A Chat with Tommy James
by Ray D'Ariano
1968 -69 Tommy James & The Shondells sold more 45's than any artist
in the world including The Beatles. Their long list of hits include "Hanky
Panky," "I Think We're Alone Now," "Mony Mony,"
"Crimson & Clover," and "Crystal Blue Persuasion."
Now Tommy has written a tell-all book called "Me, The Mob, And The
Music," which is being made into a motion picture and a Broadway play
from the producers of "Jersey Boys." We started off talking about
our mutual friend Carol Ross
TJ: (Tommy James): I saw a picture of you, Carol, and Keith Moon. It's like
you're all looking intently at something, and uh, a guilty
verdict (laughs) is what it looked like.
RD (Ray D'Ariano): I think somebody was telling Keith they were out of booze.
TJ: (laughs) Oh yeah, that would get his attention right?
RD: Yeah, Carol and I traveled a lot of rock and roll miles together. Hey,
your book is fascinating, and pretty bold.
TJ: The truth is when we started this thing out the book was going to be
called "Crimson and Clover," and it was going to be a nice little
book about music and records and how we made them, and all that kind of
stuff and we got about a third of the way through it and realized, you know,
it may be fascinating , but its only half the story, and we actually had
to put it on a shelf for a couple of years because frankly I wasn't comfortable
talking about this stuff until the last of the Roulette regulars passed
on. You know, I've been carrying this around with me for a long time.
RD: Sure, since you were 19, right?
TJ: When I was signed. So this was very therapeutic for me.
RD: "Crimson and Clover" would have been a great title, but "Me,
The Mob, and The Music" is an in your face title and explains the whole
book in a few words.
TJ: Absolutely, that was real important.
RD: Ok, so you're a young kid, you have the regional hit with "Hanky
Panky," you come to New York and all the record companies are interested
and you sign with Roulette.
TJ: Well, let me just take one other step there. When we came to New York
- this is like one of those only in America stories - "Hanky Panky"
busted seriously out of Pittsburgh, you know, it had been recorded two years
earlier, and it was just by the grace of God that we got called because
I happened to be home at that very moment that they tracked me down. I'd
been on the road and a club went belly up in the middle of our two weeks
and that's how the man upstairs works (laughs) because if that hadn't happened
I wouldn't have been at home feeling depressed and get that call from Pittsburgh.
You and I wouldn't be talking here today.
RD: Everything's connected, right?
TJ: Yeah, exactly, so I go to Pittsburgh and I couldn't put the original
band back together so I go there and, you know, do the Clark Ray Show, and
do KQV, and, you know outside the city limits I'm nobody. Inside the city
they bootlegged 80,000 records and sold them in ten days when we were at
number one. So I grabbed the first bar band I could find to be the new Shondells
and we head for New York. Then we're just delighted because everyone says
.Columbia, RCA, Atlantic, Kama Sutra
and everyone said yes.
So I'm on cloud nine, and the next day
one by one
they all call
up and say, look, we got to pass. I said what the hell are you talking about?
Then Jerry Wexler at Atlantic levels with us, Morris Levy had called every
record company and said, "This is my fuckin' record." That's the
truth and they all backed down, and we apparently were going to be on Roulette,
you know, that right there was the first red flag.
RD: Yeah, well back then the music business, especially the independents,
was a tight knit group of people.
TJ: Indeed it was, you know the thing was you just sort of had to accept
it for what it was. When we got there, literally as I signed my contract,
two thugs walked into the office and basically said, "Morris can we
see ya?" and Morris goes over and starts talking to them so everybody
can hear and they're talking about busting some guys legs with baseball
bats out in Jersey, you know? And we're trying to pretend we don't hear
RD: Got cha.
TJ: And then the next thing that happens is we would constantly be meeting
people in Morris' office and a week later we'd see them on TV being pulled
out of a warehouse in New Jersey in handcuffs.
RD: How did you deal with it?
TJ: We connected the dots and realized that we were dealing with some pretty
scary people. It took me several years to really put it all together.
