A Conversation With Tommy James
I had the immense pleasure of interviewing legendary rocker Tommy James, and we discussed a wide range of topics. The mafia, KISS, Billy Idol, Green Day — we covered it all! Speaking with a legend who has been in the music business for more than 50 years was an honor, and I hope you enjoy my conversation with Tommy James.
Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of KISS sang backing vocals on your song “Celebration” in 1972. What are your memories of Gene and Paul joining you at Electric Lady Studios for this recording?
We were just finishing up the record and they came in. I had met them once before, briefly. We talked for a little bit, and I told them what I was doing. We talked for about a half-hour. It was a nice visit. They said, “Hey, can we get in on that?” I said, “Hell, yeah!” So, I brought them into Studio B where I was recording and they did background vocals, along with me and my guitar player at the time. All four of us sang together. It was a great day. They really sang great! It made the record really sparkle.
They are real rock and rollers. They were just fun to be with. They know the business, especially Gene. I’ve been with Gene several times since then, on various projects we’ve gone out to promote. He’s very business savvy. He shows up at the big conclaves where all the record people get together for promotion. He’s very savvy about the record business. He’s really a great business man. On top of everything else, I guess, not too many people know that. Of course, he had his TV show. So, he knows this business inside and out.
“Hanky Panky” became a #1 hit for you in 1966. Did you realize when you recorded this song that it was going to become iconic?
We thought we were doing something special, but I was a kid in high school at the time. I was a junior in high school when we made that record. We made it in a little radio studio in my hometown of Niles, Michigan. It came out locally and did pretty good. We didn’t blow the doors off, (laughs) but we were number one in a very small area and sold a lot of records in that area — but then the record, kind of, died. We didn’t have great distribution, so we didn’t get on any major radio stations. So, we, kind of, forgot about the record, and in 1965 I graduated high school and I took my band on the road. In early 1966, I was playing in a dumpy little club in Janesville, Wisconsin. Right during that two-week stint, the club owner got shut down by the IRS for not paying his taxes. (laughs) So, we got sent back home feeling like real losers, but that’s how the good lord works.
The minute I got home I got a call from Pittsburgh that this record I had recorded two years before that — “Hanky Panky” — had been bootlegged in Pittsburgh, and they sold 80,000 copies of them in 10 days and it was number one in the city. I said, “Who is this?” (laughs) I didn’t believe it. They finally convinced me who they were. I went to Pittsburgh and did a couple shows. Pittsburgh was a major market, so I picked up the first local band I could find and that became The Shondells. I couldn’t put the original band back together from the recording. A week later, we’re in New York selling the master recording to a major label. Of course, we ended up on Roulette Records. We got a “yes” from Columbia, RCA, Atlantic — all the majors. The last place we took the record to was Roulette Records and we ended up going with them, which is a whole ‘nother story. Roulette then took it to number one in the nation and number one all over the world. That began our career, and it was another one of those only-in-America stories.
What made you choose Roulette Records over the other labels?
(Laughs) Well, I’ll tell you the truth. This is in our book: Me, the Mob, and My Music. Unbeknownst to us, when we signed with Roulette, the record label was a front business. It was a working record label, but it was also a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. We didn’t know anything about it. The day after getting a “Yes” from all of the other record companies, I started getting phone calls from them the following morning and every one of them said, “Listen, Tom, we’ve gotta’ pass.” I said, “What are you talking about?” Finally, Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records told me the truth that Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, had called all the other record companies and scared them to death to get them to back down. Morris Levy was a gangster. He was also a great record company owner but he was a thug. No doubt about it. And he got them to back down. “This is my record. Back off!” That’s how he talked. That’s how we ended up on Roulette Records. (laughs) It was the first offer I couldn’t refuse.
Did the mafia side of Roulette Records ever rear its ugly head later on in your music career?
You bet — crime doesn’t pay! (laughs) Yes, we constantly had to decide whether we were going to stay with Roulette. We were having such incredible success there. We had one hit after another. We ended up with 23 gold singles, nine platinum albums, and we sold about 110 million records — all on Roulette. We constantly had to make a conscious decision about whether to stay or get out of it. It was dangerous to try to get out of it, frankly, because of the money we were making for Roulette. We decided to stay, and I think we made the right decision because I get to tell the story. The bottom line is that Roulette wasn’t going to pay mechanical royalties. It just wasn’t going to happen. We were making money from other things — from concerts, from BMI, from publishing, and from commercials we were doing. The mechanical royalties were just not going to happen. I put in my book that, by the end, we were jilted out of between $30 and $40 million, which is a hell of a lot of money — back then or right now, for that matter.
