“The thing The 60s did was to show us the possibilities and their responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”…..John Lennon
Tommy James not only defied music sensibility but defined it at the same time. The 60’s was a time filled with sophisticated anarchy and revolution. The music was the key to identifying the time portal and as destiny would dictate Tommy James and The Shondells illuminated the soul of the industry, and has withstood the test of time. Eileen Shapiro our New York correspondent delves deep…
A walk of wisdom collected through the years, Tommy James (and The Shondells) were the first faction to feature the Moog Synthesizer. They were among the first band to produce music videos 13 years before MTV presented their first. During the years 68′ and 69′ they sold more singles than The Beatles or any artist on the planet for that matter and more than 300 artists covered their songs including Billy Idol, Tiffany, the Boston Pops, Neil Diamond, Joan Jett, The Monkees, and Billie Joe Armstrong.
Recognized for a cascade of hits including: I Think We’re Alone Now, Mony, Mony, Crimson and Clover, Crystal Blue Persuasion, Hanky Panky, Sweet Cherry Wine, Draggin’ The Lin, Mirage, Gone, Gone, Gone, and about 20 others. His songs have appeared in numerous films exampling: Heaven and Earth, Pontiac Moon, Forrest Gump, and a host of others. Aside from being a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer, James is also the author of his best-selling autobiography Me, the Mob, and the Music, the story of his true to life wild ride, and stay tuned for the film which will also be an exciting adventure.
Currently while the planet continues in isolation and people continue to cry for the moon Tommy James can be heard on his own radio show called “Gettin’ Together With Tommy James” on SiriusXM every Sunday 5-8 PM on ’60s on 6. It features Tommy playing his own hits as well as other artists from the 60’s.
I had a long and electrifying conversation with Tommy James regarding his career, his autobiography, and his galvanizing journey through life and the music industry……I found him to be one of the most courageous, coolest, and kindest man on the planet….and a master story-teller as well! Mostly he genuinely loves his fans…..
Louder Than War: During these crazy, unprecedented, and fractured world events what have you been up to?
“Like everybody else, hibernating…. of course, the concert business is on its rear end. Our last date was in February and we don’t start up again until at least April of next year., and nobody knows for sure if those dates are going to play. Who wants to be the first one into a theater? I am doing my radio show every week.”
How can people tune in and what exactly can people expect to listen to on your radio show?
“The bottom line is I play a lot of different kinds of music. It’s 60’s on 6 so there are some parameters. It’s basically 60’s music and they let me dip into the 70’s a little bit and back into the 50’s a little. My whole philosophy is that there was so much music released in the 60’s, so much great music. It was the most creative time we’ve ever had in my lifetime and the problem was there was so much music that there wasn’t enough room for everyone on the charts. So there is so much music that nobody ever heard, even by named artists. So, in addition to the hits and telling stories about the hits about people that I’ve known and worked with, we have this underground aspect where we like to present “new old songs.” You honestly wouldn’t believe how much great stuff was never heard. Often in the middle of the show we’ll play a B-side and stuff like that. We don’t like to overwhelm people with that, but every so often we’ll play something like that. I have been doing this for about 2 1/2 years now. When they first came to me I wasn’t sure because it’s one thing being on the other side of the microphone where you ask questions and you respond, but suddenly when you are starting from scratch….. we are very happy to be on 60’s on 6 because starting your own channel can be such a problem. You have to build an audience and that happens slowly. 60’s on 6 is the most listened to station on Sirius and it’s international and national. It’s coast to coast all over North America. It’s terribly important, especially now when the music business is dead for the time being. I will say that the royalty business thank God has never been bigger.”
Well right now all people can do is listen, watch and read…so we’re good. So your autobiography, “Me the Mob, and the Music” which I want to read, is being made into a movie…
“Well it’s true. That’s the only thing about an autobiography, you’ve got to tell on yourself.”
Who do you want to portray you?
“Let’s see….Walter Brennan is gone…… listen I am the worst one to ask. There are so many hip young new actors out there and I can’t believe how many of the young actors started out as musicians in rock bands. There’s a tremendous choice out there and I’m going to let the grownups handle it. I just flat out don’t know.”