RD: How many hits did you have with Roulette?
TJ: Twenty three gold singles, not with Roulette. With Roulette we had twenty.
RD: Twenty gold singles, but no royalties.
TJ: I was always faced with these two realities that even though we weren't
getting our money at Roulette through royalties and mechanicals on the songwriting,
which was a huge amount of money, if it wasn't for Morris Levy there wouldn't
be a Tommy James and that's the truth.
RD: Sure and your albums did good as well.
TJ: We did nine gold and platinum albums with Roulette and sold over 100
million records, about 110 million. We had a really great run at Roulette
for eight years and I must say that they were eight very intense years,
you know, one single right after another, four or five singles a year, two
sometimes three albums; the third album would be like a greatest hits album.
RD: But you were so unique because your music evolved, it was always something
new. You know in a way you were like the Beatles in the sense that you didn't'
rely on formula.
TJ: They allowed us to stay in the studio. I must say at a creative level
nobody was better for us than Roulette. First of all if we had signed with
one of the corporate labels there's no doubt about it we would have been
handed to a producer and gotten lost in the numbers and that's the last
anybody would have heard of us, but because we were at Roulette and they
genuinely needed us, and genuinely wanted to have hits, and we were their
biggest act, they stayed out of our way. They gave us, basically they let
us spend a lot of money in the studio, and since (laughs) we weren't going
to get royalties it really didn't matter. We might as well. The point was
they stayed away from us and allowed us to morph into whatever we could
be. One of the things I'll be forever grateful for was the "Crimson
& Clover" record. The reason is, it wasn't just that it was the
biggest single we had, but "Crimson & Clover" was very important
for us because up until that time Roulette never sold albums. I mean they
sold some, but it was kind of an afterthought.
RD: Right, they were hit-singles oriented.
TJ: They really didn't have a handle on the album market at all. What happened
was we had gone out on the road with Hubert Humphrey in '68. We met up with
him right after the convention where all the kids got beat up in Chicago,
and the next week we meet him out in West Virginia. We stay on the campaign
the rest of the time right up until the election, and in that time, of course
it was the first time a political act and a rock act ever teamed up like
that. He ended up, by the way, writing the liner notes (laughs) to the "Crimson
& Clover" album.
Dear Tommy James and The Shondells,
What a wonderful team you are and what a great help you gave my 1968 Presidential
Campaign. Thanks so very much. You added vitality and pleasure to so many
campaign rallies. You made sacrifices in my behalf, you cooperated enthusiastically,
you made my cause your own and it helped immeasurably.
No one will be happier than I to see your future success. You have what
it takes for stardom
youth, idealism, talent, and zest.
I look forward to being with you on future occasions.
My deep appreciation and best wishes for the holidays and a New Year rich
But what I was saying was we left on that campaign and the big acts of
the day were The Rascals, us, The Association, Gary Puckett, The Buckinghams
- all singles acts. When we got back ninety days later the world turned
upside down inside the record business. It was all album acts, Crosby,
Stills and Nash, Blood Sweat & Tears, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young
RD: Sure and, of course, you had the advent of FM progressive rock stations.
TJ: Yeah, and so we knew that if we were going to continue we were going
to have to sell albums plus we were going to have to produce ourselves.
We were going to have to write our own stuff. It was just an absolute
necessity. We were going to have to fill up twenty four tracks instead
of eight tracks and be interesting. So we set about to do that and the
point I'm making is that "Crimson & Clover" was the one
single that allowed us to do that. I can't think of another single that
we ever worked on that was as important as that single was.
RD: It crossed you over from an AM act
TJ: AM, Top 40 singles to FM progressive album rock. No other record we
ever worked on would have done that for us in one shot.
RD: I totally understand, but there's an interesting thing about that
record. Take for example around that time The Doors had "Light My
Fire." So the album had the long version which the FM Progressives
played and the edited version, the short version was played on the Top
40 AM stations, but you guys went the opposite way.
TJ: We went the opposite way, we had to make a long version from a short
RD: That's remarkable and I just listened to that album yesterday.