Once Roulette ceased to exist, were you able to reclaim the rights to your songs so you could earn royalties?
Well, we got a good portion of our money because Roulette sold itself to, ultimately, Warner Bros. in the 1980s. Since then, we started getting the money we were supposed to get back then. Didn’t get all of it, but we got a good chunk of it.
And do you now get royalties for the music going forward?
You achieved success at a very young age. How old were you when you had your first number-one hit?
I was 19.
Knowing that you were only 19 when you achieved success, how did you deal with fame? How did you cope with that as a child?
I had been forming bands since I was 12 years old, so I was pretty well versed in playing in groups. For the better part of a year in high school I was living on the road out of a suitcase. From that angle, I had done it for some time. However, the kind of fame you start having when you have hit songs is a whole different story. When you’re living in it, you don’t have time to get a big head because we were working so hard to keep coming with the hits. It’s really quite a grind. You really wouldn’t believe it because you have to record constantly. If you’re lucky, every third or fourth one is a single. Back then, singles were everything. They are again now but we went through the whole album thing. Singles were everything, so we really had to keep outdoing ourselves. That means writing, producing, and being in the studio a whole lot. So, we really didn’t have time to think about how great we were because we didn’t feel all that great. (laughs)
When I interviewed Johnny Mathis, I spoke with him about how prolific he was early on in his career. Back then, artists would release multiple albums a year. Today, we’re lucky if a musician releases a new album every five years.
That’s true. We averaged five singles a year, and at least two albums a year, sometimes three because we would have a greatest hits album every so often. Our recording schedule was outrageous because we just were constantly in the studio and constantly writing. We were very lucky because we produced most of our own records, but not in the beginning. Starting with “Mony Mony,” we produced ourselves from that point on.Speaking of “Mony Mony,” what inspired this great song?
“Mony Mony” was one of those records that was a throwback to the early 1960s. This was 1968 and by then music had really changed. Everybody was sitting around getting high (laughs) and nobody was really rocking and rolling that much. So, we wanted to make a record that was a throwback to the old days of those records that made you rock. Songs that put people on the dance floor. Nobody was dancing all that much (laughs) in 1968, believe it or not. So, we just started making a record. We started with the drums and a little three-chord riff. Before you knew it, we started adding to it. The song got written as we were doing the record. We had put this track together and we didn’t know what to do with it. Ritchie Cordell, my songwriting partner, and I were putting the lyrics together and the song was a nonsensical party-rock thing.
The night before I was supposed to do the lead vocal we still had no title for it. This is a true story. We had no title for it, and we’re looking for a two-syllable girl’s name that’s kind of silly. We’re looking for a sloopy, boney maroney, or one of those titles. Everything we came up with sounded so dumb. We were in New York at my apartment and we went out on the terrace, lit up a cigarette, and looked up into the night sky. The first thing we both see is the Mutual of New York insurance company sign, which went MONY. It had a dollar sign in the middle of the O, and it gave you the time and the weather. And we just cracked up. MONY was the perfect two-syllable word. It sounded like a girl’s name. (laughs) We just laughed because we saw it at the same time and came up with the title. That’s how “Mony Mony” got named.
What are your thoughts on Billy Idol’s version of “Mony Mony”?
Oh, I thought it was great! That’s exactly how we would have done it in the 1980s, if we had done it then. Tiffany had done “I Think We’re Alone Now” at the same exact moment as Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony” and they went up the chart together like they were holding hands and they both went number one back to back. (laughs) That had never happened before. It was just mind blowing.
“Crimson and Clover” is a classic song that has stood the test of time. How did this song come to be?
Well, “Crimson and Clover” was a song where the title came to me as I woke up one day. I almost had dreamed the title. I just remembered how it was two of my favorite words put together. It sounded prophetic and it sounded profound (laughs), but that’s all it was. It was just a title. We actually wrote three different versions of it. On the version we ended up with, my drummer and I wrote. We wrote what ended up becoming the record. We finished the record in five hours. It was amazing how quickly it all came together. The strange part is it’s probably the most important record we did, next to “Hanky Panky,” because it changed everything. It was right when the album market got so big, and a lot of singles acts were dying off and never heard from again. It was that moment in 1968 going into 1969 when the music industry changed. I’ll never forget when we were on the road in 1968 with the Vice President: Hubert Humphrey. He was running for President and he asked us to join him out on the campaign. When we left New York, the big acts on the radio were Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, Mitch Ryder, Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was all singles acts. When we got back, 90 days later, it was all album acts. It was Blood, Sweat & Tears, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash. The whole industry had changed dramatically overnight. And if we hadn’t been writing “Crimson and Clover” at that moment, we would have died off too.
