Saturday, February 1, 2014

A New Day is Coming: Interview with Midwest Born Rock and Roll Legend Tommy James

Tommy James. My first recollection of his music came via a sister who was eight years older than me. Her collection of 45's included several songs that featured orange and yellow swirly marks which were labeled Roulette.

The rub on the back is the recognition that certain voices and people are the most notable representatives of a moment. I grew up loving movies and books.  I've worked in television my entire adult life, but it is faith, family and music that defines my own life. I know exactly where I was when I heard of the deaths of John Lennon, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. As much as I treasured the films of Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood and Paul Newman I couldn't tell you where I was when any of them passed on. I've been to the graves of Lennon (well, not his grave, but his memorial site in Central Park), Sinatra and Presley. Faith, family and music have walked me through many passages.

Music assists while falling in love and falling out of love. Music makes you jump for joy and weep with heartbreak. Classical music has calmed me to sleep. I've spent many a Saturday morning  cleaning my house to the beat of a superb three chord classic. Music has kept me comforted while driving literally across the nation. Music makes me re-identify with my youthful self. Songs you grew up with or came of age to leave a mark on your life. Most of the people I hung out with during those long ago years are no longer in my life (well, virtually some of them are), but I still hang on tightly to the music.

I was a little kid when Crystal Blue Persuasion was released. I love this song. It's my all-time favorite pop song. I love it so much I have requested its play at my one day funeral. It touches my soul, my heart, my mind. It will be played between How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace.

The Midwestern born and raised Tommy James is performing at the Rialto Theater on Valentine's Day. If you have never seen him live do yourself a big life favor and check out a live performance. He is a performer worthy of your time. He is one of the master craftsmen of the rock/pop era 76 million baby boomers grew up with.

I had the pleasure to interview him on a cold and snowy day during the already famed 2014 winter. As John Steinbeck once wrote, this is the winter of our discontent, but I assume Tommy James would recommend I take things in stride. 

Judith: Tommy, I read your autobiography, watched your taped performance at the Bitter End and  lounged around listening to much of your timeless catalog over the weekend. Your autobiography, Me, the Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells is wildly entertaining and highly educational. I understand it is being turned into a feature film and Barbara De Fina is producing it. What's going on with this project?

Tommy James: We have our screenplay writer and we've sealed distribution. Everything in Hollywood takes forever. It's like watching hair grow. It's nothing like the record business. It's vastly different. The music industry allows you to take your excitement and go into the studio almost immediately and it's done quickly. In the film business, everything takes time. I've gotten a good education.

Judith: A film often sits in development for five years. It's nothing like television. Having worked in television all of my adult life I know first hand that television is a quick turnaround business. If you  pitch something in February you could literally have a show on the air by the fall.

Tommy James: I've heard a project could even sit in film development for ten years. Hopefully, it won't take anywhere that long. When Martin Fitzpatrick and I wrote the book we were going to call it Crimson and Clover. We started out writing a nice music book about the songs. We were about a third of the way in and we realized if we don't tell the whole Roulette story we are cheating ourselves and everyone else for that matter. I was nervous finishing this version of the book, because some of the guys were still walking around. We then put the material on a shelf for about three years. The last of the Roulette guys passed on and we figured we could finish the book. As soon as we finished the book we had an immediate response from Simon and Schuster and I was flattered by that. I had never been an author before. Simon and Schuster does Presidential memoirs, so this was a great publishing arena for us. We were thrilled they picked up the book. It was released about four months later, so that process went quickly.

As soon as we released it we began getting calls for the movie and Broadway rights. Barbara De Fina called us and she's a heavy hitter, so this was another big situation. Barbara produced Goodfellas, Casino, the 90's version of Cape Fear and Hugo. She works with Martin Scorsese often. She's an A-list player and we were thrilled she took our story. We finally got our distribution and financing. You need all of this to make it move along nicely. Every person who comes on board is a separate negotiation. It's quite an undertaking with getting the whole crew together. The next couple of years should be interesting.

Judith: I will admit I've read quite a few shady rock and roll bios over the years, but the whole Morris Levy Roulette situation one-upped most of what I have read. In the book you talk about the  creative freedom you had in the recording studio. You got the creative freedom, but you lost out on thirty to forty million dollars. Most people wouldn't have walked away so quietly losing that sum of money.

