Tommy James constructed this slice of psychedelia from his favorite color and his favorite flower. In our interview with Tommy James
, he told us: "They were just two of my favorite words that came together. Actually, it was one morning as 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. And I ended up writing 'Crimson and Clover' with my drummer, Pete Lucia, who has since passed away."
Kenny Laguna is a songwriter and producer who has worked with Joan Jett ever since she started as a solo artist. He played keyboards and sang backup as a member of The Shondells. Kenny told us how this song came together:
"Bo Gentry wrote all these songs for Tommy James, from 'I Think We're Alone Now' right on through 'Mony Mony.' There were other co-writers, but Bo was the genius, the driving force. Bo wasn't getting paid from Roulette Records, so he went on strike and refused to make any more Tommy James records. In those days, the legend, Morris Levy, said he was not going to be pushed around and said, 'Fine, you want to quit, quit. It will be the end of your career.' We went to Tommy and said, 'Look Tommy, if you don't get someone to write the songs for you, you're going to be dead meat. You can't go trying to do it yourself, you don't know how to write hit songs.' So he went off with the drummer and created this song. I'll never forget it, it was in Allegra studios on 1650 Broadway. There was the Brill building, and in the basement was this great studio. Tommy says, 'come here,' so I went in the room, listened to what he'd been doing and said, 'Oh, my God.' Everybody kind of deserted Tommy, and he went off and just did this incredible song. He wrote it, produced it, and played all the instruments with the drummer."
Many songs need to be cut down before radio stations will play them, but this was the opposite. The song was only 2 1/2 minutes long, so they spliced together an extended version for FM radio. If you listen to that version, you can hear some really bad edits.
Tommy James (from our interview): "'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. And 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 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 gonna 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 (Levy) usually would name the album the same title as the single, so it would get kind of a head start. But the point was 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. And so 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.'"
As Tommy explains, we were never supposed to hear the mix of this song that became a hit. Says James: "When we went into the studio to do it, we actually finished the record in about 5 ½ hours. And 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 on 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, and 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. They broke the record so fast, 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. 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, and 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.'"
Joan Jett recorded this in 1982 as her follow-up to "I Love Rock And Roll
." Her version hit #7 in the US.
This was #1 during Christmas. At the end of the song, when the vocals are heavily processed, some listeners thought James was singing "Christmas Is Over" instead of "Crimson And Clover."
While it has since become recognized as a classic, US listeners dropped this song from #18 to completely out of the charts in one week, setting a record for farthest fall out of the charts.
US Vice President Hubert Humphrey wrote the liner notes for the Crimson And Clover album. Humphrey asked James to run his "Youth Affairs" commission when he was campaigning in 1968.
In the PC game Heroes of Might and Magic 2, there was a playable map based on this song. When the entire map was viewed in the overhead window, it looked like a green clover on a red background. (thanks, Douglas - Waterloo, England)
Prince recorded a new version of this song which was released on his 2009 Lotusflow3r set. His version incorporates part of the song "Wild Thing
." (thanks, Faundell - Brooklyn, NJ)
When Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, she performed this song at the ceremony, joined on stage by Tommy James, Miley Cyrus and Dave Grohl.