Tommy James has had what can only be described as a circuitous career. His first hit, “Hanky Panky,” was initially released and quickly forgotten until a local dance promoter found a copy in a used record bin and began playing it in Pittsburgh’s dance clubs. Based on its subsequent success, James was encouraged to go to New York to negotiate a record contract for himself and his band the Shondells. He received a number of potential offers before ending up at the offices of Morris Levy and Roulette Records, a company that would soon gain a reputation for shady dealings. Indeed, the very next day James found that the previous offers he had gotten the day before had suddenly been retracted under threat from Roulette, leading to a topsy turvy relationship with the label that last nearly eight years.
Nevertheless, the time the group spent with the company yielded any number of international chartbusters for the band -- “Hanky Panky,” “Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson & Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” among them. So far so good, but when radio station WLS played an unfinished demo of “Crimson & Clover” without his permission in order to gain a world exclusive, James’ relationship with the other stations in the nation’s number three market suffered as a result. A short time later, James turned down an invitation to perform at Woodstock because he misunderstood its significance. Likewise, his dealings with Roulette became increasingly tense, latter becoming the subject of an autobiography, “Me, The Mob and Music,” a book which detailed the dark underbelly of the record industry. A film based on the book is forthcoming, which, if all goes well, will be followed by a stage show.
Despite these unlikely and oftentimes unpredictable circumstances, James’ career continued to flourish. Both “Crimson & Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” became major turning points in his trajectory, allowing him to take the production reigns for the first time while successfully navigating the transition from AM Top 40 to the realms of FM underground radio. James eventually opted to go solo, releasing a number of hits in the process -- “Draggin’ The Line” and “Three Times In Love” specifically -- while also writing and producing the song “Tighter, Tighter” for the band Alive N’ Kickin’.” Over the course of his career, James has reaped 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums, representing sales of millions of albums to multiple generations of music lovers. Indeed, James’ songs have been covered by any number of artists, from Joan Jett to Billy Idol.
Goldmine recently had an opportunity to speak with James prior to his latest tour and while still in the midst of making preparations to mark the 50th anniversary of “Hanky Panky’ hitting the airwaves. We found him amiable, animated and still somewhat stunned by his lengthy streak of success.
With all you’ve witnessed and experienced in your career, it appears you have seen the music business from both the inside and the out.
I’m lucky to have been able to see it from a historical perspective too. When I first got into the business, things were so different from what they are today, and yet many things are the same. The audiences are the same and live performance is still the same. Recording is is totally different and the marketing of music is totally different. It’s really a different animal today. You really have to cover your bases, what with downloading and the internet and streaming and all the other things like that. Just going for a record deal today is something else.
Your career has almost been a series of happy accidents. Like when “Hanky Panky “ came out and went by the wayside and was subsequently rediscovered. You obviously had the talent,but luck played a part in it too it seems.
Oh yes. I’ve had some amazing good fortune. I’ve always felt a hat kind of predestination with things. The longer I’ve been in this business, the longer I realize what a miracle “Hanky Panky” was. It really was. I’ve always felt that the Good Lord was looking out for me, and I mean that sincerely because of the things that have happened to me. You know they’re turning my book into a movie.
We heard that. We also heard there might be a musical too.
Yes, it will happen after the movie. The same investors want to do a Broadway show.
Will you be the main character or will there be a fictional character that’s based on you?
It will be “Me, The Mob and The Music,” the book we wrote. But as you were saying, you’re quite right about the miraculous way things have happened, and I’ve been very, very blessed and fortunate my entire career.
You’ve also made some choices that were kind of curious and ironic. You were offered the opportunity to play at Woodstock and you turned it down.
Yeah, I turned it down. (chuckles) I think I’ve gotten more mileage out of telling people I turned down Woodstock than anything else. That actually happened. I was in Hawaii at the time. My secretary called me and said Artie Kornfield had come by -- I knew Artie was one of the principals and promoters of the show and he was a producer friend of mine. She said, “Artie would like you to play this gig at this pig farm in Upstate New York.” And I said, “What? Did you say a pig farm?” And she said, “Yeah. They say it’s going to be a big show. There’s going to be a lot of people there!” I said to her, “You’re asking me to leave paradise and fly 6,000 miles to play a pig farm? I’ll tell you what. If I’m not there, start without me.” And by Friday of that week I knew we had screwed up really bad.
So you quickly came to regret that decision.
George Harrison also reached out to you asking you to record some songs by a band Apple had just signed called Grapefruit.
Yes, he sent me some songs just after “Monie Monie” was number one in Britain in ’68. George happened to be producing the band. The group had written a bunch of songs that were going to be published by Apple Publishing, as opposed to the Apple label. The idea was to have them write some songs for friends in the business. George sent me a tape and all the songs sounded like “Monie Monie,” but for whatever reason, I never got to do anything with it. We were into songs like “Crimson and Clover” by then and we had pretty much changed our style. Still, I often regret that I didn’t record a couple of those songs that George sent me. It was very nice of him to do that.
