Musicians Hall of Fame to honor group with New Jersey roots

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HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) — Seven years after hitting the road to perform and share their stories of recording with some of the biggest names in pop music, a New Jersey-based group of former A-list session musicians is being recognized for its efforts.

The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville is giving its first "Road Warrior" award to The Hit Men, a group originally assembled in 2012 by former members of Frankie Valli and Four Seasons. The group has toured steadily since then, and its Oct. 28 concert at Nashville's City Winery will close a month of shows in California, Arizona, Maine, Louisiana and Tennessee.

"It's an incredible honor to be recognized for the work we've each put into our careers supporting the greatest names in the music industry," founding member Lee Shapiro said.

The museum opened in 2006 and showcases the often-unsung musicians who have backed legendary pop performers. Among its famous inductees are the Wrecking Crew, the group of L.A. studio musicians that played on numerous '60s pop hits; and the Funk Brothers, Motown Records' house rhythm section.

Seeking to ride the musical nostalgia wave and the success of the Four Seasons-inspired musical "Jersey Boys," The Hit Men formed in 2012 in a basement studio in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, about 10 miles from New York. Their roots extend decades further.

Shapiro, keyboardist for Valli during the singer's mid-1970s comeback, had played with guitarist Don Ciccone and drummer Gerry Polci with the Four Seasons and knew bassist Larry Gates from childhood. Ciccone and guitarist Jimmy Ryan had scored hits with the pop group The Critters in the '60s. All had extensive credits playing behind artists from Carole King and Carly Simon to Elton John, the Rolling Stones and dozens more.

The group added veteran session vocalist Russell Velasquez and has played 40 to 60 dates per year ever since, adjusting its set list as the "Jersey Boys" phenomenon faded.

Along the way, they lost Gates to complications from multiple myeloma and Ciccone to a heart attack. Gates' spot was filled by Jeff Ganz, whose lengthy resume includes stints with Chuck Berry, Dr. John, Johnny Winter and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Polci left the group and was replaced by Steve Murphy, who has backed Alan Parsons, Todd Rundgren, Jack Bruce and others.

"We felt that even though there wasn't a category in the museum for this, we wanted to recognize them," museum founder and CEO Joe Chambers said Wednesday. "This is to recognize them for taking the music on the road to entertain thousands and thousands of people."

The touring is a grind for Shapiro, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2014, but it is outweighed by the rewards.

"When I'm sitting in front of the piano, I don't feel any symptoms," he said. "I feel like I'm 23, 24 years old again."

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