"Crimson and Clover," with its wobbly tremolo, is one of the most recognizable songs in rock history. It has been covered by the likes of Joan Jett, Kelly Clarkson, Dolly Parton, and, most recently, Prince. "Mony, Mony" is another rock classic. It was covered by Billy Idol, whose version has become a staple in nightclubs all over the U.S.
Tommy James is the genius in front of, behind, and smack in the middle of those songs, and 21 other gold singles.
With a musical background that involves not only the requisite alcohol and mind-bending drugs, but dealings with one of the more notorious crime families in the Mob, his story strays sideways from the norm, but never does it venture beyond the bounds of credibility.
Four decades into it, Tommy is finally talking about his dubious beginnings. And his words, like his music, are riveting.
Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): I understand your autobiography is due out soon, and there's a movie deal in the works?
Tommy James: The fans never really knew what the whole story was with our record company, Roulette. They knew we were having hits, and behind the hits was this very sinister story that was going on at the same time that I never could say much about. A lot of people on the inside of the industry knew about it, but certainly the fans didn't. And most of the radio guys did. And of course I didn't know this when we signed. (laughs) Should have, there were red flags everywhere. But what it boiled down to was that Roulette was financed and was a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. And Roulette was functioning as a record company. Don't get me wrong, they were a great little record company, and functioning as one. Morris Levy, the head of the record company, was quite definitely an associate, and a very notorious individual at that. They used Roulette as a place to dump illegal funds, launder money, like a social club almost. And of course they had big meetings up there. It was a very interesting place, to say the least.
So as I started writing the autobiography I realized that I had to tell this Roulette story, because I had always felt uncomfortable talking about it until the last of the Roulette regulars passed away. That happened in December of '05, the last of the big Mob boys passed away. It was Vinny "The Chin" Gigante - in prison. And I felt like I could finally lay it on the line and talk about this, because I'd never been able to. We had to sidestep so much of this stuff because we were legitimately having hits - nobody sold singles better than Roulette. But getting paid was like taking a bone from a Doberman. I mean, they were Ground Zero for all of this stuff that you read about. So now I finally get to tell the story.
What was interesting was I began writing it as a straight autobiography, with Martin Fitzpatrick, my co-writer on this. And as we got into it we realized we couldn't sidestep this story, and why do that anyway? We started out calling it "Crimson and Clover," and that just was too inane. So we called it "Me, the Mob, and the Music." And we immediately got a book deal through Simon and Schuster, it comes out February 16th. Well, about a month after we got the book deal, we got a call from Martin Scorsese's office in L.A., and this just blew all of our minds, of course. He was interested in doing a movie of the book. And so this is fantastic, it was the biggest thing I've ever been involved in. So the plan is to have the movie come out approximately a year after the book. Maybe a little bit sooner, I'm not sure, but it's gonna take that long to do it right. And all of these characters that we write about in the book are going be characters in the movie. So it's going to be a fascinating couple of years, and I couldn't be happier with what's going on.
SF: How are you going to be involved in the making of the movie?
Tommy: Well, of course, I'm going to have to creatively be there, because I'm one of the last witnesses to all this. There are few left, by the way. I much cherish the handful of Roulette people who are still left. Morris' secretary, Karen, and Norman Kurts, who was the in-house lawyer, and Herbie Rosen, who was one of the greatest promotion men that ever lived, in my view. And just a tiny handful of people who are still with us. We've really gotten very close. We've compared a lot of notes, and we'll all be involved probably to some extent at a creative level to express to the screenwriter all the conversations that took place and everything. We want to be accurate, because it's so important to get it right. I feel like it's my duty to be honest about how things went down. I've often said I don't know why the good Lord chose to bless me through these people.
SF: When you were making these hits and working with Roulette, at what point did you figure out what was going on?
Tommy: Later on. But what happened was at the very beginning – and we tell this story pretty graphically – when my first record "Hanky Panky" broke out of Pittsburgh, it was very unexpected, one of those winning-the-lottery type stories. Had no idea that this was going to happen. It unexpectedly broke out of Pittsburgh. So I was summoned to Pittsburgh, I went to Pittsburgh from my hometown in Niles, Michigan, and grabbed the first bar band I could find, and they became the Shondells. Two weeks later we're in New York, and because "Hanky Panky" was so big in Pittsburgh, which was a major market – we got a "yes" from everybody – Atlantic, Columbia, Epic, Kama Sutra at the time – and we were just really thrilled. One of the last places to get the record was Roulette, and as a matter of fact, it was sort of an afterthought because the other companies were, in our view, bigger, and probably where we wanted to end up.
