Alone Now with Tommy James: A Revealing Interview

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Tommy James and the Shondells

If you were in junior high school, just hitting your teens in 1969, there’s a pretty good chance that at every awkward school gym dance you slow-danced to Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.” The pleasure principle kicked in from that very anticipatory first blast—“Ah!”—followed by, “Now I don’t hardly know her/But I think I could love her.” It was one of those shimmering tunes you wanted never to end.

Occasionally, it might have crossed your mind to wonder what Tommy James was singing about as the tremolo guitar notes quivered behind his voice: “Crimson and clover, over and over.” It was vague, but mesmerizing. Was it spiritual? Sexual?

So, I’m on the phone with Tommy James from his Cedar Grove, N.J., home nearly a half century later and I ask: What the heck does “Crimson and Clover” mean?

“Just two of my favorite words,” says James, with a laugh. “Sounded like they oughta be profound. It sounded poetic. I have no idea what they meant.”

And that chorus! It went on and on, over and over…

“It must have meant something,” James says. “Listen, that’s how it was back then. You’re always on the make for interesting words and lines as a songwriter.”

James is in good spirits. He’s happy to talk about his past successes—“We’ve had 23 gold singles, nine platinum albums and we’ve done about 110 million records internationally”—but just as happy that that past extends into the present day.

He’s on tour, he’s got a new album, Alive, in the works—his first since “Hold the Fire” in 2006—and it appears a film is finally going to be made based on the 2010 memoir he co-wrote, Me, The Mob and The Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells.

Related: What were some of the biggest hits of the summer of 1966?

The Ohio-born, Michigan-raised James came to early fame in 1966 after a song he and his teenage band, the Shondells, covered hit the top of the charts. That raw, suggestive song, “Hanky Panky,” was written by the classic songwriting team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and was a staple for garage-rock bands of the era. James and the Shondells recorded it; a DJ in Pittsburgh picked up on it; the music trades raved and James went to New York. where he was courted by the record companies.

And Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records and one of the legendary crooks of the 20th century music business, entered—and changed—his life. For better and for worse.

Two number ones—“Hanky Panky” and “Crimson and Clover”—and four others in the top five—“Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now” in the mid-late ’60s and “Draggin’ the Line,” released under his own name and not “and the Shondells,” in 1971. (Note: There have been 29 members of the Shondells over time; his current Shondells have been with him 20-plus years.)

We started our chat with a question that quoted from the first line of that final top 10 hit.

Best Classic Bands: These days, is Tommy James making a living the old hard way?
Tommy James: I am. And my dog Sam does eat purple flowers. [Note: James is quoting from the first line of the second verse of “Draggin’ the Line.”]

How are you making your living primarily, touring?
Well, we’re doing a lot of things. Yes, we are touring all over North America and my book, Me, The Mob and the Music, is being turned into a movie and that is being produced by Barbara De Fina, who produced Goodfellas, Casino, The Color of Money and Cape Fear.

Pretty good credentials to make a crime/mob-music movie.
It really is. She’s this petite little lady about five feet tall and she looks like a librarian. You would never in a million years think she’s moonlighting as a producer making these kinds of movies.

What is your involvement in the movie?
I’m going to be a co-producer and also technical advisor, when it comes to the music and the equipment in the studio scenes.

Might an older Tommy James show up in a cameo?
You know, I may play a corpse. The lines are easy…I don’t know. I may be a bartender or something. Who knows.

Tommy James and the Shondells with Ed Sullivan

One takeaway from your memoir is that however difficult and problematic a relationship you had with Levy, you still saw him as kind of a father figure, too.
Well, that’s very true. That’s really the premise of the story. I guess you could call it an abusive father-son relationship where he smacked the kid around but he sends him to college. And that’s kind of how it was. Every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy (laughs), I sorta gotta stop myself because if it wasn’t for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James, or at least not the one we all know and love. (laughs).

When “Hanky Panky” exploded out of Pittsburgh, and I came to New York, right out of the Midwest, we got a yes from everybody. We got a yes from Columbia, Epic, RCA, Atlantic and the last place we took the record to was Roulette. So, I’m feeling really good thinking we’re probably going to be with CBS or Atlantic. The next morning, we started getting calls from all the labels that had said yes the day before suddenly saying, “Tom, we gotta pass,” and I said “Whadya mean? I thought we had a deal,” and finally Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told me the truth, that Morris Levy from Roulette had called up all the other labels and scared ’em. Basically, threatened them [by saying] “This is my fucking record.”