“Barbara DeFina is producing the film. She produced “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, and The Color of Money” back in the 80’s….just a string of great movies. She’s about 4 foot 3 and you would never figure her for making these mob movies. She’s terrific. Matthew Stone did the screenplay. I have a hell of a respect for these guys who do screenplays because they have to take a basic story from a book or something and turn it into scenes, creating dialogue and stuff like that. It’s amazing watching all of this come together, and Kathy Marshall is going to direct.”
Well from everything I’ve heard about your book there’s going to be some really exciting scenes in the movie.
“Basically, the gist of it is a very tumultuous and sometimes really scary relationship with Roulette Records.”
Was Roulette Records a blessing or a curse to you?
“It was both. Honestly, we would never have had the kind of success that we had on one of the big corporate labels. The whole thing was so amazing. When we signed with Roulette, we had no idea what they were involved in. They were basically a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. Morris Levy, the head of the label was as they say, a mob associate. He was Jewish so he wasn’t a made man. He wasn’t Sicilian but he had every other trait. The bottom line was we really had to tiptoe around. While we were Mony, Monying, and I Think We’re Alone Now, and Crimson and Clovering all over the place we had this very dark and sinister story going on behind the scenes. We couldn’t talk about it.”
It had to be very interesting…
“It was very interesting. Getting paid was a whole other issue, but we would never have had the kind of success we had if we would have gone with one of the corporate labels. The whole thing was when I came to New York, “Hanky Panky” had exploded out of Pittsburgh. The record was almost 3 years old at that time. I had recorded it back in late 63′, and it took off in Pittsburgh. It was one of those “only in America” type of stories. The record exploded out of Pittsburgh three years later and they tracked me down. I went to Pittsburgh and found the first band I could find to be the new Shondells and a week later we were in New York selling the master. We got a yes from Columbia, we got a yes from Atlantic, RCA, even Kama Sutra Records. I went to bed that night feeling so good thinking we would probably be with CBS or some other label. The last place we took the record to was Roulette as almost an after thought. The next morning I woke up, I was 18 years old at the time, and all of these companies that had said yes the day before all of a sudden called up and said they had to pass. Finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us the truth. Morris Levy had called up all of these other companies and scared them to death. He called them up and said “this is my freaking artist.” Just like that….he’s right out of central casting. That’s how we ended up on Roulette. But the truth is that if we had gone with one of those other labels, if we would have been turned over to some house A&R guy, I can tell you right now that’s probably the last time anybody would’ve heard from us. We would have been lucky to have been a one hit wonder, especially with a record like “Hanky Panky” as a first record. At Roulette they actually needed us. I was given the keys to the candy store. I could basically do anything I wanted to do. They were looking to me to make future records happen, so I was allowed to put a production team together, use my own people and we ended up with 23 gold singles, and about 110 million records sold because of that. I go into detail in the book about that. Getting paid was another issue. It was like taking a bone from a Doberman.”
I know that happened to many artists at that time.
“Well that’s how it was back then. I am fascinated by the record business. In fact, I’m going to do a whole thing regarding the labels on my radio show. It’s going to be one of our themes. But the truth is that these guys that put this amazing machine together called the record business were all street guys. It wasn’t until the corporations really took over that it got like it is today, even though everything’s kind of disintegrated. But the street guys put together this amazing, well oiled, machine together where you could sing a song in the studio on Monday morning and by Friday afternoon it could be in the stores and on the radio. So that was my thing with Roulette, crime doesn’t pay.”
So, what is the most trouble you’ve ever got yourself into?
“There is going to be a scene in the movie, and it was in the book where Morris and I really had a blowout. Morris Levy can only be described as something out of the movies. He was every bit of a gangster. He was big and when you grabbed his hand it was like holding onto a catcher’s mitt. He was really a big dude! And scary. What happened was Tommy Eboli was the head of the Genovese family after Veto Genovese died. There was this huge gang war in 1971. I was told by my attorney to leave town until this blows over. Morris took off for Spain and the thought was if they couldn’t get him….. The Gambino family was taking over New York and Morris was on the wrong side.”
Weren’t you scared? I’m scared just listening to your story….