Well, we stayed in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan, and one by one all the record companies, starting at about 9 o'clock the next morning, started calling up and saying, "Look, we gotta pass." I said, "What? What are you talking about?" "Sorry, we take back our offer. We can't…" There was about six of them in a row. We didn't know what in the world was going on, and finally Jerry Wexler over at Atlantic leveled with us and said, "Look, Morris Levy and Roulette called up all the other record companies and said, "This is my freakin' record." (laughs) And scared 'em all away – even the big corporate labels. That should have been the dead giveaway right there, so we were apparently gonna be on Roulette Records.
So we signed that afternoon, and we're up in Roulette meeting Morris Levy for the first time - in the book I talk in great detail about what it was like meeting him. He was like a character right out of the movies. Right out of the movies. He was the spitting image of Al Capone, only I'd say bigger and scarier. And he played that role. He had the big, guttural voice. We go to the office and we meet him and we end up signing, and as we're sitting there in the office two goons walk in and signal to Morris to "come here," and he says (in deep guttural voice), "'Scuse me." And he gets up and he goes over, and you can hear him talking about busting this guy's legs out in Jersey for pirating records. And he said (deep guttural voice), "You do what you gotta do." All this kind of talk that means nothing except "we just beat up somebody."
So we're looking around trying to small talk, "Well, your first time in New York?" "Yeah." That began our Roulette experience. And it went downhill from there. (laughs) What I'm really saying is that was the first of many experiences like that. Then they turned around and made "Hanky Panky" the number one record of the summer, so it was a tradeoff. Do we really want to antagonize people at this point? Or do we just want to ride the pony? So it was always that question of how far do we want to take this.
SF: How old were you at that time when you met this guy and got involved with Roulette?
Tommy: I had just turned 19. We made our first record when I was younger, but I was a year out of high school when "Hanky Panky" went Number One. I was exactly one year out of high school when "Hanky Panky" scored for us.
SF: And now that all the people that were involved are deceased, you feel that it's safe to come out and talk about this stuff?
Tommy: That's basically it, yeah.
SF: What about their descendants?
Tommy: (laughing) Well, let's put it this way: I don't feel that that's any big deal. I'm just going to play that one by ear. No, I don't have any problems with that, believe me.
SF: The movie is going to open up your music to a whole new generation.
Tommy: Well, something that's so fascinating is I look out at our concert crowd now and I see literally three generations of people.
SF: How cool is that?
Tommy: It's wonderful. And they all know every song. And we have our own record label now, Aura Records, so we're able to put out new music when and if we want to. And it's really great. By the way, the Shondells and I are making a new album together. The original band. Never thought that was gonna happen.
SF: The original bar band that you picked up?
Tommy: The original bar band ended up making a lot of hit records with me. Yeah, the answer's Yes. The three surviving members – we lost our drummer about 20 years ago. But the touring band that I've been out on the road with has not been the original group. The original group and I parted ways in the early '70s. I hadn't made music with these guys in so long, and we went in the studio together last Christmas and put out what ended up being our Christmas single for last year. It was on our album called I Love Christmas that we released last year. It's coming out again this year. And we did a song called "It's Christmas Again."
It's the first time we'd been in the studio together in 37 years, and it was incredible. It was magic. Everybody knew what vocal parts to take, it was just like no time had passed. I couldn't believe it. So we decided that we're gonna make an album together, and of course when the book deal happened and the movie deal happened – we're also going to be making some music for the movie.
SF: New music for the movie?
Tommy: Yeah, as a matter of fact, it's going to be the closing credits, this brand new version of "I Think We're Alone Now." Slow. It's extremely slow. No drums. Just acoustic guitar, bass, and vocals. It just came out so great. Of course, it has a whole new meaning, because at the end of the movie Morris dies - he died in 1990 - so that's where the movie basically ends and the song takes on a whole new meaning, "I think we're alone." So the song really takes on a whole new complexion, and I'm so glad that I did it with the original group. We're probably not going to release it until just before the film comes out. But we'll release it all across the board to radio stations across the country.
Here Tommy opens up about the songs that have made him into someone who ascends the iconic.
SF: That's a great segue into your songs. Let's start with "Crimson and Clover." I heard that was based on your favorite color and your favorite flower.
Tommy: I wish it was more profound, but you know, they were just two of my favorite words that came together. Actually, it was one morning as I was getting up – this is a true story – I was getting up out of bed, and it just came to me, those two words. And it sounded so poetic. I had no idea what it meant, or if it meant anything. They were just two of my favorite words. And Mike Vale and I – bass player – actually wrote another song called "Crimson and Clover," and it just wasn't quite there. I ended up writing "Crimson and Clover" with my drummer, Pete Lucia, who has since passed away. Just a little bit about the record – "Crimson and Clover" was so very important to us because it allowed us to make that move from AM Top 40 to album rock. I don't think there's any other song that we've ever worked on, any other record that we made, that would have done that for us quite that way. And it came out at such a perfect moment, because we had been out with Hubert Humphrey on the presidential campaign for several months in 1968, and we met up with him right after the convention. The convention where all the kids got beat up. We met up with him the following week in Wheeling, West Virginia, and of course we didn't know where all the rallies were gonna be, like at the convention. What have we gotten ourselves into? We had been asked to join him. And this really was the first time, I think, a rock act and a politician ever teamed up. But it was an incredible experience.
