying down, connected to tubes, after most
performances. Then it all worked out. Unlike most years, “Idol” had a good song
(“Home”) for its winner. A year later, Phillips was finally able to take some
time off; his health problems cleared up.

He’s still early in his career and talks of the pleasure of
hearing his “Raging Fire” on the radio. “It’s exciting; I said, ‘Turn it up.’” Now
he’ll do that song to a mega-crowd, during a varied Fourth show.

“A Capitol Fourth,” 8 p.m. Friday, PBS, with
many stations repeating at 9:30 (check local listings)

Music by Frankie Valli and Patti LaBelle, plus
“American Idol” winners Phillip Phillips and Jordin Sparks and people from
Broadway (Kelli O’Hara), country (Sara Evans), pop (Michael McDonald), the
Muppets (Kermit and Miss Piggy) and “Big Time Rush” (Kendall Schmidt), plus

Also, NBC will be in New York from 8-10 p.m., with
Miranda Lambert, Ariana Grande, Lionel Richie and Hunter Hayes; an hourlong
rerun at 10 repeats the later parts, including fireworks.