From the WSJ:
If I close my eyes, I can remember the first apartment where I lived with my family in Newark, N.J., in the late 1930s. The rooms were lined up like train cars—you had to go through one to get to another—and there wasn’t any heat or hot water. Heat came from the kitchen stove that ran all day on coal, and if you needed hot water for a bath or to wash, a huge kettle was put up. Fortunately, when I was 6, my family moved to Stephen Crane Village, Newark’s first low-income housing project. I thought we were rich.
We were among the first families in 1940 to be accepted into Stephen Crane. The apartment project wasn’t anything like the anonymous building complexes that would follow in the ’50s. The buildings at Stephen Crane were long, two-story structures that held several apartments. Each unit was self-contained, like a garden apartment. We had an entrance in the front and one in the back, where the kitchen was. In the front, you entered into the living room, and upstairs were two bedrooms—one for my parents and one for the three of us. By then I had two younger brothers. I slept on a twin bed while my brothers shared the full. There was only one bathroom, but the apartment had real hardwood floors, steam heat, and hot and cold running water. I couldn’t believe it.
Right across South Franklin Avenue was Branch Brook Park. It had lawns and baseball fields, like the suburbs I saw in magazine ads. My dad, Anthony, was happy, too. He had been a barber, but by the 1940s he was working for Lionel Trains. He started as an assembly-line worker in their plant in Hillside, N.J., but he soon became responsible for designing model-train displays in store windows. He was a creative guy.
Stephen Crane was ethnically mixed—Italians, Filipinos, Hispanics, you name it—so I picked up on all their music, too. Believe me when I tell you that everyone was for everybody else in my neighborhood. That’s the way it was. I went to Central High School about a mile away and usually walked. At school, I’d sing in groups in the locker room or in the bathroom, which was like an echo chamber.
I was married a short time later, when I was 20. I wasn’t making much money, so my wife and I moved into an apartment in Stephen Crane near my mom. During the day I worked as a maintenance repairman, a painter, a construction worker and a florist. At night I’d sing in small clubs all over New Jersey. Eventually I met Bob Gaudio in nearby Bergenfield, and after he joined my group we became the Four Seasons, in 1960. The name came from a local bowling alley where we had failed an audition.
Stephen Crane was a safe haven for me, and I didn’t move out until 1964—two years after “Sherry” became our first No. 1 hit. I was always afraid my success could disappear overnight and I wouldn’t have a place to live. Even when I bought my first home in Nutley, N.J., in 1964, I chose a two-family house. I figured if the Four Seasons didn’t make it beyond a handful of hits, I could always take in a tenant to help pay the mortgage.