Tommy James is one of the most popular artists of the 1960s. With over 23 gold singles and nine platinum albums to his credit, James has sold over 100 million records worldwide. More than 300 artists including Bruce Springsteen, Santana, R.E.M., Billy Idol, Cher, Joan Jett, and Kelly Clarkson have covered his songs. His music has also been heard in 60 motion pictures and in over 50 television shows including The Simpsons, Criminal Minds, and Breaking Bad.
James’s critically-acclaimed autobiography, Me, The Mob and the Music, was included on Rolling Stone’s list of “Top 25 Music Memoirs” and is now in pre-production for a feature film. James is also currently the host of his own weekly show on SIRIUS/XM radio, Gettin’ Together with Tommy James, which can be heard worldwide on the platform’s popular ’60s on 6 channel.
Following the 2019 release of his most recent album, Alive, in 2020, James released a pair of new singles — “Cinnamon/Sunshine,” which is an original medley of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney,” a cover version of a ’60s era rocker by Mickey Lee Lane. With the recent suspension of live concerts, Spotlight Central caught up with James — a talented singer, songwriter, and music producer — in an effort to learn more about his history and to find out what he’s been up in the current situation where sheltering-in-place and social distancing has become the new normal.
Spotlight Central: You are closely associated with the state of New Jersey, but you’re originally from the Midwest; you were born in Ohio, lived in Indiana, and grew up in Michigan. We’ve also been told that, as a four-year-old Midwesterner, you were a child model. Is that true — and, if so, do you have any recollections of that experience?
Tommy James: Yes, I do, actually. As a child, I was taking piano lessons and I was performing in a little concert in South Bend, Indiana where I was spotted by someone from — if you can believe it — BFGoodrich. They were going to be doing a spread in Life magazine where they had a family wearing various rain coats and rubber boots and things like that. After they saw me in South Bend, they went to my mother and asked if I could be the little kid in a cowboy suit who’s wearing rubber boots, and my mother agreed. Mostly what I remember about the experience is being tired and yawning and carrying-on, but that was my first time up in front of people, and I guess I ended up liking it.
Spotlight Central: Growing up, was anyone else in your family musical?
Tommy James: Yes. My grandmother on my mother’s side was musical and, actually, she was one of the first female graduates of Juilliard in New York, where she played piano. She went on to teach choir and was a music teacher. So you know how they say talent skips a generation? Well, I guess you could say that’s how it went for me in my own family.
Spotlight Central: We understand that at the age of twelve you started your first band, The Echoes, which ultimately became Tom and the Tornadoes. Is there a special reason why you started this band — and what kind of music did the group play?
Tommy James: The reason we put the band together was to play the seventh grade variety show at my junior high school. We had a piano, drums, a sax, and me, and the first song we did at the variety show was “Lonesome Town” by Ricky Nelson. We had such a great response from the audience, we decided to keep the group together. We changed a couple of members and ended up getting our first gig in Niles, Michigan. We played the bar at the American Legion — I didn’t tell my folks that it was at the bar; I just said it was at the American Legion — and each of us made $11, which, for a kid, was a hell of a lot better than mowing lawns.
Spotlight Central: After Tom and the Tornadoes changed its name to The Shondells, in 1964 the group recorded “Hanky Panky” on Snap Records, a local label. Soon after, it became a regional hit, but in 1966 it became the #1 record in the United States on the nationally-distributed Roulette label. How did that come to be?
Tommy James: Well, basically, that was our second local record deal. We had our first when I was fourteen years old and we released a song called “Long Pony Tail,” which was played on local jukeboxes. Later on, one of the disc jockeys at WNIL in Niles, Michigan was starting a new label, Snap Records, and he asked me if my band and I would like to be on their label. I said, “Hell, yes!” so we recorded a total of four songs. Now, this was in late 1963 or early ’64, when I was sixteen — I was in my junior year in high school — and we recorded the four songs and one of them was “Hanky Panky.” We released it locally and, like “Long Pony Tail,” it was played on local jukeboxes, but since we really had no distribution for it, the record just died.