So that was that.
At any rate, we were gonna be on Roulette. But if we had gone with anybody else I can tell you right now, we probably would have been lucky to be a one-hit wonder, especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.” Because at Roulette they actually needed us. So, I got everything they had. I got to put my own production crew together, I got to find the center of my artistry, I got to learn my craft, everything from writing and producing to designing album covers and learning retail and distribution. That never would have happened at any of the other labels.

“Hanky Panky” reached #1 on July 9, 1966 on Record World, staying there for 2 weeks

My understanding is Morris glommed his way onto getting songwriting credit for your songs.
Oh, sure. He stopped it after a while, but he was doing it really intently [with other artists] in the ’50s.

What were the so-called “co-writes” for you?
I think he put his name down for “It’s Only Love.” That was our third song. Ritchie Cordell and Sal Trimachi were the songwriters. And [Morris has credits for] a couple of the album cuts on the I Think We’re Alone Now album. But he stopped doing that.

You have an album coming called Alive. Is it a live album?
No, it’s not a live album. I hate to have people confused about that. It’s called Alive, but it’s not a live album.

Then, are you meaning to state that “Hey, I’m still alive”?
This is, I guess, how it’s going to be interpreted. Hey, I’m here! But seriously, it’s a fun album and two of the songs that are going to be in the movie are going to be on the album. We just finished a cover of one of the Rolling Stones’ records, “The Last Time.” We did it a whole new way and we did a cover of “Draggin’ the Line.” It’s got a real nice street beat in it and it’s fun. And we did a version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that’s going to be in the closing credits of the movie. It’s slow, it’s acoustic, very different from the original version.

Watch Tommy James and the Shondells perform “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Gettin’ Together”

And that was such an upbeat pop song. I’m guessing you’re going to try and find some sadness in there.
Well, yes, the whole point is that last scene in the movie where Morris Levy dies. And, of course, we’re alone now. The amazing thing is how the lyrics hold up in this very somber moment. It was originally a poppy teen-love song.

I grew up with that song. “The beating of our hearts is the only sound …” Such desire and yearning!
We’ve been so lucky because the music has stayed in front of the fans all these years in various incarnations, on radio, a lot of covers—we’ve had over 300 different covers done by artists all over the world. I’m very flattered and honored when another artist does one of my songs. I’m always very interested to see how another artist interprets our music.

The Rubinoos covered “I Think We’re Alone Now” in 1977 and then Lene Lovich did a great quirky take the following year.
Oh, yeah, she did a nice version. That was a while back. Dolly Parton and I actually did a duet of “Crimson and Clover.”

R.E.M. did a really nice job on “Draggin’ the Line” and Santana’s version of “Crystal Blue” is amazing.

Your name came back into the spotlight again in the early ’80s when Joan Jett did “Crimson” and Billy Idol did “Mony Mony.” The message maybe was that these current stars were looking back to this music of another era, sometimes thought of “just bubblegum,” but they’re playing it for real. Did you feel that boost of, for lack of a better word, credibility?
Oh, sure! Definitely. To me, the greatest compliment a fan can give you as an artist is to make you and your music part of the landscape. I don’t think they can give you a better thumbs-up.

Related: Part 2 of our interview on the music and the mob

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Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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  1. Rick White
    #1 Rick White 27 July, 2018, 13:05

    I met Tommy James in July of 2010 at the National Rock Con Fan Fest that was held at the Sheraton Inn Meadowlands.
    Tommy is every bit the great but humble artist & entertainer.
    He knows Rock & Roll as if he was born with a guitar in his hands.
    I’ve had a few conversations with Tommy since then, and I can say that he appreciates EVERYONE’S love of his music.
    He also loves to compliment other artists & praise them for their songwriting & performing contributions to the R&R music business.
    Tommy James is a gracious caring man that is down to earth, funny, & very personable. I’ve personally seen him sign autographs, take selfies & chat with his fans for more than 2 hours after his show is over, until he’s seen everyone in line!
    No one I know does that anymore!
    Peace & Blessings to you Tommy!
    Rick White
    -a former lead singer for The Human Beinz-

    Reply this comment
    • Danny
      Danny 27 July, 2018, 21:54

      Thanks for the honest write up. I’ve seen Tommy James about 5 times . His music lIves in the hearts of everyone who was a teenager in the late 60’s

      Reply this comment

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