“It was a very dangerous time, so I left town. I came back in early 1972 thinking everything was over. July of that year I was playing in Brooklyn at the Paramount Theatre and that night Tommy Eboli, who was Morris’s partner was assassinated, about six blocks from where I was playing. I went back to Roulette Monday morning and the place was nuts. Tommy was literally Morris’s partner, he was up there all the time. All of these guys were. They were hanging out at Roulette as if it were a social club. The bottom line was I wanted out and I told Morris. It was a screaming match. I was high and if I hadn’t have been I wouldn’t have done that. I got loaded before I went up there. I wanted out and he said “you ain’t fucking going anywhere.” That was the way it was put to me. I didn’t know if I was going to walk out of there to be honest with you. That was probably the scariest it was. When I started with Roulette the first time, I wanted to get my royalties I went up there after we had sold several million records by then. We were on the fourth or fifth hit, somewhere in between I Think We’re Alone Now and Mirage. I went up there and was told by the accountant under no uncertain terms that everything was cross collateralized. And I thought “what the hell does that mean?” (I’m going to write a song called cross collateral). What it boils down to was that they weren’t paying. If I pushed it too far, I could end up like Jimmy Rogers (“Honeycomb”). What that meant was that Jimmy was suing Roulette. He was stopped by what he thought were cops on an LA freeway and they beat him, they thought to death. This happened in 1968. He was a pretty strong guy and survived but he was never the same.”
This is scary stuff….am I allowed to write this?
“Well it’s the truth. The bottom line was we understood what that was and gradually I read up on the Genovese crime family and it was pretty astonishing. So we were walking on egg shells but the funny part is that one of these days I’m going to ask the good Lord what he had in mind. This was as you say a blessing and a curse. If it hadn’t been for Morris Levy there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James…..and that is the truth.”
Speaking of the Lord, many people thought that when you wrote and recorded Crystal Blue Persuasion that you were inspired by those little blue LSD tabs that were going around at the time, but instead you are inspired by the Bible. My question is what was a rocker doing reading the Bible?
“I became a Christian….what can I say? That’s really what Crystal Blue was about. Back then when you wrote songs about religious experiences, for example Sweet Cherry Wine, was about that too, it wasn’t politically incorrect to do that. It was a snapshot of where you were at as a person. So that’s what we wrote songs about. Anyway, I was very proud of that. When I’m asked about it, I talk about it.”
Out of all the many songs that you have recorded is there one that you are particularly proud of and kind of loved above the rest?
“Wow…. I suppose there are actually two. One has to be Crystal Blue Persuasion, for the reasons I just told you. I suppose the other is Mony Mony. There is no air left in the room when we finish with that song. The CO2 level goes up pretty high and at concerts it’s what we end the show with and it has been all this time….50 years. It’s just amazing how this stuff has lasted.”
Billy Idol also ends his show with Mony Mony.
“Yeah, so does Bruce Springsteen. I have to put that as one of my all-time favorites. I’ve been so fortunate. I look out at our concert crowd now and literally I see three generations of people. I have been so blessed. I mean rock ‘n’ roll is a business that gives you maybe two or three years. We have been doing this literally for 54 years. It’s amazing for me and I thank the fans and the good Lord for the longevity that we’ve had. I really mean that.”
So have you had your Ultimate stage fantasy yet?
“I don’t think anybody has ever asked me that….. I suppose one of my all-time favorites is the Ed Sullivan show. With all that history on that stage, Ed Sullivan was the biggest show on television. We were on three times and we headlined each time. Headlining the Ed Sullivan show was I think the biggest thrill. Not only for me but for my hometown, for my parents and everybody around me. One of the reasons was because the night we did the first Ed Sullivan Show , Crimson and Clover hit number 1. Billboard and the trades were always out on Sunday night and the night we did the first Ed Sullivan Show that song was number one. It ended up being our biggest single as well. We did 5 1/2 million singles right there in 1969 and then another 20 or 30 million more on various albums over the course of 50 years internationally.”
To this day it is and has been my very favorite song.
“Thank you… So that night was a moment in so many ways. Have to say that’s my greatest stage fantasy.”
That’s a good one. Musically you were ahead of your time. You used a synthesizer when no one even knew what it was.
“Do you know who owned it?”