In 1965, I graduated from high school and I decided to take my band out on the road. We had an agent in Chicago, and he had us playing all throughout the Midwest. In early ’66 we were playing at this dumpy little club in Janesville, Wisconsin. Right in the middle of our two-week gig there, we were told that the club was getting shut down by the IRS for not paying its taxes. We ended up getting sent home, and we were feeling like real losers, but that was the moment that changed my life because I got home and, two days later, I got a call from Pittsburgh saying that a record we had recorded two and a half years earlier, “Hanky Panky,” was sitting at #1.
Well, actually, what happened was: the folks from Pittsburgh called a record shop where I used to work; the record shop called Jack Douglas, the disc jockey who was the producer of the record; and then he called me. Now, if I hadn’t been home, I would never have gotten that call — but that’s how the good Lord works. What they had done, as they explained it to me, was they had bootlegged the record. They had this little record business in Pittsburgh where they would bootleg old records nobody knew about, get them played on local stations, and then sell them as hits. They did that with “Hanky Panky,” it exploded, and then they just couldn’t keep it in Pittsburgh any longer. So after they tracked me down, I went to Pittsburgh and, there, I picked up a group of musicians who became the Shondells — because at that point I couldn’t put the original group back together — and a week later we were in New York selling the master to Roulette Records. Only in America, right?
Spotlight Central: Right! And many people know you got the title for your song, “Mony Mony” — one of the greatest party songs of all time — after seeing the Mutual of New York Insurance Company’s neon sign in New York City. That said, many do not know that in the ’60s you created a music video for “Mony Mony.” Where did you get the idea for doing a music video so long before the creation of MTV?
Tommy James: I always thought that it made a lot of sense to do a film of your hit record for television and get it played on TV. But the problem was that television back then would not play rock and roll, per se — I mean, you could be on somebody’s show and perform a song and stuff like that — but there was no place to get a music film played. Back in 1968, the only place we could get the video shown was in movie theaters in between double features in Europe — [laughs] so it ended up being me and Daffy Duck for a long time — and that was it. But thirteen years after that, in 1981, when MTV started up, they started playing the video, in addition to another music film we’d done for our song, “She.”
Spotlight Central: Is it true that another one of your greatest hits, “Crimson and Clover,” was released to the world before the recording was even actually finished?
Tommy James: Yes! “Crimson and Clover” is a rough mix. We had recorded the record on a Thursday night in New York, and did the whole session in only five or, maybe, five and a half hours. In the studio, I put all of the faders up just to make a work tape — a 7 1/2 IPS recording of the session — so I really didn’t mix anything. We had a gig in Chicago the next day and I went to see my friend, John Rook, up at WLS in Chicago — this was the biggest station in the country back then — and I had this 7 1/2 IPS work tape with me, and I played it for John, who was the station’s program director, and he loved it.
Now, at the time I didn’t know this, but he taped my tape! He had a button he could push and record whatever was on the machine — and I didn’t know anything about it. So as I was leaving, I got my rough mix tape back, put it in my briefcase, went downstairs, and got into my car, and then all of a sudden I heard on WLS “World exclusive!” and John started playing his recording of that rough mix tape and I just thought to myself, “Oh, my God!”
Now this was really tragic for me because Roulette was going to make a big deal out of the release of this record — not only was the song a big change for Tommy James and the Shondells, but it was also the first record of the band that I had ever produced by myself. So everything was on the line with this song, and WLS was playing the rough mix and I was thinking, “My career is over!”
When I got back to Roulette, they said, “What the hell is going on?” because another station in Chicago — CFL, which was WLS’ main competitor — was going nuts because I didn’t give it to their station, too. So Red Schwartz, the promotion director at Roulette, called John Rook and said, “Do you realize what’s going on?” and he just said, “Don’t worry about it — CFL is gonna have to play it.” You see, John had started playing the rough mix of “Crimson and Clover” every twenty minutes, and it just launched that record right out of Chicago where it shot up the charts and went right to #1 in the nation. And I never got a chance to remix the record after the owner of Roulette, Morris Levy, said, “You ain’t mixing shit. That’s the record!” — and that’s why, to this day, “Crimson and Clover” is a 7 1/2 IPS rough mix.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of Morris Levy and Roulette, your book, Me the Mob and the Music, details your story of working at Roulette which, as many people now know, was a front for organized crime. Despite the shadowy circumstances, were there still some good things that happened as a result of your experience there?