TJ: Did you?
RD: Yeah, it's amazing, you know, I would have never known that you lengthened
that tune unless I read about it.
TJ: It was freaky thought because "Crimson & Clover" was
a rough mix. The record we all know that became the hit was a seven and
a half rough mix and the reason is I took it to Chicago to play for John
Rook at WLS and he taped the damn thing and we didn't know it and, you
know we had strict orders from Jim Stagg over at CFL on the other side
of town, never give LS an exclusive. We had done it with "Mony Mony,"
and don't ever do that again or you won't be played here at CFL. So I
played the thing for John Rook. He flipped out. I was going to mix it
the next week. Roulette had prepared a big release thing. So I leave the
station and get in the limo and I hear
he played the record. I thought
Oh my God. Oh no
.. It was just
incredible and so they were playing the damn thing every half hour it
seemed like, and I get back to New York and Jim Stagg had sent Roulette
a five-foot funeral wreath of flowers (laughs) on the condolences of the
death of Tommy James on CFL radio. That really happened. So I practically
blow this thing and Morris goes ballistic and we end up having to release
the rough mix. I never got a chance to do the final mix on "Crimson."
RD: Well, it was destiny, right?
TJ: It was. (Laughs)
RD: I think the guy who sent a wreath to Morris' office lacked a little
TJ: He ended up having to play it too.
RD: (Laughs) It's a great record.
TJ: That's what happened back in the 60's, you know, anything could happen
RD: Yeah, but the other thing that happened was for an artist to be played
on FM they needed credibility. And you guys did it. You made the transition.
A lot of groups didn't survive.
TJ: No, there was this mass extinction in '68 of singles acts. When you
look at the charts in 1968 then 1969 it's remarkable who isn't there.
RD: Absolutely right. But back to the "Crimson & Clover"
album, I mean it's a psychedelic album, I mean, it's like the Stones "Satanic
Majesty's Request," you know? I mean there's a tune on there called
"I Am a Tangerine." (Both laugh) What happened when you played
"I Am a Tangerine" for Morris?
TJ: Well, you know, he wanted to know what we were smoking?
RD: (Laughs) I got cha.
TJ: The thing of it was Morris got the vision that he was going to be
able to sell albums.
RD: And he did.
TJ: The dollar signs were in his eyes you know, and of course it was the
first record that I produced totally by myself that we were putting out
as a single.
RD: Well, "Crystal Blue Persuasion" from the same album is an
TJ: Thank you very much, that was Morris' favorite record of ours.
RD: It might be mine too, although I must tell you jumping back a little
bit, "Mony Mony" was this rave-up, kick-ass record. That was
a big switch for you at the time of its release.
TJ: You're right; it's got bits and pieces of every party record I ever
heard. Roulette didn't want to release that.
RD: Well it was a departure from what you were doing previous to it, but
it's a great record. Today, it's one of those records that you turn up
when you hear it on the radio. Great compliment to you, of course, that
a lot of other artists covered your hits.
TJ: Did you hear Prince's version of "Crimson & Clover"?
He just took it to number one on his digital album.
RD: Prince is a trip. Is that your favorite of the covers?
TJ: My favorite of the covers? Wow. Actually my favorite of the covers
is a toss up of REM's version of "Draggin' the Line" - they
did a great job. I think that may be my favorite. Now there's another
group from England called Tight Fit who did "Mony Mony" really
RD: I'd have problems with that because the original is amazing you know.
TJ: Well thank you.
RD: Let me ask you about some of the artists you were on the road with.
You mention some of them in the book. Just say whatever comes to mind.
RD: The Beach Boys.
TJ: I love them. The Beach Boys and us really complimented each other
and I always felt when we worked with The Beach Boys that it was going
to be fun, just so much good energy around.
RD: Yeah, I can imagine you two groups together would be a great show.