But when we left in August, all the big acts were singles acts. It was the Association, it was Gary Puckett, it was the Buckinghams, the Rascals, us, I'm leaving several people out. But the point was that it was almost all singles. In 90 days, when we got back, it was all albums. It was Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Joe Cocker, Neil Young. And there was this mass extinction of all of these other acts. It was just incredible. Most people don't realize that that was sort of the dividing line where so many of these acts never had hit records again. And we realized while we were out on the campaign that if our career was going to continue, we had to make a move. We had to sell albums, which is something Roulette had never really done. The album, up to that point, had been whatever wasn't the single. And then it was usually named the single, which I thought was a great idea. Morris usually would name the album the same title as the single, so it would get a head start. But we knew we had to sell albums. Also that year the industry went from 4-track to 24-track in about the same period of time. So if we were gonna sell albums, we had to completely reinvent ourselves. It was a very dramatic moment, and the record we just happened to be working on at that moment, at the end of the campaign, was "Crimson and Clover." And when we went into the studio to do it, we actually finished the record in about 5 ½ hours. Of course we had done everything; we wrote the song, we produced the record, we did all the things we had to do. We designed the album cover, we got to the point where we almost took the creative process right into the retail store. It was amazing. One of the things that was great about Roulette is that they allowed us the freedom to do these things. There was never any hand around our throat. At least not for that reason. (laughing) There was never anybody who was really leaning on us. We had all the budgets, what we needed, we could take our time, whatever we could become, Roulette allowed us to be. So I'm thankful for that. And we had the public's attention long enough to morph into the second phase of our career. "Crimson and Clover" allowed us to go on and have a phase two of our career selling albums. And no other record we ever did would have done that.
We had this very elaborate release plan for "Crimson and Clover." I had gone into the studio and done a real rough mix, it was like I said, about 5 ½ hours, I just ran it. I just put the faders up and did a rough mix right off the board. No echoes, nothing. Just what we had done on the tape. It was okay, and I took it and I put it in my briefcase. We played Chicago the next day, and I went up to WLS, which just happened to be the greatest station in the country at that time. John Rook was program director, and I played it for him. He says, "Tommy, that's great." He said, "Play it again, will you?" And he played it for Larry Lujack, who was a big jock who had just come on at that moment. And unbeknownst to me, they taped it. And as I'm getting back into the car downstairs, we had WLS on. And as I'm getting into the car, I hear, "World exclusive! Tommy James and the Shondells!" and I go, Oh my God, they're playing the rough mix. They are playing the rough mix. And that rough mix ended up being the record. Because I couldn't mix it. There was no way. It exploded out of Chicago, and they broke the record so fast that I was never able to do a final mix. (laughing) So the record we know as "Crimson and Clover" was a rough 7½.
SF: How did you feel about that?
Tommy: Oh, I hated it. But then I had these mixed emotions. Because there's the biggest station in the country playing my record every half hour, and making a monster out of it, and it was a rough mix, so I could hear all the little imperfections. Gradually I learned to like it. When it went Top Ten, I said, "Well, it's not so bad, I guess."
SF: When you do your movie soundtrack, are you going to re-do any of those songs? You have an opportunity now to do a final, polished version of that.
Tommy: Well, I suppose so. But maybe that was God's way of saying, "Don't mix the record. You've done enough. All you can do is make it worse." (laughing) One of the things I think we're going to do in this movie is recreate some of the recording sessions. And that's going to be one of them. I think it's going to be very informative, because nobody ever knew that, either. Nobody knew "Crimson and Clover" was a rough mix.
SF: About the sound distortion in the song, can you describe, for people like me who don't have a clue, how you did that?
Tommy: Well, actually, it was pretty simple. We had done the record with tremolo on the guitar. It's just a built-in sound on guitar amplifiers. When I played the guitar, we recorded it with tremolo pretty much in synch with the music. In other words, we tried to make it so that it was vibrating at the same speed that the drums were playing. So we made the whole record that way. And then at the end, it was like one of those whimsical ideas, we said, "Why don't we put it on the voice?" So that's what we did, we ran the vocal mike through an Ampeg guitar amp, turned on the tremolo and miked it, and ran it back through the board. It was just that simple. What was so amazing, back then, if you wanted to make a sound wiggle, you had to basically do it yourself. There was no button you could push on a synthesizer, you basically had to build the circuits yourself and everything else. So that's what we did, we just ran the vocal mike through the guitar amp, and then miked the amp and ran it back through the board.
