April 5, 2010

Crystal Blue Conversation: Jersey Boy Tommy James Tells His Story, Part Two

April 5th, 2010

By Pamela Singer; Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent

Rock legend Tommy James has been thrilling worldwide audiences for more than 40 years now. His music is thoroughly ingrained in modern culture, be it on radio, TV, film, and soon, Broadway. Here, we continue our conversation about his life, music, and new autobiography Me, the Mob, and the Music. We were joined by Tommy’s manager Carol Ross-Durborow, Tommy’s co-writer Martin Fitzpatrick and my fellow blog correspondent Charles Alexander.

PS: So it sounds like being with Roulette [Records] was mutually beneficial.

TJ: Yes. One major thing I credit Roulette for was the record “Crimson and Clover.” It was very important to us for a lot of reasons. “Crimson and Clover” was where we burned all of our bridges production-wise and began producing ourselves. It was also our first 24-track record. This was the pivotal record that allowed us to go from AM top-40 singles to progressive album rock and to sell those albums. Roulette had never done that before. If they’d had three, four or five other acts at that time, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. Because they put the spotlight on us, we were allowed to do all those things. Just as this was happening in 1968, we went out on the road with Hubert Humphrey.

PS: I think people will be really surprised to learn that you and Hubert Humphrey toured together.

TJ: He wrote the liner notes for the Crimson and Clover album.

PS: That’s incredible!

TJ: It’s the first time a rock act and a politician hooked up like that. When we went out on that campaign, the big music acts were the Rascals, the Association, and Gary Puckett. When we got back, it was Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, all album acts. In 90 days, the world turned upside down. We knew if we couldn’t sell albums, we were done. Crimson and Clover allowed us to do that, and Roulette let us mess around until we got it right. That wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

PS: I love the story about how you almost played at Woodstock that summer.

TJ: Yeah, we were on vacation in Hawaii, and I got a call asking us to play at “an outdoor pig farm in upstate New York.” I thought to myself, “Why should we leave this incredible paradise in Hawaii for that?!“ Who knew we’d be missing one of the most important events in music history?

PS: I found your childhood very interesting: living in a hotel for a time, working at a record store named Spin It. Did you always want to be a rock star?

TJ: Absolutely. I had my first guitar at age 9, and before that a ukulele. While the other kids were playing with baseball cards, I was doing 45s! (laughter)

PS: You were only 12 when you put together your first band, Tom and The Tornadoes. Amazing that you were playing in clubs and bars, and weren’t even old enough to drink!

TJ: (laughs) I don’t know why I wasn’t sent to my room. My folks were really good, very supportive, and believed in me. The night I came home with $1,100 didn’t hurt either. My mother asked, “Where did you get so much money?“ and I jokingly said, ”I robbed a 7-11, Mom!!“

PS: You got married at 18, had a child, and were actually thinking about giving up your career at that time to be a manager at a John’s bargain store!

TJ: Yeah, I almost took that job. Came breathtakingly close. About halfway over to the store, I thought to myself, “I just can’t do this.” Truthfully, that’s how God works, because the very next thing that happened was a call to go back out on the road. That’s been the story of my life—one little miracle after another.

PS: Speaking of miracles, you put the original Shondells together in a day.

TJ: Yes. I was in Pittsburgh and found a great local band. “Hanky Panky” had just broken out there. It sold 80,000 copies in 10 days, two years after we recorded it under Snap Records. We got on a plane to New York and signed with Roulette two weeks later. I was 19 years old. You know, I felt like a spectator for the first year of my career, and that’s how I feel today with the book. The book is not behaving like a book. It’s behaving like an album. I call it the “Hanky Panky” story on steroids! I’m giddy, just like those first heady days.

PS: You’ve had such an incredible varied career: as a singer, songwriter, producer [Tommy wrote and produced “Tighter, Tighter” for Alive and Kicking], and now author.