No who owned it?
“Whitey Ford. Our usual studio was being updated to 24 tracks. So, I had to find another studio and I found a little studio called “Broadway Sound” on 54th and Broadway. I walked into the studio and the owners of the studio were there to greet me. One of them was Whitey Ford. He owned the studio. I looked over and I saw this gigantic thing that looked like a 1920 switchboard. It was the size of a wall with a keyboard on the bottom half and it was analog too. Digital hadn’t been quite invented yet except for the astronauts. It was a big analog Moog synthesizer, the very first one. They played it for me and I fooled around with it and I said “whoa, we have to do an album around this.” Our next album after Crimson and Clover was Cellophane Symphony and that was built around the synthesizer. I knew that that was going to be the future because it replaced musicians. You knew everybody was going to try to take the cheap way out with the synthesizer. That was a moment too.”
Do you think that if you had the technology we have today you would have done things differently back in the 60s when you were recording?
“Yeah, I would have used it.”
You are the first artist that has ever admitted that to me.
“I think it’s foolish to say “no I would’ve done it the same way”, I would’ve spent 12 hours trying to tune the organ…..We would have gone all the way with it. Technology always fascinated me. We were at a moment in time during the 1960s when the space program was finding its way into the TV studios and the recording studios, miniaturizing electronics…We went for example from 4 tracks to 24 tracks in about three years. That was huge. That opened up things you cannot believe. We were so lucky to have been in the business at that period of time.”
You were asked to play Woodstock and you declined. Are you sorry?
“Yes… not just yes…HELL YES!”
Why did you decline?
“I was in Hawaii. We were playing two gigs, two weeks apart. One was in Hilo and the other was in Honolulu. Tom Moffett the promoter put us in this 21 room Spanish Villa at the foot of Diamond Head right on the ocean. We were in paradise. I got a call on Wednesday from my secretary Joanne who told me Artie Kornfeld, who was one of the promoters of Woodstock had called. Artie was also a producer and a friend of mine. She said that Artie said they were going to have this big gig on a pig farm in New York, and they’d really like me to be there. I said “WHAT?” I thought “Oh yeah, I’m going to leave Paradise to fly 6000 miles to play a pig farm in upstate New York.” They said it was going to be a big show. I told them “if we’re not there start without us.” I was laughing as I hung up on her. By Friday we knew we screwed up really bad. They shut down the New York throughway and we were watching this on TV. All the network news stations had it and were filming the incredible number of cars that were showing up. Thousands of cars….and they started without us! We damn sure made the next one which was the Atlanta Pop Festival.”
I bet you did. I’ve been noticing on the Internet a huge amount of people are campaigning for you to be inducted to the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. You certainly deserve it and they keep wondering why you haven’t been?
“Truthfully, I always thought it was unseemly for an artist to promote himself into the Hall of Fame. Chubby Checker did it for years and I always thought it was a big mistake. When it’s our turn to go, we’ll go. That’s really how I feel. You know when I’d like it to happen? When the movie comes out. That would be the greatest one-two punch that I could think of.”
Your album Alive came out the end of last year, what inspired it?
“First overall I think that it is terribly important to keep putting out music. Our fans have been so great and loyal over the years and they buy everything we put out. It’s just something I do. It’s what I do. I can’t seem to stop myself.”
Tell me about the album. I know you have some cool people playing on it.
“The funny part is that it started out as an acoustic album. I was going to do an acoustic album of some of the old songs, some brand new songs and I thought that would be kind of cool. Well we got about two songs into it and realized that there was no way that we could do this acoustically. I just thought I did it over again. We started with this song So Beautiful. The two singles of the album went Top 20 on the Billboard AC Charts.”
That’s so cool.
“Isn’t that something? It was great to be back on the charts. It’s such a different record business and music business now. Doing radio again it’s fun but there’s a whole new generation of people. The Alive album was really a labor of love. I’m not sure I am ever going to do an album again because everything is single song downloads. The most that we are ever going to do again is probably a four song EP. And another thing is that it’s just starting to happen but vinyls are making a big comeback. We have our own record company and Ira Leslie who was doing marketing for Roulette is doing marketing for us. The guy is really amazing. He has more street knowledge about the record business than anybody I’ve ever talked with.