SF: And how did you replicate that onstage?
Tommy: We have a little tremolo unit. It was incredibly hard to do. Our sound man now, who does our out system, is really very brilliant. His name is John Lynch, and he very carefully replicates the "Crimson and Clover" tremolo sound. He actually uses a tremolo unit that's from a guitar amplifier. (laughs) And listen, if you don't get that right, the audience just goes nuts. You've got to get that right. If you screw that up, you've messed up the whole song.
SF: (laughing) They start throwing things at you.
Tommy: It's true, man. I mean, they really look forward to that big moment.
SF: Okay, so you're a singles band, and Roulette is a singles record company. What's the experience like going from being a singles band to having to do an album?
Tommy: Well, first of all, it was really great to be accepted as an album-selling act. Not many pop acts really were. So many of them sort of died off at that moment and really weren't allowed to go on. There were a few acts, like the Doors, Sly and the Family Stone, I'm leaving a few out, but there are a few others that got a chance to go on, but not very many. So it was wonderful to be accepted doing that. And secondly it was great to be the big fish in the small pond at Roulette, because we got everything there was to have. We were the top act there, and we got anything we wanted, and there was a lot more money to be made. And so for all those reasons, it allowed us to continue, to go on.
SF: Is there more pressure?
Tommy: In some ways there is, certainly. The work is harder. You've got a lot more tracks to fill up, you've got a lot more songs to write. The thing, though, that was good about making albums there is that you were selling albums and still selling singles. They still really emphasized the singles coming from the album, as well as the album now. So it really was like having a whole new backyard to play in.
SF: I'm wondering how you tour as a band that is trying to sell just singles, and not an album.
Tommy: Well, we didn't even think of it that way. We just had hits. Remember that the business model for the record business when we first started was you made a single and you were played on Top 40 AM stations. And the biggest audience that ever heard records, heard records at that moment. I'm talking about the singles, '66-'67-'68. In other words, you would put out the single to see if it had legs, and if it did you did another single, and usually attached an album to it. So you didn't make an album until you knew there was a market for it.
Somewhere along the line the record companies decided, Well, let's make albums and see if we can sell singles from them. Which was just backwards. And that was one of the reasons the record industry ended up going broke, and destroying itself. Because the original model was the correct one, where you saw if you had a market before you ever made an album. You saw if you had a market for the album before you spent the money on the album. So that in my estimation was the correct approach. But the Sergeant Pepper album, that was really the album that changed everything. Sergeant Pepper illustrated to the industry that you could make 10 times what you were making now, just concentrate on the album.
SF: Since you brought up the Beatles, just for fun, they wrote a song for you? And you declined?
Tommy: Well, not quite like that. What happened was, "Mony Mony" became the biggest selling single in Britain up to that point. It was actually bigger in England than it was here. Apple (Records) originally started out as a publishing company and a production company before it was a record company, and their idea was to write songs for other acts, and publish them, and in some cases produce them. So George Harrison was working with a group called Grapefruit, and George and these fellas wrote a bunch of these songs for us that they sent over to my manager, Lenny Stogel. We were very flattered, but they all sounded like "Mony Mony." And we had by that time made the decision that we were going to go with "Crimson and Clover," and really change our style. So we never did these songs. Some of them were really good. There was a whole tape full of them, and we were very flattered and very honored. One of my great regrets is that I never got a chance to thank George for doing that, and I should have, I should have made a bigger fuss. But because we had changed our style with "Crimson and Clover," we never went back to the "Mony Mony" style of party rock.
SF: Your piano player on "Mony Mony," Kenny Laguna, told us that the record company kept you guys high on amphetamines so that you would work through the night and produce things?