Do you still have the tape?
I still have it here somewhere. You never know. I may record some of those songs someday. I may run across it. I think I may have lost it in a flood we had here awhile ago, but it may still be here. I’m not sure.
Did you ever meet George?
No, I never did. I met John. Strangely enough, I met Ringo and Paul for the first time when we did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show together last year. Joan Jett and Ringo were being inducted, and Paul was kind of sponsoring him. And Joan asked me if I would do “Crimson and Clover” with her, and so there were four generations of people on stage with us -- Dave Grohl, and Miley Cyrus included (chuckles). All four of us were doing “Crimson and Clover.” Afterwards I had a chance to talk with Paul and Ringo. George was the only one I never met.
It must have been very scary when you were entangled with Roulette Records and its owner Morris Levy, which essentially had you involved with the mob.
It was very scary. That was the subject of our book, It was an autobiography, but three quarters of it deals with my relationship with Roulette, Morris Levy and “the boys.” Roulette Records, in addition to being a functioning record label, was also a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. So that made life real interesting for us and at the time we couldn’t talk about it.
Supposedly you had gotten all these offers from these various record companies, but then you went to talk to Roulette, and the next day, the other labels withdrew their offers under pressure from Morris Levy.
That’s exactly right. Morris had called all the record companies that had said yes the previous day and scared them. Finally Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records told me the truth, that Morris had called and said (affects a mobster type voice) “This is my fucking record. Back off.” It was right out of the movies. So we apparently were going to be on Roulette regardless. It’s literally how we ended up there.
Did you ever think, “This is too much. I can’t deal with these mobsters. The music business isn’t for me.”
I probably should have been more scared than I was. I had these mixed feelings about the whole thing because they took my first record and made it number one internationally. It was the biggest record of the summer of ’66, and that started us on our way, We ended up selling 110 million records at Roulette. We had 32 chart records -- 23 of them went gold -- and nine platinum albums. That wouldn’t probably wouldn’t have happened anywhere else because we wouldn’t have had the attention that we got at Roulette. We were the biggest act they had. If we had signed with one of the corporate labels, we would have been handed over to an A&R guy and that probably would have been the last time anyone heard from us. At Roulette, they actually needed us. They gave us the budget and the time and the space to evolve and morph into whatever we could become. That wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. Of course, getting paid was impossible. (chuckles) That was the other side of the coin.
How long were you with them?
From 1966 to 1974. Eight years at Roulette and then we went on to Fantasy Records on the West Coast, and eventually we started our own label in the ‘90s. We put out our own product now.
Your most recent album was a Christmas album, right?
We had a Christmas album which came out on both CD and vinyl. Vinyl is making a big comeback. I’m working on a new album right now, which will be called Acoustatronics. It basically started out as an acoustic album. It’s heavy on the rhythm, but using actual acoustic instruments. Real drums, real piano... very little electronic gadgetry on the thing. Sort of the old way of recording. It’s a backlash on all the synthesizers.
Are the songs original compositions?
They will be. Three of the song that are on there are going to be in the movie. One is a redo of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and it will be very different from the original record. And then we did a remake of “Draggin’ the Line” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” All the rest are new. We’re about three quarters of the way into the album now, and we hope to have it out for the Christmas market. However I just don’t know if it’s possible to have it done that quickly.
Has the movie started production yet?
It’s produced by the people who did “Good Fellas” and “Casino” and a string of great movies. The screenplay has been finished, so the next step is finding the director and then doing the casting. So we’re about half way into the process. I figure it will take another 24 months, two years.
Do you have an idea of who you would like to get to play you?
I get asked that a lot. I really don’t. There are so many good new actors that are out there. I have no idea. You want somebody that’s going to have the right box office appeal and who can also play the role well. I keep saying the only thing that will be required of the Tommy James character is to play guitar as badly as I do (laughs). But that’s in the hands of the casting director. The grown-ups are going to have to figure that one out.
Did you see the Brian Wilson bio pic, “Love and Mercy?”
I have not seen it yet, but everybody’s told me about it. This story is going to be more of a dramatic story with music in it, as opposed to a musical with drama in it.
The Four Seasons movie “Jersey Boys” was kind of like that, no?
Yeah, but they weren’t real happy with that. Frankie Valli is a friend of mine, and he told me they weren’t happy with the final outcome. But I think it was still an honor that their story got made into a movie, I really do.
There were so many twists and turns to your story. Tell us about “Crimson & Clover” and how Chicago radio station WLS played the demo without your permission. That was a weird circumstance.
That’s the version that became the hit.