TJ: We did some writing together, Carl and I. One of my favorite Beach
Boys stories, the week before our first Sullivan show we were out on tour
with them in Canada at the Arts Center and we ended up in Vancouver and
then down to L.A. I was at the Hyatt House and I was scared of doing Sullivan
for the first time because, you know, if you screwed up, your career could
be over. So I was picking the Beach Boys brains because they had done
the show so many times. So it was Sunday night in L.A. on the strip at
the hotel and I think Mike Love was there with us. I think it was Mike,
and Ed announces on the show
"Next week, right here on our stage,
Tony Jones and the Spondells."
RD: (Laughs) But you did alright on the show.
TJ: Yeah, we did fine, but it was so embarrassing.
RD: Oh sure, well that was Ed, you know. How about the Rascals?
TJ: The Rascals are probably my best friends of the 60's era. First of
all we were booked by the same agent so we worked a lot together. They
were always one hit record ahead of me. We loved them. We chased the Rascals.
We'd play to the same audiences. We'd blow each other off the charts.
I ended up staggering our records so that the Rascals records and our
records stayed out of each other's way.
RD: They did that album, "Once Upon A Dream," and they did "It's
Wonderful," but as big as they were with all those great hits they
never crossed over into that FM thing.
TJ: What really was devastating, when they broke up it was in a bad way.
They just signed with Columbia and right in the middle of their press
conference where Clive Davis was announcing how glad he was to have them,
they got into a fight. I mean a fist fight.
RD: Eddie walked out.
TJ: And this one quit and that one quit. All of a sudden this thing turns
into a fiasco. All I can say is they just didn't get along together. Eddie
and David, his older brother, I know both of them well, and of course
they were in Joey Dee and The Starliters.
RD: Yeah, well The Rascals were a great group. I think Eddie felt he didn't
get his due because you know he did write a lot of that stuff
TJ: And he sang his ass off.
RD: He sang lead on some. He sang duets on some. What are you going to
TJ: I love the Rascals, I love their music. I'm friendly with all of them.
RD: Hey, I heard that George Harrison wrote some songs for you. True?
TJ: That's true. George Harrison had a group he was producing at that
time called Grapefruit. "Mony Mony" was the biggest single of
the decade in Britain and it was actually bigger there than it was here,
and they wrote me a whole bunch of songs. The reason was, Apple Music
was going to be a publishing company before it was a record company and
the idea was they were going to write songs for everybody else in the
business. So they sent me this batch of about ten songs and the reason
I didn't do them is because we were on to the "Crimson & Clover"
album by this time and had just changed our style.
RD: Sure, you had your own thing going.
TJ: By the way, you know the book is going to be a movie in about eighteen
months. Did Carol tell you?
RD: She said it's going to be a movie and a Broadway play.
TJ: What's exciting about the Broadway play is the producers of "Jersey
Boys" are going to do our story as their next musical on Broadway.
I'm blown away by it all.
RD: That's fantastic. Any chance I can audition for the Morris part?
TJ: I'd love for you too. If not Morris we'll get you somebody in the
mailroom or something.
RD: (laughs): You've had your trials and tribulations and all that, a
lot of it is in the book, but it seems to me that even though you had
all that success, some time has gone by, and I think you're going to have
your greatest success in the next decade.
TJ: I want to tell you something. I'm absolutely fractured by all this
and I think that, you know, we're in this weird moment right now where
radio's gone and the disc business is gone. The music business is still
there, but the record business is gone and, you know, I don't know how
this is going to play out, but I have a feeling the whole music business
is going to move to television when HDTV comes on, and I think your TV
is going to be your I-pod. Getting new music in front of the public right
now is the biggest challenge.
RD: True and your idea is very interesting. We'll read back on this in
ten years. You know there's so many great stories in your book and you
lived it all, but when you go backwards you see that there was a valid
reason for everything that happened to you.
TJ: Absolutely, and that's why I truly believe
you know this is a
business that gives you two years, three years. I think it's the good
Lord and the fans who have given us this kind of longevity, truly.