“Crimson and Clover” allowed us to sell albums at that point. I can’t think of any other single that we put out that would have done that in one swoop. Suddenly we were selling albums. Roulette was good, but they were never selling albums. They were always selling singles. So, we were able to get into the album market. Really, “Crimson and Clover” gave us the second half of our career.
“Crimson and Clover” was used to great effect on the movie The Sun Is Also A Star, when the male lead sings it in a karaoke room to his romantic interest. Do you personally approve the use of your songs in film and TV? If so, have you seen this movie, and what are your thoughts on it?
They did a great job with using the song in that movie. We had our songs in 13 different movies that year! Sony represents us in movies, TV, and commercials. They have done a wonderful job of working with various music producers and directors of movies, and they have done a fantastic job. They always come to us for approval, and we generally say “Yes.” There’s no downside to having your music in movies. We’ve had 63 major movies with our songs in them, so far, going back to 1987. The first movie our music was used in was called Vice Versa, and that began a whole slew of movies for us. I think the second one was Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (laughs), and it just expanded from there. We’ve been so fortunate.
Speaking of TV shows, Breaking Bad effectively used your song “Crystal Blue Persuasion” during a blue crystal meth montage. What does it mean to you that, decade after decade, your music continues to be an important part of popular culture?
You reach a certain point in your career where you’re saying “thank you” a whole lot. (laughs) We’ve been so lucky to have the quantity of music that we do. For the music to do the heavy lifting for such a long time is something I’m grateful for. We’re still performing. When I look out at a crowd during a concert, I see three generations of people out there. It’s really astonishing to me. They know every word to every song. It’s really thrilling. I thank the good lord and the fans for the longevity we’ve had.
What are your thoughts on Prince’s rendition of “Crimson and Clover”?
We’ve had more than 300 artists cover our music, all over the world. I think Prince’s version of “Crimson and Cover” is magnificent, and it was not too long before he died. He did such a futuristic version. It was like “Crimson and Clover” from space. He did a magnificent job. His guitar work in it was incredible. He was an incredible guitar player.
Are there other covers of your songs that you enjoy?
R.E.M. did such a great job with “Draggin’ the Line” for the Austin Powers movie. We’ve had so many really wonderful versions. I’m always very flattered and very honored when another group does my songs. Dolly Parton and I did a version of “Crimson and Clover.” She does it great too! All kinds of artists. The Boston Pops did “Mony Mony.” I’m always interested in hearing other artists who have a new take on my music. Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day did a version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and it went Top 10. He did a really great job.
During a show in March 1970 you collapsed after coming off stage and were pronounced dead.
Well, somebody said, “He looks dead.” A reporter overheard it and that’s what was put in the paper. (laughs) I went back to Roulette and they were all freaking out. I said, “I swear, I’m alive. I”m not dead!” (laughs)
What caused you to collapse?
Frankly, I was popping pills back then. Too many uppers. After so many days of no sleep, I learned my lesson.
You and your group declined the opportunity to play at Woodstock. Why?
We declined out of stupidity. We were in Hawaii in the summer of 1969. We were in this gorgeous Spanish villa and we had two weeks off before the show. I got a call from my secretary in New York. She said, “Artie Kornfeld was up and told me that they’re working on a gig at a pig farm in upstate New York, and they’d really like you to play it.” I said, “What did you say? A pig farm?!” She said, “Yeah, but they said it’s going to be a big gig.” I said, “Right, sure. If we’re not there, go ahead and start without us.” Then I hung up. That’s how it was presented to me, as a big gig on a pig farm. We didn’t go, obviously, and by Friday we knew that we really screwed up because the networks were covering it and the freeway had been shut down. They were saying it was going to be the biggest gig in history. Pretty soon, half a million people were there. We turned it down, like dummies.
How did you come up with your group’s name, The Shondells?
I was in study hall in high school. We were changing our names. We had been called The Tornados before that. This was in 1963, and we had just signed a local record deal with Snap Records, which is where “Hanky Panky” came from. We hadn’t recorded yet so I said, “Let’s take this opportunity to change our name.” I wanted us to get something a little more sophisticated than The Tornados. (laughs) So, we changed it to The Shondells, not that that was much more sophisticated. It sounded better. It sounded musical. It had an effervescent feel to it: Shondells. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue. So, we went ahead and changed it to The Shondells. When “Hanky Panky” went on to Roulette, they wanted me to be up front. They wanted me up front, so my name was changed too. My real name is Thomas Jackson, and I wanted to keep the same initials. I lit up a cigarette and said, “How about James?” I wanted a one-syllable last name. So, I offered up James. They said, “Tommy James?” I said, “Yeah, that’s it!” Just like that, we became Tommy James and the Shondells. Now I’m stuck with it for the rest of my life! (laughs)
Who were your musical influences growing up?