TJ: Well, co-author really! I believe this is the way the music business is going to go. It’s not just happening to us. Our company is a media company. The projects we’ll do from this point on are going to be multimedia 21st Century kind of projects: movies, TV, records. We’re still evolving. This is so typical of the way the Good Lord has run my life, it really is, and I say that quite sincerely. The amazing thing is that we were getting calls on the movie and play, and we hadn’t even finished the book yet. It took 8 years to write the first part of the book and 8 weeks to finish the second half. The reception from the public and the media has been amazing so far. The book is breaking faster than anyone thought. It’s behaving like a record, and that’s what blows my mind. All I can say is that it’s like a cross pollination of books and music. I’m not sure where it’s going, but it’s going to be fun. I love that feeling of unpredictability.

Charles: You started out as an upstart, and now you’re a classic.

TJ: It’s really exciting. I’ll tell you something, it feels like falling in love again, you know. That heady quality reminds me of those first few months of being with your wife. It’s like I get to relive all this and get it right this time.

PS: And you don’t have to worry for your life!

Carol: We’re already getting ready for a second printing, and the book has only been out for 3 weeks.

PS: How did you come up with the book’s title?

TJ: That was Martin’s idea.

Martin: We were listening to Fred Astaire sing “You and the Night and the Moon,” and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

PS: What about the cover shot?

TJ: Simon and Schuster [the publishers] picked that shot out of hundreds we gave them. It was taken in 1971 at the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York. I had just snuck back into town from Nashville, where I was on the lam for a while. My attorney had suggested it was a good idea to leave New York until some things blew over. They were supposed to give me, like, 20 gold records all at once in New York! When that picture was taken, I didn’t know if I was still in danger or not. It’s the perfect cover for the book.

PS: Are you still touring with the Shondells?

TJ: Yes, but not the original group. The original group and I are back in the studio doing music for the movie. It’s very exciting. I’m having a great time. We just did a new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It’s totally different from the original, totally opposite: slow, no drums, very dreamy and beautiful, and will likely be played over the movie’s closing credits. The last scene in the movie is where Morris [Morris Levy, the long-time head of Roulette] dies. I’m not able to get back to see him before he dies, will never see him again, so I have this imaginary conversation with him. I’m in a limo, driving off into the Chicago night after a gig, and “I Think We’re Alone Now” plays, giving the song an entirely different spin.

Charles: There will be a new demand for your concerts. Do you still enjoy performing?

TJ: Yes, I really love it. The fans have been so great. I look out at the audience and see three generations now. They’re screaming and hollering just like they always did. I’m very thankful and giddy, which I haven’t felt in a long time. I didn’t think this was possible in today’s environment, in the middle of a recession.

PS: What kind of schedule do you have?

TJ: We have about 30 dates a year. I don’t like doing more than that, in order to keep the pipes fresh. You can only do “Mony Mony” so many times before the CO2 level goes up too high! (laughs) We basically work once a week.

PS: What would we be talking about at another interview in five years? Where do you see yourself?

TJ: Well, I hope we’re still here. We’re going to be producing more. It’s a very exciting direction, and we’re working with top-notch people. Our media entertainment company will be taking a multimedia approach. We’re going to continue writing, and probably do a TV series, among other things. One of the things I think is really important now is chronicling the music business. There are so many ways to apply that to a TV series or film. It would be a kick to do a combination comedy-fantasy-reality TV series introducing new music. We’re also writing a comedy about New Jersey.

PS: I’m a Jersey Girl myself, so can certainly see the humor inherent to that!

TJ: (Laughs)

PS: What artists today do you admire?

TJ: I like Green Day a lot. There have been more than 300 covers of our songs. Jimmy Eat World did a great job with “Crimson and Clover,” then Prince took it to No. 1 again last year on his digital album. REM did an amazing job on “Draggin’ The Line” for the last Austin Powers movie.

Martin: Last year Prince and Tom Jones both chose to promote their new discs with Tommy James songs as their first singles off the disc.

Charles: And what a left-handed compliment to have a song covered by “Weird Al” Yankovic: “I Think I’m A Clone Now!!”

