A Chat with Tommy James
by Ray D'Ariano

During 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… not 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 yes….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 anything.

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.

December 2, 1968

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 with blessings.

Hubert Humphrey

TJ: 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 version.

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 …World Exclusive…..and 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 judgment.

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 back then.

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 amazing record.

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 nice.

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.

TJ: Sure.

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 do?

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.