Tommy: That's what Kenny told you? (laughing) Wow. Well, listen, the record company didn't have anything to do with that. That was probably us. That was our decision, that wasn't their decision. I mean, maybe he's being kind. The real story of "Mony Mony," if you want to get right to it, is that, originally, we did the track without a song. The idea was to create a party rock record, and in 1968 that was pretty much a throwback to the early '60s. Nobody was making party rock records really in 1968. There were a few, Archie Bell and the Drells kind of did something with "Tighten Up" and stuff like that, but nobody was doing those big-drum-California-sun-what-I-sing-money-type songs. So we went in the studio, and we pasted this thing together out of drums here, and a guitar riff here. It was called sound surgery, and we finally put it together in probably a month. We had most of the words to the song, but we still had no title. And it's just driving us nuts, because we're looking for like a "Sloopy" or some crazy name – it had to be a two-syllable girl's name that was memorable and silly and kind of stupid sounding. So we knew what kind of a word we had, it's just that everything we came up with sounded so bad. So Ritchie Cordell, my songwriting partner and I, are up in my apartment up at 888 Eighth Avenue in New York. And finally we get disgusted, we throw our guitars down, we go out on the terrace, we light up a cigarette, and we look up into the sky. And the first thing our eyes fall on is the Mutual of New York Insurance Company. M-O-N-Y. True story. With a dollar sign in the middle of the O, and it gave you the time and the temperature. I had looked at this thing for years, and it was sitting there looking me right in the face. We saw this at the same time, and we both just started laughing. We said, "That's perfect! What could be more perfect than that?" Mony, M-O-N-Y, Mutual of New York. We must have laughed for about ten minutes, and we finally go in – and that became the title of the song. And of course when we made the record, Kenny Laguna was on the record, and we had our usual studio band, and my guys. But we also dragged in people off the street, we had secretaries come downstairs. This was in the 1650 Broadway Building, the basement of 1650 was a big music industry building. All the writers and publishers there. So we invited them all downstairs, and it was really a party that got captured on tape. We're going to reproduce that session, too, for the movie.
SF: Cool. It's interesting to me that you had everything but the title. The title is huge.
Tommy: Especially with a record like that. With a record like that, the title is everything. So we were very lucky to find that right when we did. And it became such a monster for us.
SF: What is this about a mini-film that you made back in '68?
Tommy: Well, we wanted to do videos. And "Mony" was the very first video we had ever done. To me it seemed very sensible to make a film of your hit record, and I couldn't figure out why nobody was doing it. You'd find things would run sometimes on television, there'd be like a movie with a song in it, and they'd take the film clip and run it. But nobody was really making videos. And so we hired a film company, went in and did a video of "Mony." We actually did a video of "Ball of Fire," and we did a video of "She" as well. But we couldn't get them played anywhere. So "Mony" was one of the first videos made. It was 13 years before MTV. We couldn't get it played anywhere in the United States. TV would not play video made by musicians, they just wouldn't do it. So the only place we could get our video played was over in Europe in the movie theatres. In between double features, they played "Mony Mony." And the reason you see it in black-and-white is because it was shown on the Beat Club in England, and it was a film of a film, and it was shown in black-and-white. So when they shipped it back to the United States it was in black and white. But the original video was in color. So it was me and Daffy Duck for a long time. (laughing) And Daffy wanted to close. So I had problems with Daffy.
SF: You're a visionary, obviously. You probably were just floored when MTV came on, and you went, Wait a minute – I had that idea 13 years ago!
Tommy: Well, when MTV finally came on, they started playing "Mony Mony," the original video. But we did a couple videos, actually. They're up on YouTube and Myspace.
SF: Can you take me through what inspired "Crystal Blue Persuasion"?
Tommy: Sure. Once we got started with "Crimson and Clover," "Crystal Blue" was part of that first album. The follow-up to "Crimson and Clover" was "Sweet Cherry Wine," which was another song we were working on. And then we recorded "Crystal Blue Persuasion." "Crystal Blue" was interesting. First of all, I was becoming a Christian at that time, and we never thought a thing about it. We never thought that doing something semi-religious was any big deal. We didn't think of it as being politically incorrect or anything like that. We just did what felt right. I wrote "Crystal Blue Persuasion" with Eddie Gray and Mike Vale. Eddie actually came up with the little guitar riff, and Mike and I did the lyrics. And it just felt very right as a sort of almost semi-religious poetic song. But it turned out to be one of the hardest records I've ever made.
We went in and had a set of drums, we had guitars, we had keyboards, and by the end, we just realized we had totally overproduced the record. It just was not "Crystal Blue Persuasion" anymore. It was a nice track, but wasn't right. So we had to produce the record, and then we had to un-produce the record. And one by one we just started pulling the instruments out, until we ended up with a conga drum, a bongo, a tambourine, a flamenco guitar, and a very light-sounding bass. We took out the drums completely. We took out all the keyboards except one, which was a Hammond, and ended up with about four instruments on it. Suddenly it became "Crystal Blue Persuasion," the song that we had written. It has kind of an effervescent sound about it, a lot of atmospherics that just weren't there when it had all those instruments on it. Suddenly when you emptied out the record it sounded like "Crystal Blue" again. It had that light airy sound, which it needed to be right. And it took us about 6 weeks to do all that. It really was a very intricate un-production, pulling all the things out. Actually, it was tougher than putting them in because you didn't want to mess up the record, but you wanted to empty it out. So it came out and went #1 for us. It was the follow-up to "Sweet Cherry Wine." We were in Hawaii when it went #1, and I often think of Hawaii as I think of "Crystal Blue Persuasion." By the way, that was the week of Woodstock.