Tommy James: When you look back at the situation we made a good chunk of that back, but that was only one source of revenue. We had BMI, commercials and touring and all of the rest of it. Mechanical royalties were just not going to happen under Roulette. We had to ask ourselves what do we do? We may have taken our own lives into our hands and try to get off the label, but we stuck it out, because we were having amazing success at Roulette. We ended up with 23 gold records and we sold over 110 million records. Did we want to interrupt all of that? The answer was no. I think we made the right decision. First of all I get to tell this story. Also, I don't believe we would have had the freedom we had at Roulette at any other label. My first hit record was Hanky Panky in 1966. The song had been recorded a couple of years prior to this, but it got bootlegged and it exploded in Pittsburgh. That explosion took us to New York. The song taking off was unexpected. Looking back  it really was a mini miracle. At that time, I couldn't put the original band back together since we had recorded it two years earlier. The way the song broke is one of those only in America stories and then I came to New York to sell the master we made. I had meetings with most of the major record companies and we got a yes from everybody. Columbia, RCA, Atlantic and the now defunct Kama Sutra. The last place we took the record to was Roulette. Roulette was a nice independent label, but I was more excited about the prospect of going with Columbia, which was one of the big corporate labels.

I went to sleep that night feeling really great and I woke up the next morning around 9:00.  The phone rang and all the labels that were positive and saying yes the day before were now saying listen Tom we gotta pass and I was like what do you mean you gotta pass? Finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us the truth that Morris Levy called all the record companies and said this is my record. He told them to back off and they all did. We were apparently going to be on Roulette whether we liked it or not. That was the first offer I couldn't refuse.

At any rate that is literally how we ended up at Roulette. We learned who they were and what was going on incrementally. We'd meet somebody up in Morris Levy's office and a week later we'd see them on television being led out of a warehouse in New Jersey in handcuffs. That kept happening. Roulette, in addition to being a legitimate label was also a front for the Genovese crime family. One of the five families. At the time, we couldn't talk about any of this.

Judith: Tommy, you certainly have one of the more unique stories in the history of recorded music. Actually, that's an understatement.

Tommy James: If we had gone to a corporate label we would have gotten lost in the mix, particularly with a fluky first song like Hanky Panky. We could have been a one hit wonder. We probably would have been assigned to and turned over to an in-house A&R guy and gotten lost in the numbers. That's the last anyone would have heard from us. At Roulette they actually needed us. They hadn't had a hit in three years, so Roulette left us alone. They allowed us to morph into whatever we could become. I'm sure that wouldn't have happened at any other label. We were given the keys to the candy store. The downside was we weren't going to get any mechanical royalties. We learned crime doesn't pay.

Judith: There were a lot of moments in your book that touched me. You wrote that "In many ways, the summer of '63 was the last great summer in America. Never again would we be quite so optimistic or unapologetically carefree." That's such a powerful historical truth and you put it down in two sentences.

Tommy James: That was in high school. I had a job in a record shop and I worked there after school and on the weekends. Of course they let me promote my band out of the shop and I learned so much at that record shop. When the Kennedy assassination happened it was right at the middle of this gigantic pre-release promotion of the first album by the Beatles. Every week in the record store there would be something new about the Beatles. The Kennedy assassination happened right in the middle of my carefree summer and the Beatles landing in America. This is forever in my mind and I have those two events cemented together. The Beatles first release and the Kennedy assassination.

Judith: I think most Americans that were alive and old enough to remember those events at the time think like that. This horrible tragedy followed by this monumental musical and pop culture explosion.

Tommy James: I had just gotten my driver's license in the summer of '63. I was 16 years old. I had a car. My girlfriend and I travelled to my band's dates. We'd play a lot of dates on the water. Lake Michigan. Clear Lake. The gigs were on the beach. The tragedy of JFK's assassination was awful for all of us, so the Beatles were the only thing that made 1964 bearable.

Judith: Speaking of that time. You didn't write political songs. Was there a conscious decision not to write political songs? Did you say I don't want to write For What It's Worth?

Tommy James: The only political song we wrote was also semi-religious. Sweet Cherry Wine. I'll be honest with you. We were such creations of commercial top 40 radio there wasn't any call for us to write political music. It would have been kind of strange if we had. We really made it as sort of a garage band.

Judith: Well, you were one heck of a great garage band!

Tommy James: Thank you. We made it with this almost silly record, Hanky Panky.

Judith: Tell me about the changes in the studio. Where and when did you gain that creative freedom from Roulette?

Tommy James: We worked our way into it. We kept getting more involved in the studio. We were producing our own records soon after the release of Hanky Panky. We started producing with Mony Mony, but we officially had our names on the label as producers with Crimson and Clover. None of this was intentional. As I said, we were creations of commercial radio.
Tommy James in the studio today.

Judith: Crimson and Clover is such a fantastic piece of pop music. Obviously, you had covers of so many of your songs, most notably with Tiffany's I Think We're Alone Now and Billy Idol's version of Mony Mony.  In researching your life and music I was surprised to see all of these covers and there are so many of Crimson and Clover. That must be the ultimate compliment for musicians and songwriters. I know you wouldn't want to give preferential treatment to anyone, but was there one cover were you said that is so spot-on and it's even better than my own version.

