Tommy James Interview

Published on May 22nd, 2009

TJ (7)

With over 100 millions records sold, countless successful tours, and a far-reaching fan base, Tommy James is the very definition of a rock icon. His timeless songs have been covered by over 300 artists, and have been the source of inspiration for even more. A new book, film, and even a reunion of his original band, the Shondells, are all pulling together to keep him busy and it was a true privilege to have this chat. Just a short glimpse of what Tommy discussed follows:

On Roulette Records: “…Most of the fans really didn’t know what was going on with us in the midst of all the pop records. There was a very sinister story going on in the background because Roulette Records, we didn’t know this when we signed, but Roulette Records was a front for the Genovese crime family in New York City. So they were a record company, and functioning as a record company, but they were also a place used for everything from money laundering to all kinds of other issues and of course we were trying to make music in the midst of all this while rubbing shoulders with some scary people.”

Making it big: “What was great about making it at that moment was that they were just making up the rules as we got into it. The big arenas were just being built and the big mammoth shows were just starting to happen and what was really great was that radio was everywhere; when they said the Top 40 it was really the truth since all the radio stations and pop stations were playing the same 20 to 30 songs. The air play was phenomenal and anything that made it into the top 10 really was a multi-million sell.”

The future of music: “I have a great feeling about what is about to come ahead, you know, the CD business has pretty much tanked in the last couple of years and of course downloading keeps getting bigger by the week. Downloading will eventually in a year or so be as big as the CD market. My prediction is that once we all have high def TV, that the whole music business is going to make a move to television and we are going to have not only a lot of music shows but every major show, every music show, will have its own database songs of that you will be able to download.”

On re-uniting with the original band: “We called [the band] up in Pittsburg and everybody was available, so they came up to New York into the studio and it was magic. I hadn’t made music with these guys in 37 years but it was like riding a bike – you never forget – and when we went up to do the vocals everybody knew what part to take and it was incredible. It was one of the most joyous singles I had ever made…There are so many things musically that we never had the chance to do because we were so busy. There are so many songs that we never wrote, and now we have the chance to write.”

Read the full interview by clicking below.

So what is new in your world?

Wow, well listen there is a whole lot going on right now actually. We are in the midst of doing a movie, and a book, and a Broadway show. We basically finished the autobiography, my autobiography, a few months ago. It is called Me the Mob, and the Music, and it is really not only about growing up in the Midwest and making it in the music business but it is also about our relationship with Roulette Records, the label we had about ninety percent of our hits on and it is going to be a very interesting story. It will first be out as a book through Simon & Schuster. That will be coming out the first quarter of next year and then it will be a movie about 12 months later and it appears that it will be directed by Martin Scorsese. It is going to be a really interesting story, most of the fans really didn’t know what was going on with us in the midst of all the pop records. There was a very sinister story going on in the background because Roulette Records, we didn’t know when we signed, but Roulette Records was a front for the Genovese crime family in New York City. So I mean they were a record company, and functioning as a record company, but they were also a place used for everything from money laundering to all kinds of other issues (laughs) and of course we were trying to make music in the midst of all this and we are rubbing shoulders with some scary people and so we get a chance to talk about it now. I never really felt comfortable talking about all this or documenting this until all of the Roulette regulars passed away, and that happened in December of ’05. So anyway it is going to be a very interesting story – Me, the Mob, and the Music, and it looks like it will be out in January or February of 2010.

That will make an interesting story for sure, the fans are going to be maybe a bit surprised to hear this whole back story that they didn’t know about.

Yes, that is true, it is something that we really couldn’t write about until recently. You know, I had done all the music stuff and we talked about the growing up and the hit records and the various hits and I really wasn’t able to talk about this until recently. So it is going to be an interesting combination of wise guys and rock and roll, and nobody does those kinds of movies better than Scorsese so that is going to be fun.

I have to tell you I just love the story of how “Hanky Panky” started to make it big back in the day when it suddenly became a hit in Pittsburgh.

