Don Ciccone's career as a singer and musician (The Critters, Frankie Valli
and the Four Seasons, Tommy James and the Shondells) has taken him around the
world -- but songwriting remains nearest to his heart. After all, his initiation
into the music industry came as a direct result of a producer overhearing him
rehearse an original song during a break in a recording session.
He started writing songs and putting together bands just a few months
after beginning guitar lessons at the age of 12. At 15, he auditioned for a
locally popular band in Westfield, New Jersey. The Vibratones, led by Jim Ryan,
were looking for a rhythm guitarist who could sing. One of Ciccone's best
friends, Bob Podstawski (who would become the sax player and singer with The
Critters), had suggested to Ryan that Don would be perfect for the slot.
"I would have rather been a lesser member of The Vibratones than the leader
of my own band -- that's how good this band was. During the audition Bob said,
'Hey, Don's written some songs too -- Don, why don't you play some songs that
you wrote?' I did, and that may have been what clinched the deal."
Don's enthusiasm for the group motivated him to put together first one
management team, then another; eventually the group, by then re-named The
Critters, landed a recording contract with Kama Sutra. It was during a break in
recording their cover of John Sebastian's "Younger Girl" (which would become the
band's first hit) that serendipity struck. Producer Artie Ripp walked by the
rehearsal studio at exactly the right moment.
"During break time I was rehearsing a song I'd just written called 'Mr.
Dieingly Sad'. Artie overheard it, walked into the room and yelled, 'STOP! What
is this song?', and Jim said, 'It's something that Don just wrote.' Artie said,
'Stop right here, we're gonna stop the recording of "Younger Girl", we're going
right in the studio to record this.' We went in the studio at that moment and
recorded the tune."
Riding on the crest of the popularity of "Younger Girl", Kama Sutra released
"Mr. Dieingly Sad" next -- and it surpassed the previous single's success.
Unfortunately, there was no time for Don to bask in the glory of rising fame, or
capitalize on its rewards.
"In the first several months of being in the service I received a package in
the mail, and in that package was The Critters' first album. I'd recorded the
lead vocal on 'Younger Girl' and had written and sung lead on 'Mr. Dieingly Sad'
but I was drafted into the military before the album was completed."
The gentle rhythm, unique lyrics and haunting harmonies of 'Mr. Dieingly Sad'
have made it an enduring favorite not only with fans but with other recording
artists as well, many of whom have covered the ballad in the last three decades
(Ciccone himself being one of them).
"The elements that I think made that song appealing to the market audience at
the time were that it was a beautiful combination of chords and melody, it had a
flowing poetic lyric and the harmony lines and harmonic intervals were unique
for that time. Actually, the harmonies were written before the lyric was
After an honorable discharge from the Air Force, Don quickly learned that the
recording industry measured time quite differently than most. "At meetings with
record company people I'd say, 'It was only two years ago that my group had
hits', and I remember someone saying, 'Two YEARS ago? We want to know what
you've done in the last two MONTHS!' So, it was a rude awakening for me. Here I
was at 25 years old, listening to people refer to my hits as 'oldies' -- I was
feeling like a has-been well before my 30th birthday."
Disappointed but not disheartened, Don opened his own lead sheet company.
Once again, serendipity stepped in: "There was a writer by the name of Tony
Lordi for whom I was doing lead sheets. He was signed to Sunbury Dunbar, which
was the publishing company for RCA, and I was RCA's lead sheet guy. Frank Costa,
who was in charge of Sunbury Dunbar at the time, asked me if I'd like to meet
Tony. We met, and it turned out he'd always liked The Critters. Anyway, a week
later I got a phone call from Frankie Valli, who had just had lunch with Tony,
asking me to become one of The Four Seasons. So, had I not been turned down by
the record companies because in their eyes my writings had been so 'old', I
wouldn't have started the lead sheet company; had I not started the lead sheet
company, I wouldn't have met Tony Lordi, and had I not met Tony Lordi he
wouldn't have dropped my name at a lunch date he had with Frankie Valli."
After a ten-year run as one of The Four Seasons, first as
lead guitarist and later bass player as well as a lead vocalist on "December
1963 (Oh What A Night)", "Who Loves You" and others, Don decided it was time to
once again strike out on his own -- this time he turned his talents to
award-winning jingle writing.
"I very quickly realized that writing a jingle spot is a lot more of a
challenge than writing a song. With a song, if it takes you another 30 seconds
to get the point across, if it takes you another 6 bars to get the right effect,
that's what you do. You can't do that on a jingle. It must fit an exact time
constraint. So my musical abilities and my mathematical abilities were called
into play. In the sixties I'd left college as a physics major for a record deal
with The Critters; jingles afforded me the chance to utilize my musical talents
and the math abilities and interests that I'd always had. I loved writing
jingles; and best of all, there was instant gratification -- you could hear your
work on the radio within weeks."
Perhaps he's more patient these days , because he's back to songwriting
(long-form) again. Don says he's broadened his listening base over the years,
and feels that's helped him become a more diverse writer. "If I had to choose
artists and writers who I really like, it would have to be people like Marc
Anthony, Steve Wariner, Clint Black, Seal, Garth Brooks, Tracy Chapman. And I
still love the techniques of the same players I always did: Chet Atkins, Roy
Clark and Glenn Campbell."
Clark? Campbell? Black? Brooks? What's that about? Has Ciccone gone
"Well, I don't know about that, but I do seem to be drawn to it lately.
Admittedly, I didn't like country very much years ago, but it's evolved so much
as a genre that I now love it -- the ballads, the honky-tonk, all of it. And
I've recently written some country/crossover tunes."
He's also written two Christmas ballads for next season, some blues tunes and
love songs -- all while planning a new CD and putting together a new live act.
Baby boomers and beyond are in for a treat when they hear Ciccone's spin on
songs like "Peggy Sue" with a blues twist, a funked-up "Hound Dog" and yes, new
treatments of "Younger Girl" and "Mr. Dieingly Sad".
"The solo act is basically a collection of all the best music that I remember
from my life with a special touch I'm giving to each one. I think perhaps the
most enjoyable part of the whole project is that it's the most musical thing
I've ever done, which is exciting to me as a writer and arranger. Of course, I'm
aware of the fact that when you take a song and re-do it, it's never as good as
the original but the reason is that you can't replace the feeling that the
listener had when he or she heard that tune for the first time, or at a
particularly memorable moment -- so it's definitely challenging, and I enjoy
Backed up by zendrum and keyboards in his live act, Ciccone also
performs some of his newer songs -- and he has an open mind when it comes to the
question of who should record his new material.
"Ultimately if I'm the right one to record those songs, OK, that'd be fine.
There are so many great artists out there, in so many fields, that I may be
writing songs for several of them right now -- that's a strong possibility.
Particularly in terms of the country market, I just think there are some
crossover tunes here that are really valid so I'd hope to be listened to by some
of the current artists and have my writings seriously considered. I'm having the
best time in my career right now, both performing and writing -- and I'm finally
having a website designed (http://www.donciccone.com/). As far as my original songs are
concerned, I still have the same old goals -- you write a song that you think is
good enough to put out there in the marketplace to see if you'll be accepted
through your songs. It's a scary thing to do, it's a risky thing to do, but
that's what the drive is and that's what the reward is all about."
You can learn more about the interviewer, Terri Ann Palumbo,
her other interviews & articles within her regular column.