TJ: That is a real honor! (laughs)

PS: You’re going to have a whole new audience now, in addition to the fans you’ve had all these years; very similar to what JERSEY BOYS has done for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. People are saying, “Wow, I didn’t know they sang all those songs,” really opening up a new, yet simultaneously deeper appreciation of both your and the Seasons’ artistry and longevity.

TJ: I feel this is another one of those miracles that keeps happening. It seems very right and very natural because this is the way my career has gone. I’m humbled by it, really awed by it. This is a business that gives you maybe 2-3 good years. The fans and the Good Lord have given me more than 40 now, and I’m truly blown away by it. I really am.

PS: Tommy, this has been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for your time and insights.

TJ: It’s been a pleasure for me as well.

Check out Tommy’s website www.tommyjames.com for all the latest information, touring dates, and news on all things Tommy James and the Shondells.


  1. Tom and the Tornadoes at age 12? Wow! I wonder if they were the same Tornadoes that later did “Telstar”…?

    Did TJ happen to mention what songs they were playing? Probably covers of somebody else’s latest hit, I’m guessing, maybe with a hint of things to come, like the Fleetwoods’ “Mister Blue Persuasion” or Larry Williams’ “Bony Mony Maroney?” Or perhaps precursor kiddie versions of his later hits — “Crimson and Crayola” or “Hanky Panky Under My Blankie?”

    Seriously, the forthcoming show sounds exciting, with both the grit and great soundtrack of Jersey Boys. Super interview Pam!

    Comment by stubbleyou — April 5, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  2. Great interview! It’s amazing how interconnected music and politics were during that era. I can’t wait to see TJ’s movie and hear the new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Kudos to TJ for keeping the music alive and to Pam and Charles for sharing it with us.

    Comment by Jana — April 5, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  3. Thanks again for sharing so much, Pamela. You’ve really whetted our appetites to read the book; I may even give it a second go round.

    You touched upon Tommy’s early marriage and his son and the job at “John’s Bargain Store” (from my memory, back then it was “Cheap John’s”), but he only picked up on not taking the job. Would have loved to know a bit more about his relationship with his son in later years…maybe in the movie.

    As with Jana’s remark above, I’m interested to see how the newer, slower version of ITWAN sounds; he’s certainly picked an appropros spot in the movie for it.

    Note to Stubbleyou: I’m certain most of us know that “Telstar” is the first No. 1 Billboard hit crossover from a British group. Interesting coincidence with the name “Tornadoes”.

    Once again, great job, Pamela. You really should consider taking Oprah’s afternoon spot. And Charles could be your Ed McMahon type (after he develops that guffaw type laugh)!!

    Comment by Howard — April 6, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

  4. Howard and Stubbleyou, regarding “Telstar”, I have read that the sound effects in “Telstar” are from nothing like you would have expected the sounds to have come from. Yet sounds from such selections as “Telstar” and “The Martian Hop” have become recognized as actual “space” and “spacecraft” type sounds, particularly from productions from that era.

    Comment by Ted Hammond — April 6, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

  5. Thanks all, for the nice words. Stubbs, you’re right about Tom and The Tornadoes doing covers of other popular groups at the time, although I don’t recall hearing specifically about the two you mentioned. Read the book for more details!! Too, too funny about the kiddie versions of TJ’s songs!! Maybe that should be a new venture for him. Howard, I’d love to do an Oprah type show or magazine. Will talk to Charles about developing that sound, lol!


    Comment by Pamela — April 6, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

  6. Great interview, Pam. You are now listed among the great Jersey Boys journalists – Pam Singer, Howard Tucker, Stubbs Weiss, Dale and Susie Skarl – the Jersey Boys Blog Hall of Famers! Love, IE

    Comment by irene eizen — April 7, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

  7. Pam, Thanks for bringing me along on this great ride. I would be honored to be your Ed McMahon. Love, Charles

    Comment by Charles Alexander — April 10, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI

Please leave a comment