Tommy James: There were a few of them. I'm flattered and honored whenever any artist thinks a quick way to a hit record is to cover one of our old songs. We've had over 300 cover versions done of our songs from Billy Idol to Dolly Parton to the Boston Pops. It's hard to say what my one favorite would be. A couple of favorites would have to be R.E.M's version of Draggin' the Line in the Austin Powers movie. In 2012, Prince recorded an amazing version of Crimson and Clover. That song appeared on the first all digital album and it went to #1. The album's title is Lotus Flower. One of my favorites is the version of I'm Alive by Tom Jones. Dolly Parton and I did a cover of Crimson and Clover.

Judith: How did the partnership on that track come about with Dolly Parton?

Tommy James: She wrote me a sweet letter asking me if I would do Crimson and Clover with her. She has this sweet and lovely voice and she did a down home country interpretation of the song. She did her half of the song in Nashville and I did my end here in New York. We ended up getting together to perform it together at Radio City Music Hall when she was on tour shortly after she recorded it.

Judith: Your songs have been used a great deal in films and in commercials. When an ad agency  wants to use your song in a promotional campaign or an artist wants to record one of your songs what is the process like?

Tommy James: Most of them go through the publisher. When they use a song for a commercial or a film it's called a sync license. When Dolly contacted me directly that was somewhat unusual, because usually you go to the publisher first to make sure it's available. Sometimes an artist will be hired or an artist just wants to cover a song, but sometimes for films and commercials they will use our original recordings. We also have several different versions of our songs.

Judith: Who oversees your publishing catalog?

Tommy James: Sony now handles my publishing and the masters that I own. They're huge. They even bought out EMI and they own BMG.

Judith: I love Draggin' the Line. What a get happy song! Did you ever have a dog named Sam?

Tommy James: (laughs) I had a cat named Sam!

Judith: That song is so visual. It probably had the first environmentally friendly reference in any pop song that I can think of. Hugging a tree when you get near it. Love that line!

Tommy James: All of the tree huggers love it!

Judith: I would think some environmental group would use that song as a theme.

Tommy James: I wrote that song at my farm in upstate New York. I honestly don't think I could have written that song in the city. I was inspired by my surroundings.

Judith: A group called Alive 'N Kickin' had a huge hit back in 1970 with your composition of Tighter, Tighter. Why didn't you record that track? It's a great song. You also produced it for them.

Tommy James: I recorded it, but I just didn't like what I was hearing. The Shondells and I were on a six month hiatus and I wanted to get back in the studio. I wrote and recorded Tighter, Tighter and I just really didn't like the way I was singing it. I rewrote it as a duet for Alive 'N Kickin'. They had a male and a female lead singer. They put their guitar and their keyboard on top of the track that we already recorded and I produced their vocals and it became a number one hit. It was my first outside production.

Judith: If you hadn't been a songwriter and musician what do you think you would have done with your life professionally?

Tommy James: Instinctively, I would say I don't know. I might have gotten involved in science or engineering. I never wanted to do anything other than play music. It's not like I had a brain surgery background to fall back on. This is what I did and I what I loved from my childhood.

Judith: Your book details your relationship with your parents. In many ways they remind me of my parents. They were hard-working, classic American people right out of the depression-World War II era. How much of your family and your Midwestern roots reflected your life in words and music?

Tommy James: Growing up middle class in the Midwest is one of the healthiest of American lives. It's the best place and way to view reality. To see things and to take things in. You have a significant advantage in life if you are a middle class Midwesterner. Everything you see and do creatively reflects that and you sort of instinctively know what average people want, because you are one of them. My background has helped me a great deal in my music. It's hard to point to this or that and say this is something you are because you are from a particular place, but it's definitely a frame of mind.

Judith: I love the fact that you have a female manager. How long has Carol Ross been with you?

Tommy James: We've been together since 1987, so it's a near 30 year relationship at this point. Carol has an incredible background. She was an actress. She appeared on the first Billy Cosby show, she was on Gunsmoke, The Wild, Wild West and she was a dancer on Dick Clark's Where the Action Is. She was the head of publicity at MCA working with Elton John. She worked with Billy Joel and Paul McCartney and she has a great grasp of the music.

Judith: I had the opportunity to work with Dick Clark when I worked at ABC. He was a terrific man.
I know you think quite highly of him.

Tommy James: Dick was a good man and a good friend. His stature in the business was one-of-a-kind.

Judith: There were a few sad moments in your book and perhaps none sadder than your brief description of the legendary Gene Krupa's final years.

Tommy James:  It was terrible to view. We were told he was on heroin. At the time, he had a small band. A combo. He'd be slumped over between shows. It was a terrible way to see one of your musical heroes.

Judith: I love the big band era and the great American songbook. I could listen to Glenn Miller's orchestra all day long.