My heroes were the first generation of rock and rollers: Gene Vincent, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran. Those guys were really my rock heroes. I was nine years old when I started playing guitar. That was 1956 or 1957, and I learned everything I could off the radio. I bought records and became a real record junkie. I learned everything I could, and the next year, when I was 11, I got my first electric guitar. Basically, what I wanted to do is sing. I never really learned how to play guitar properly. I taught myself how to play. I never became a lead guitar player. I never really wanted to do that. I wanted to strum and sing. That’s what I still do.
Did you get a chance to meet any of those heroes who influenced you?
Well, a lot of them dropped off by the time we got going. I talked with Elvis on the phone. I was invited over to Graceland. I did an album with Scotty Moore down in Nashville in the early 1970s, and I was invited over to Graceland but we didn’t get a chance to go. I could’ve killed myself. Elvis invited me over. I also got a chance to meet The Everly Brothers, and I did two shows with Jerry Lee Lewis. He was a maniac. We got drunk together one night. I got a chance to work with just about everybody.
You also have albums where you’re a solo artist. How is that music different than what you’ve done with The Shondells?
I don’t know that it’s any different. It’s just Tommy James instead of Tommy James and the Shondells. The music is still coming from the same place, and I’m still writing, performing, and recording. We just had an album out last year. It’s called Alive. It went Top 20. It was the first time we had been on the charts in a long time.
I saw on Facebook that you’ve been in the studio lately. Is that for a new album?
Well, today it’s for radio, for YouTube, for Spotify. In this digital world that we live in, everything you make can be sent out by pushing a button. It’s huge now. You can email your music all over the world. It’s a marvelous time to be making music. The world is your marketplace now, not just country by country.
Are there any plans to record and release a follow-up album to Alive?
Well, I don’t know that I’m going to record a full album. I’m probably going to do singles. In the end, an album is just a cluster of singles. You’re almost better off doing singles because, once again, it’s a singles market. What’s an album?
I heard you’re working on a movie too. Tell me about that.
My book — Me, the Mob, and My Music — is being made into a movie. We have a producer and a director. The screenplay has been written. It’s going to be the story of Roulette Records and the mob guys who used it as a social club: the Genovese crime family. I wrote a book about it. Movie production has been put on hold right now. We’re looking at another two years. 18 months, maybe.
Do you have any other projects going on?
I have my own radio show on Sirius XM radio. ’60s on 6, every Sunday. Get together with Tommy James every Sunday on ’60s on 6. It airs from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. ET.
How has it been being able to connect with people through music over the radio like that?
It’s been wonderful! Absolutely terrific. I can’t tell you how grateful I am toward the fans for everything. Wow, it’s been 54 years in the major leagues. I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I can’t believe I’m still singing “Hanky Panky.” (laughs)
What was it like sitting down to write your book?
The only problem is you’ve gotta’ be honest (laughs), so you gotta’ tell the truth and we did. It was, for me, psychologically, very pleasing to be talking about this because I held it in for a long time. For a long time we couldn’t talk about Roulette Records and the people that were involved. I let it all hang out in the book. Amidst “Mony Mony,” “Draggin’ the Line,” and “Crystal Blue,” there was this dark, sinister story behind us that we couldn’t talk about. It was really good to get it out of my system, and it was very cathartic.
For the movie adaptation, is there new music that’s being included?
There are a couple new songs in it that people haven’t heard. In fact, there’s two songs from the Alive album. A new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” is going to play during the closing credits. At the end of the movie, Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records dies, and we’re all alone, which is why we picked that song to end the movie. Also, “Distant Thunder” from the Alive album will be in the movie.
Is there anything you haven’t done in your career that you’d still like to do?
Sure! There’s a lot of things I’d still like to do, as soon as we get this damn virus over with. I’d very much like to write a play. I have one started called Wise Guys on Walkers. (laughs) I love it, and I think it’s coming out really nice. I’d like to finish that. And it’s always a kick playing live shows. I love mixing it up with the fans.
I’m sure you miss playing live for the fans.
I do. But it’ll get back. We’ll get through this.