SF: Yes, and you were invited to perform?
Tommy: Like dopes we turned it down. I gotta tell you what – we were in Hawaii at the foot of Diamond Head. This was when "Crystal Blue" was #1 in August of '69. We played a date in Hilo, and then we had two weeks off and then we were gonna play in Honolulu. They put us at these gorgeous mansions at the foot of Diamond Head, right on the ocean. And our biggest decision of the day was, Do I go in the ocean or in the swimming pool? We were sitting around drinking margaritas, and it was wonderful. And I get this call from JoAnn, my secretary, and she said, "Artie Kornfeld was up," Artie Kornfeld was one of the principals at Woodstock, and he was also a friend of mine. He produced the Cowsills and a whole bunch of other acts, and he was very successful producer. We had the same lawyer. And so she said, "Artie was up and asked if you could play at this pig farm up in upstate New York." I said, "What?!?" "Well, they say it's gonna be a lot of people there, and it's gonna be a really important show." And I said, "Did I hear you right? Did you say would I leave paradise, fly 6,000 miles, and play a pig farm? Is that what you just asked me?" She said, "Well, you could put it like that, but it's gonna be a big show. It's important." I said, "Well, I'll tell you what, if I'm not there, start without us, will you please?" And I hung up the phone. And they did. By Thursday of that week we knew we messed up really bad. (laughing) But in the end I think I got probably more mileage out of that story.
SF: Okay. Is "Crystal Blue" a reference to the Book of Revelation?
Tommy: Yes, it is. It's out of the Bible, right.
SF: Is that phrase in there somewhere? Or did you just string words together?
Tommy: Well, the imagery was right out of Chapter 19 of the Book of Revelation, about the Lake of Crystal, and what John sees. The imagery was right there. "Crystal blue persuasion," although those words aren't used together, it was kind of what the image meant to me.
SF: And when you sing about "it's a new vibration," are you talking about becoming Christian?
Tommy: Yes, indeed. And, of course, everybody thinks if they don't understand what you're talking about it must be about drugs. But it wasn't. (laughing) We were going through a real interesting time back then, and a very wonderful time. Everybody in the band, by the way, became Christian. And we're very proud of it. And "Crystal Blue Persuasion" was our way of saying that in a kind of pop record way.
SF: That's fascinating. I never knew that about that song. See what I learn? (laughing)
Tommy: It's amazing, isn't it?
SF: "Draggin' The Line." I'm wondering if you can tell me where that came from – what does that even mean?
Tommy: "Draggin' The Line" I wrote up at my farm in 1970, and it was with Bob King. My farm was in upstate New York, I had a couple hundred acres. It was a song I probably couldn't have written in the city. We just kind of toyed with it. We wrote it, and it was a very repetitious track, and a very hypnotic track. We had the track before we had the song. We went into the studio and just laid down, I don't know, eight or ten bars of track. We looped it and looped it and looped it, and created the hypnotic rhythm. Bob played bass, Russ Leslie from Neon played drums, and I played guitar. We just created loops of tape based on this little riff, and when we had three-plus minutes of it put together we stopped, and then we wrote the song around the track. Second time I had ever done that - first one was "Mony" actually. "Draggin' the Line" just meant working every day. Nothing really very mysterious about it. I will say one thing, the line of "hugging a tree" in there became kind of a slang expression for people who are interested in the ecology. "Tree Hugger" came from that song.
SF: So you actually coined that phrase?
Tommy: (laughing) I did. Unintentionally, but yes. So that was the beginning of tree-huggin' as we know it. And also I did have a cat named Sam - not a dog named Sam. He was a white Persian cat.
SF: Did he eat purple flowers?
Tommy: No, that was just finding words that fit together on a very mellow night, if you get my drift. But that's true, we wrote it up at the farm, and I doubt very much we could have written that in the city. It was just one of those things that came together. And the interesting thing about "Draggin' the Line" is it was originally the B-side, it was the flip-side of a record called "Church Street Soul Revival" that I had out in 1970. And we put the record out, and the B-side got as much airplay as the A-side, and then finally more airplay. And so we could tell that radio wanted to go with "Draggin' The Line." We went into the studio and threw horns on it, and remixed it with more emphasis on the groove, and re-released it then as an A-side in 1971, and it went #1.
SF: So "Draggin' the Line," the actual phrase, who came up with that?
Tommy: Me. The very funny part is that so much of the writing that I do is when I'm by myself. When I'm writing a groove, "Draggin' the Line," it's almost like the bass guitar was speaking. And it just seemed to say "draggin' the line" to me. It's weird, but it was like the bass was speaking.