Do you have guests appearing on your radio show?
Lew Simon, who runs the 60s channel and some of other decade channels wanted it to be just me and my stories, however he said at some point maybe we will do that. Right now, he said if I didn’t mind then he would just keep it me and my people. I have Ed Osborne who works for me and Carol Ross my manager who are also on the show with me. I like bouncing stuff back-and-forth. Ed Osborne who coproduces the show with me was a big executive at BMG but before that he was one of the original CBS jocks. Carol Ross is an actor who was on Gun Smoke, Wild,Wild West, and before that she was a nightclub singer. Before she became an actress, she was an Action dancer on Where The Action Is with Dick Clarke. We have a team of thoroughbreds that I’m so proud of. I brag about these people all the time. In any case Lew Simon wants me to play my own stuff and I asked him, “Can’t I go to jail for that?” So I am able to play 50 years worth of stuff. Isn’t that wild?
Completely wild! The soundtrack of your life was just released, what songs are on it?
“Oh brother. There are so many I wouldn’t even know where to start. Do you know what I’m really into now?”
“Smooth jazz. Maybe it’s me just getting mellow, I don’t know but that’s where the geniuses are now. So I would do some of that, I would do several Motown songs. I love Wilson Pickett. The stuff that I wind up playing on air you wouldn’t believe. I just think Wilson Pickett is one of the most amazing artists I’ve ever heard. I would go with some stuff from the 50s. I love Bobby Day. He wrote Rockin’ Robin and Little Bitty Pretty One and sung them both. I would probably go with several Beatles songs. Songs like Strawberry Fields which to me was such a breakthrough record. Strawberry Fields was when radio divided up into AM and FM. Strawberry Fields straddled that fence. I’ll never forget we were riding in the car on the road somewhere and I was listening to the radio and Happy Together came on by The Turtles. The next song was Strawberry Fields. Two totally different flavors, two totally different directions of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll was breaking up into two different genres. One was pop and the other was psychedelic rock. Then there was just flat out metal rock. This happened in one moment, in 1967 and I just remember being absolutely startled by The Beatles at that moment. They were so different from how they started out. They evolved. When I realized you could evolve, that you could take your audience on a trip that is when I started producing the group. When we started out, we were a garage band, then we were a studio band, then we went on to party rock, then we went to psychedelic rock which was really Pop music done a slightly different way. As the technology and as the science of the technology came into the studio and multi-track machines became bigger, we had to expand what we were doing if we were to keep our audience. So, we were able to go through all of these changes and thank God the audience stayed with us.
And it’s still with you.
“We still have the fans and God bless them. The country music used to do that. They had this multi-generational fan base. I get asked so many times by young bands,, “what do we do?” You can set your hair on fire and not get any attention. I am amazed how difficult it is to make any noise today. Nobody’s paying attention. I tell them to forget record companies for right now and to go to publishing companies. I tell them to write their own music, record about 10 of their songs, and do them well, and go to a publisher.”
That’s the best advice ever.
“That’s where the action is. Rock ‘n’ Roll was never meant to be enjoyed individually. It’s a social affair. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a social thing as much as it is a music thing. When you take that away, what have you got? The concert business really hadn’t changed that much. That was the amazing thing. You still have the excitement, the audience, and we never made more money on a nightly basis than we make now. Ever. The world right now is a marketplace. You can go anywhere online. There has never been more of an opportunity to get music to people. Getting new music in front of the fans is one of the toughest things to do.”
I know you probably don’t stay up all night thinking of questions that you want to be asked. So, if you could help me ask you any question on the planet what would it be?
“Well I think you’ve already asked it. “How are you?” ……I suppose I would like to be asked about the relationship with the fans. I think it’s probably the area that I’m most proud of. Fans are everything. They make the car go. Without them you have nothing. The fans have been so good to us.”
If you could say anything to your fans what would it be?
“I would say a huge thank you and write it across the sky. I’m just so grateful to the fans. Like I said the good Lord and the fans have done it for us my whole life. After a certain point they become like extended family. I spend more time saying the words thank you than anything else I say. And I really mean it…..”
The official website for Tommy James may be found here.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.