Tommy James: Absolutely! First of all, we would have never achieved the level of success we had at one of the corporate labels. “Hanky Panky” was #1 out of Pittsburgh, and that was a big market — a national market. When we went to sell the record in New York, we got a thumbs-up from everybody — from Atlantic, RCA, etc. — but at Roulette, they actually needed us. If we had gone to CBS or one of the other big corporate labels, we would have had tons of competition — especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.” We would have been lucky to have been a one-hit wonder because they would have turned us over to some in-house A&R guy and that’s probably the last you would have heard from us. At Roulette, they let me do whatever I wanted — I got to put my own production team together — so we were “King Shit” up there!
That said, getting paid at Roulette was a disaster. But, honestly, you have to say things really worked out in the end since we ended up selling over 110 million records for Roulette.
Spotlight Central: You continue to record and release new music, including your 2019 album, Alive — which produced two singles, “So Beautiful,” and the new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” — and, this year, you also just released two new singles — the “Cinnamon/Sunshine” medley and “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney.” How has the music business changed for you with the advent of modern digital technology?
Tommy James: Well, we would have killed for this technology back in the day! The thing that’s fascinating to me now is the music business has gone back to a singles market — whereas originally it was about releasing singles, it shifted over to producing albums, but now it’s back to a demand for singles with single downloads. Plus, the internet has given us a whole new way of delivering music. Alive may be the last album I’ll ever do because the way you do things now is you release clusters of singles. They’re all digital so you don’t have to press CDs — you don’t need to print covers or anything — so you’re just basically releasing singles online first, and with a certain number of downloads and streams, you make the charts. Even though the Alive album and the two singles from it all went Top 20 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart — the first time we’ve been on the charts in a long time — this new way of releasing new material means you don’t have to go through the tremendous expense of mastering and pressing CDs, and you can go right from the studio to radio, both online and terrestrial.
By the way, thanks to this technology, do you know who just recorded one of our songs and has a Top 20 record with it right now? Greenday’s Billy Joe Armstrong! While he was quarantined in his bedroom, Billy Joe Armstrong recorded “I Think We’re Alone Now” and — thanks to this new digital technology — Warner Brothers put it out and it’s a Top 20 hit!
Spotlight Central: That’s amazing!
Tommy James: Yeah, and over the years, we’ve had a total of over 300 cover versions of our songs. So it’s just been a wonderful career and, for that, I thank the good Lord and all of the fans.
Spotlight Central: You’ve been such a successful touring artist for over a half-century now, but with the current shelter-in-place requirements, live concerts have been put on hold.
Tommy James: Yes, the concert business has been hit really hard. That will ease up, but it will take a little time.
Spotlight Central: We understand that while all this has been going on, you did a live streaming performance to raise money for first responders and their families. Can you tell us what else you’ve been up to during this time?
Tommy James: [Laughs] Well, I’m playing with my socks — and folding my underwear. But I’m doing a lot of interviews, too — the career doesn’t stop just because life does. And, of course, missing all of the fans — looking out over our concert crowds when I’m performing and literally seeing three generations of people, to me, is such a really amazing experience.
Spotlight Central: True! Is there anything else you’d like to say to your fans?
Tommy James: I’d just like them to know that we’re going to get through all of this. The good Lord is going to, kind of, bring all of us back down to earth like we’re in a hot air balloon — very, very gently — and we’re all going to be back to our old lives very shortly.
To learn more about Tommy James — including information regarding his latest 2019 album, Alive, and his new 2020 singles, “Cinnamon/Sunshine” and “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” — please go to tommyjames.com.