Tommy James: Me too. I love all of the singers and the sounds.

Judith: When you look back on it all are there go-to songs or artists?

Tommy James: I love the music from the 1950's. That was when I started listening to music. I love Jo Stafford. Jo Stafford was the greatest female singer I ever heard. I loved a lot of the crooners who came out of the big band era and then bumped right into the first generation of rock and rollers.

Judith: Frank Sinatra loved Jo Stafford and it's an intriguing time in history when musical genres were switching.

Tommy James: Definitely. I don't want to get too long winded, but there is a very interesting moment in 1956/1957 if you were to look at a jukebox you would see two generations completely overlapping. On the jukeboxes at the time you would get the crooners: Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Theresa Brewer and on the same jukebox you would see the first of the rock and rollers. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Eddy Cochran, Gene Vincent. There was a knock down, drag out fight between the crooners and the rock and rollers. There's never been a time like that. That's what makes Dick Clark such a prominent figure in music history. He came in with his clean-cut, good looks and his articulate approach and made mothers feel safe with the music. Dick Clark saw to it that rock and rollers won that war, even though the best of the crooners survived successfully.

Judith: My name is Judith and I found your song, Judy.

Tommy James: You're unlucky. It was the first song I ever wrote and recorded. One of the worst records ever made.

Judith: It's on YouTube.

Tommy: I wrote it for the first girlfriend I ever had.

Judith: Well, any song with a take on my name is a song I love. The famed Chicago disc jockey Larry Lujack recently died. If he did today what he did to you then he would be facing all kinds of lawsuits.

Tommy James: Larry was a friend of mine and yes there would be lots of lawsuits. He would be held libel for something. I detail the story in my autobiography, but when I played him the rough mix of Crimson and Clover I had no idea he was recording.  I walked out of the studio and he then played the rough mix on the air. I didn't sue him or the station. The truth is WLS was my favorite radio station of all time. I spent my childhood and my teen years in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, so I always got WLS which was a 50,000 watt radio station. I loved it. They broke so many of my records I couldn't complain much. They blasted the rough mix and then I never got a chance to remix it. That was the record.

Judith: You should be in the rock and roll hall of fame. Period. Period. Period.

Tommy James: I would like it to happen when the movie comes out. I try to be magnanimous about this stuff. When it's my turn I will go in.

Judith: I know you are a Christian. I'm a Christian. The guy running audio today is a Christian. I read you came to Christ after watching Billy Graham on television over 40 years ago. Have you ever recorded Christian music?

Tommy James: I did a Christan album of new songs called Christian of the World back in 1971. At the time, no secular artist had done anything like that before. Well, Elvis Presley recorded a couple of Gospel albums, but no one else had gone in that direction. This was several years before Bob Dylan recorded his Christian albums. It was contemporary Christian music before anyone had coined the term. If I did it today it would be very politically incorrect, but I didn't care. At the time I was a baby Christian, so the music is what it is.

Judith: What are your biggest professional regrets, if you have any?

Tommy James: Not going to Woodstock.  I stayed on my Hawaiian vacation and I should have gotten off the beach and flown to New York. At the time, I just didn't want to go. Of course, not meeting Elvis Presley when I had the opportunity. Elvis asked me to go to Graceland and I didn't go. I went to Nashville to do an album since my lawyer told me to leave New York for a while to avoid a gang war. I worked with a couple of guys who worked with Elvis. Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. At some point while we were doing the album Elvis was going to come over. Scotty had called Elvis and Elvis was going to take us to dinner, but then out of nowhere he couldn't come. Scotty thought he was high. I spoke with him and he invited me to his home - Graceland. We were running late with the album and I never got there. Big regret.  He was dead not long after that experience.

Judith: You need to get on Daryl Hall's Live at Daryl's House  program. I love that show. It started on YouTube.

Tommy James: The YouTube people asked me to start a channel so in a few weeks it launches. I'm doing some new music and every couple of weeks we will have a new song up on the Tommy James channel. It's called Inside Tracks with Tommy James.  YouTube will be our new record label.

Judith: Tommy, thank you so much for spending so much time with me to discuss your life in music. I love so many of your songs. Mony Mony, I Think We're Alone Now, Hanky Panky, Mirage, Crimson and Clover, Sweet Cherry Wine, Draggin' the Line and of course, my all-time favorite pop song, the beautiful Crystal Blue Persuasion.

Tommy James: Thank you and I'll see you at the show.

The Tommy James autobiography, Me, the Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells is one of the best music bios I've ever read. The book is honest, forthright and informative about the music industry and it's entertaining to boot! Check it out. You can purchase a copy on Amazon or on

 Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture

Copyright Chicago and Then Some 2014


1 comment:

  1. Tommy James is one of the most talented people to come from that generation. Underrated and undervalued. Thanks for this terrific chatfest.