That actually happened. “Crimson & Clover” was such a strategically important record for us. First of all, it was the first record I produced by myself for the group, and secondly, it was such a drastic style change for us. It really began the second half of our career. We wrote the song out on the road. We did the Hubert Humphrey campaign in ’68, and when we left after the convention to meet him, all the records that were on the radio were singles. It was us, the Rascals, the Association, the Buckinghams, acts like that. And when we got back from being on the road twelve weeks later, it was all albums. It was Blood Sweat & Tears, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills & Nash... that first rush of albums that were out. The whole record industry turned upside down in 90 days...went from singles to albums, and we were so fortunate we were working on “Crimson & Clover” at that moment because “Crimson & Clover” allowed us to make that pivot from AM top 40 singles to FM progressive rock. I don’t think any other single we ever did would allow us to make a jump like that. There was this tremendous mass extinction of singles acts at that moment and we were very lucky to be one of those acts that was allowed to go on.
So when you wrote and recorded the song, it was just prior to that transition?
Yes, it just happened to be there at the moment we needed it there, another happy accident. And then we almost screwed it up because we took it to WLS and played it for the program director there -- WLS was the biggest station in the country at the time -- and they taped my tape. I had basically done a rough mix, just a terrible rough mix work tape, and they said, “That’s great, that’s a number one record.” Then, as I’m getting back in the car, I hear “World exclusive on WLS!” and they played this rough mix. I went back to Roulette and when I walk into the office. I see this six foot death wreath from WCFL in Chicago. WCFL and WLS were going head to head at that time and they were so pissed off that I gave the other station an exclusive that they sent over the death wreath with words of condolence over the “death” of Tommy James. WLS was so anxious to break the record, they played it every 20 minutes, and so “Crimson & Clover” broke nationally out of Chicago. But the rough mix became the hit. I was never allowed to remix the record. Morris put it out just the way it was, and it ended up becoming the biggest record we had.
But the record was so well produced!
Well, it was five and a half hours worth of work, but the record was a rough mix. Just as rough as it could get, but by that point, we had no choice. We weren’t allowed to remix it (chuckles).
But it still sounded so good.
Thank God. Maybe that was God’s way of saying, “you’ve done well whether you like it or not.”
And then “Crystal Blue Persuasion” came along and that was an equally striking record Did you produce that as well?
You really showed some skill as a producer.
Well thank you. I had been taught by some wonderful people, Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell, and by then I really wanted to do it by myself because I felt I could. The Crimson & Clover album, where both those records came from, was the first album I had produced for the group all by myself, and so that was a terribly important project.
With all the amazing success you had early on, did that make it a challenge to reach that same high bar later in your career?
I’ve never felt that way. If you’re going to be a lifer in this business, there’s going to be changes -- changes in the business or whatever -- but the basic tenant of it remains the same. The audience isn’t going anywhere. They will follow you through your life. That’s a wonderful thing. When I look out now at a concert crowd, I see three generations of people. And they don’t know each other, but they know the music. I’ve been so lucky because I’m still making music. This new album is going to be the first studio album I’ve done in almost ten year,s and it’s a very important record. Everything is set up for the success of the record. There’s a lot of windows of windows to jump through. So I am still so happy. I never thought we’d still be doing this 50 years later, especially with a record like “Hanky Panky” starting things out.
Are you still touring with the Shondells?
Oh yeah. I don’t record that way, but that’s the way we’re billed on tour. We’re right in the middle of all these projects, like the movie and the book and the new album. It’s really been a marvelous ride and I’m so grateful to the Good Lord and the fans for the kind of longevity that we’ve had.
I’m sure there are younger fans who heard some of these songs and are maybe surprised that you’re the one doing them.
Yeah, I get asked a lot of time why I’m doing that Billy Idol record, “Monie Monie.” (laughs)
Are any of the Shondells from the original band?
No, but we’ve stayed friends over the years, and the group that I have with me now has been with me since the late ‘80s... almost 30 years. They’ve been with me longer than the original guys.
Are you in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
My jacket and my boots are. (chuckles) No, I haven’t been inducted yet. My view is, when its our turn, we’ll go. There’s a lot of silliness that goes on with that, but that’s fine.
You don’t do a lot of those package tours that go out every year, whether its Happy Together or Hippie Fest or whatever.
No, we don’t do them. We’ve been very lucky because we’ve been able to retain our headline status. We do mostly theaters, and occasionally we’ll do a fair, but we only do 20 - 30 dates a year. We’ve got a lot on our plate right now with the publishing and the writing and the album, so I don’t want to overdo it. You can damage your voice very easily. I stopped smoking and drinking 30 years ago and it made a huge difference. I never understood how these guys could go out for six months at a time and not keel over. You’d find me under a trestle somewhere begging for water. (laughs)
Do you still like performing?
I love performing! You’re really most alive when you’re in front of an audience.
At this point, you probably don’t have to do it.
No, but I’m very thankful to be able to do it, especially health wise. Plus, the audience is still there and the interest from the fans is still there.
Many performers suggest that they’re paid to travel, but when they’re onstage, they’re doing it for free.
That’s true. That’s a very good way of putting it.