SF: Interesting. Like you could actually hear it sing those words.
Tommy: Yes. And that's where that came from. I was mimicking the bass. Making the bass with the words.
SF: I can see that. Now, talk to me about "I Am A Tangerine."
Tommy: (laughing) Oh yeah. Well, funny you should mention that one. To be perfectly honest, we were all stoned when we wrote that.
SF: Yeah, I couldn't tell. (laughing)
Tommy: I shouldn't admit that, but we did have our moments back then. Our world was wiggling pretty good. So it was just one of those kind of nonsensical songs, and I wish I could be more profound than that. So much of the writing that you do when you're on a roll like that is stuff you don't really think about. It just sort of comes out of your mouth. And that was one of those songs. We just had this little chord progression, I don't know if we were looking at a fruit bowl or what we were looking at. It was just one of those songs that just kind of falls out of your face. I don't know how else to say it. (laughing) I wish I could be more profound than that. A lot of our songs are like that.
SF: Outside of being the writer, what was your involvement with "Tighter, Tighter" by Alive 'n Kickin'? I heard a rumor that it was actually you that sang on it, only under a different name.
Tommy: Well, no, I sang one of the background parts, and I played one of the guitars. But what happened was the Shondells and I sort of took a break. We didn't really mean to break up. Honestly, we were good friends, we are to this very day. But in 1970 we had been going at it for five years, and we were just exhausted. So we just planned to take 4, 5, 6 months off and then get back together again. Well, two of them started a studio in Pittsburgh, two of them started a new group called Hog Heaven, and I started producing other people. So everybody just kind of went their separate ways. It wasn't supposed to happen that way, but it did. So in other words, there was no blowout or anything.
So I was dying to get back in the studio, and I had written a song called "Tighter, Tighter." It was going to be my single. And right about that time, my wife's friend was managing a group called Alive 'n Kickin' from Brooklyn. They were a good group, a really good group. I went out to see them a couple of times in different places, and I was going to produce them at some point, but sometime in the future. I didn't have the time for it right now, didn't have the head for it. So I went in and I laid down a track of this song called "Tighter, Tighter." And I just didn't like the way it was coming out, it just wasn't right. Somehow – it didn't happen to me very often, but I had miscalculated the vocal, and I didn't like the way I sounded on it. I really believed the song was a hit - I had written it with Bob King, my new songwriting partner at that time. And so I remembered this group. They had a male and a female lead singer that would switch off leads. So I re-wrote the song as a duet. I called them up and said, "You guys, can you come down here and add your players on top of what we've already done, and I think you've got a hit with this." So they came in and that's just what we did. We put their guitar player on, we put their keyboard player on, we added some horns, and Pepe and Sandy sang the lead, and then Pepe, Sandy and I did backgrounds. And it came out beautiful, we took it to Roulette, Roulette put it out, and it went #1 immediately. It was a big hit record for them. Yeah, and it ended up being the first group outside of the Shondells that I produced. I produced a few other acts, Patti Austin, a group called Troy, which was Benny Mardones who later had a hit with "Into The Night" in the late '70s. Anyway, I was producing a few people and having some fun. And then I basically went back in and recorded as a solo act from that point on.
SF: You released an album in 2006, and had another #1 hit off that. Can you tell me about that?
Tommy: Well, we charted again with 3 Top 5 Adult Contemporary records in 2006 with our Hold The Fire album. "Love Words" went #1 exactly 40 years to the week that "Hanky Panky" went #1. So we felt like there was this gigantic circle made. And the CD also had 3 Top 5 Adult Contemporary records off of that. We have a whole bunch of albums out now. We have the 40 year package, which is a 2-disc set of all of our singles, all 47 of our singles. And then we had our DVD and our CD of our live show at the Bitter End in New York, and our Christmas album, which is being re-released this Christmas.
Deep in the throes of requisite rock star excess, Tommy explains how a chance remote encounter with a TV evangelist changed his life. And, religion aside, he gives us some astute observations on the future of technology in music.
SF: Earlier you mentioned "Sweet Cherry Wine." Is that a metaphor?
Tommy: Yes. It's a metaphor for the blood of Jesus.
SF: I know you say you converted to Christianity. How did that transformation take place?
Tommy: Well, I don't worship every Sunday; I worship every day. Every hour of every day. It's just me, it's part of me. I became a Christian in 1967. I was brought up Catholic, but I really didn't know my faith very well, didn't know what I believed, why I believed what I believed. And in 1967 I was listening to Billy Graham at Shea Stadium on television. And we were writing, as a matter of fact, and I put the guitars down and started listening. And he just gave the most amazingly lucid teaching on why Jesus came. I had never heard it put quite that way before. I had heard a lot of over-my-head sophisticated kind of things growing up, but I never really heard the gospel message quite like that. And there's a moment, I equate it to hitting a champagne glass – a crystal champagne glass with a fork - you know how you get that pure tone? That's kind of how I felt when I heard Billy Graham explain why Jesus came. And I knew I'd heard the truth. It's too simple and too beautiful to not be the truth, and not be God, you know what I mean? And I was actually high at the time, it's true. It just cut right through everything that was going on with me, and I got right up to the TV and put my hand on the TV and made my commitment right there.
SF: Do you find any disparity between religion and doing drugs?
Tommy: Oh, God, yes. I mean, the point was that the message of the gospel cut right through all that for me. And unfortunately I didn't quit doing drugs for several more years, but the point was that God never let go of me. I just had my rear end pulled out of the fire, and I got rescued. And I'm very appreciative of that. I can't tell you how appreciative of that I am. So to me it's a very street level kind of thing. Everybody in the band converted at different times. But I certainly don't recommend anybody do it that way. (laughing) I feel like I got saved in spite of the fact that I was doing it, not because of it.
SF: What else can you tell me about your upcoming book and the movie?
Tommy: We're going to be all around the country, we tour every year. There's so much going on this year and next, we just love hearing from people. And I'm so glad, by the way, the Internet has really exploded the way it has. It's so wonderful. I believe that the record business is reinventing itself, that once hi-def TV is in place I think the whole industry's gonna move to television. I think we're going to have big databases, more than just iTunes, we're going to have hundreds of databases where you can order, or you can download stuff, and probably have a little MP3 player on your cable box that you can take around to your car. I give it another couple of years, and the Internet and hi-def TV and the music business will all sort of come together.
SF: So if some company goes public, then it's time to buy in right now, huh?
Tommy: Well, I think this is a good time, actually. But, you know, the thing of it is we're in a real crazy time right now in between two technologies.
SF: It must be really, really intriguing for you, because you pretty much started in the industry and now… it's like going to the moon.
Tommy: Thank you for saying that. I really have seen the thing evolve. I've been very lucky to see it from a historical vantage point, and I can kind of see where it's going. If given the chance, I really believe – because hi-def TV is sort of a merging of television and computer technology - I believe that the final resting place for rock and roll is going to be hi-def TV. Isn't gonna be television. Not quite like MTV has done it, but we're going to have more music shows, we're probably going to have channels like the Sony Channel, the major labels are probably going to have channels. My guess is we're also going to have video radio. You know, I've often said that I don't understand why music radio can't do what Don Imus did 10, 12 years ago, and that was take his radio show, put digital cameras in the broadcast booth, and make it into a TV show. I don't know why music radio can't do that. And it seems to me you could create a network very easily of already up-and-running stations by simply putting digital cameras in their broadcast booth, and then go around the country, and we're gonna see what's going on in Seattle, and they play a couple of records, and go to Miami and St. Louis. My prediction is charts are going to come back. Real charts that are based on sales, on downloads, and you will just search the download databases and come up with what's the Number One record, the Number Two record, instead of this silly pay-for-play thing we've got going now. I think it would be very simple to do. And I think it's very natural that it would happen that way, because it's already up and running.
SF: I worry about people with video/radio in their cars.
Tommy: (laughing) Well, you probably wouldn't put it in your car. If you did, you'd just give the cops another reason to pull you over. No, I do see light at the end of the tunnel now, and I think we're going to have a really marvelous new age of the record business. The music business has never had a problem. The disc business is dead. One of my great regrets is that the record business didn't come to the fans with downloading. That the fans had to come to them with it. Then they start suing them, started suing the fans. That's real smart. Suing your customers, that's real smart. So anyway, you are in a very good place, because your kind of approach, that if you add a database and a little bit of visuals and a few more things as you morph into what you're going to become, you're going to go right along with the new music business. No reason you can't. I just really believe that, I'm very hopeful for what's going to happen. Oh, I think movies are going to be made out of big albums. In other words, it wouldn't surprise me if big albums from the past, like Silk Degrees or something by Boz Scaggs, would become a movie, and you did what they did with Tommy when it first came out, and that is you have a loose story around the music, rather than the music around the story.
What I'm saying is it would be a collection of audio and visual together. And I think that we're gonna get more and more imaginative where the big albums are concerned. Probably do a lot of big albums from the past. Wouldn't surprise me if a King Crimson album was a movie. But albums that you can point to. Rumours. I don't mean to be going on this much, but I'm actually looking forward – a lot of neat stuff is going to come.
Tommy James talked with us on September 15, 2009 (and his music continues to rock our world)