Right, well this is one of those only in America stories, our first record, Hanky Panky and what had happened was I grew up in Niles Michigan, my home town and we were sort of out in the middle of know where between Detriot and Chicago. I started playing the guitar when I was very young, you know 9 or 10 years old, and started my own band when I was 12 back in Niles, and we played at teen dances and YMCA’s and anyplace that would have us and I got a job after school at a record shop selling records where I could also promote my band. And so we actually had 2 regional label deals before I got out of high school and real quickly the first one was from a distributer who came into the record shop and we recorded a song called “Long Pony Tail” and that bombed pretty good for us (both laugh). Then about a year later I was approached by a DJ in Niles who worked at WNIL, the local radio station, and was starting a little label called Snap Records and asked if we would come and record. We said yeah, and one of the 4 sides we did for him was “Hanky Panky”. This was recorded and released early in 1964, and then I graduated from high school in 1965 and when I took my band on the road, by the way the record came out and did a little better than the first one – it basically went to number one in six square blocks and then died (both laugh). Anyway, it is 1964 so we kind of left that behind and forgot about it. In ’65 when I left high school I took my band on the road and we went all the way through the Midwest we had a little agent in Chicago, and I came home very unexpectedly in early 1966, we all did. The club we were playing in Wisconsin went belly up in middle of our two weeks (both laugh) and we were one of the casualties. So we came home and at that very moment – and this is how the big man upstairs works – because as soon as I got home I got a call from a distributer saying that this record that we had done 2 years earlier, “Hanky Panky”, was sitting at number 1 in the city of Pittsburgh. It had been bootlegged after they played it at a dance, so everybody was requesting the record and a local outfit in Pittsburg bootlegged 80,000 copies and sold them in 10 days in the city. We were sitting at number one, and if I hadn’t been home at that exact moment I would have never gotten that call. I couldn’t put that original band back together so I went to Pittsburgh to some TV and stuff and grabbed the first bar band I could find and they became the Shondells, the new group. Then I grabbed a few local people and one became my manager, and we bought clothes, and two weeks later we came to New York to sign with whatever label we could get. We had a regional breakout in the trade papers so the labels would know who we were. I walked in and we got a yes from Columbia, a yes from Epic, a yes from Atlantic, a yes from all major labels. The last place we went was Roulette, and so I just kind of collapsed at the end of the day since I had been up for two days at the hotel we were staying at. Then the next morning, one by one all the record companies called and said “look, we have to pass”. MB: Hmm… TJ: And we said, what are you talking about, we have a deal, but “nope nope, we are going to pass”. Finally Jerry Wexler up at Atlantic leveled with us and told us that Morris Levy, head of Roulette Records, had one by one called all of the labels and told them “this is my freaking record” and they all backed down and that is how we ended up at Roulette Records (both laugh) and then of course they released Hanky Panky and it went number one worldwide and it was the number one record for the summer of 1966. And that began our career. That is the long version but that is really how it happened.

Did it overwhelm you at first?

Well it did for the first 7 or 8 months, and I was a spectator basically. When we got to New York – the great thing about making it right then is that everybody was on the same page as far as radio promotions, television, and everybody was looking for the next hit, which is not the truth today. Groups have such a hard time making it today. Back then we sort of just walked on. To me nothing in the world is more exciting than an exploding hit single and that really is what it was. My head was spinning and we were very fortunate to have two more hits immediately, and then I met Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell from Kama Sutra. We formed a production team starting with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and that was the first record we did together. From there the hits just kept on coming as they say, and may I say that being at Roulette was great in one respect because they really needed us. If we would have been with one of the corporate labels, RCA or CBS, we would have probably been handed a producer and that would have been the last time anyone would have heard from us. We would have had one or two hits and we would have gotten lost in the numbers. At Roulette they really needed us, and we were the biggest thing they had at the moment; they had a lot of hits before, but they needed a hit right there so it worked for both of us.

History had its own way of carving your journey through music.

TJ: Indeed, It really did. We were so lucky because we got to make our own decisions, we made our own space and we started writing and producing our own records and that also wouldn’t have happened with a major label.

And when I say major, I mean they were big labels, but they were independent and they did one record at a time and so we got a chance to really morph into producers and writers and everything else, and we did about 110 million records on Roulette.

Yes, that is just incredible. Were you doing a lot of shows each year along side the records?

Oh yeah, a lot of shows, we were all over and what was great about making it at that moment was that they were just making up the rules as we got into it. The big arenas were just being built and the big mammoth shows were just starting to happen and what was really great was that radio was everywhere; when they said the Top 40 it was really the truth since all the radio stations and pop stations were playing the same 20 to 30 songs. So the air play was phenomenal and anything that made it into the top 10 really was a multi-million sell.

Was it a different feeling when you went out on your own after the Shondells?

Well of course what happened was we had about 18 singles before any of this happened, and by the way we started truly producing ourselves in 1969 with “Crimson and Clover”. That made a huge difference for us because that allowed us to move into the album market. So it wasn’t just singles by 1969 – it was albums too, which allowed us to go on much further.

And in 1970, I just needed a rest since we were going at it for 5 years. It was almost 1971 and we had been going non-stop. I mean if we weren’t on the road, we were in the studio. We were all just beat and fried so we decided to take a few months off and what ended up happening was the Shondells went one direction and I went another. I began a solo career at that point which has lasted up to this day, and truthfully, we have been doing the same thing for 43 years now in a business that maybe gives you two to three years at most, so we are very blessed and very lucky.

How did you stay busy in the ‘80s? You had Three Times in Love at the beginning of that decade, but after that?

Sure, well you know what happened was so many of our songs began to get covered by other artists during the 1980’s. In the early 80’s Joan Jett did “Crimson and Clover” – she had a number one record with it, and Billy Idol and Tiffany and had both had number one records with “Mony Mony” and “I Think We’re Alone Now”. The movies were real strong for us; a lot of our songs were used in movies. By 1980 I had signed with Millennium records of course, and we had 3 more chart records, “Three Times in Love”, “You Got Me”, and “You’re So Easy to Love”, and for the rest of the ‘80s we basically toured a lot.

TJ: And we did another deal in 1990 with Aegis Records, distributed by CBS, and had the Hi-Fi album that year, and the covers just kept getting better. I started my own label called Aura Records in 1992 and we began to have releases on a regular basis. We had our first live album in 1997 at the Bitter End in New York and that was a big sell for us. It was funny too because I had always wanted to do a live album and we did a live album of our hits lasting about an hour and 10 minutes. It’s Tommy James and the Shondells Live at the Bitter End, and by the way the touring group I had with me that I called the Shondells was not the original band. It was younger players I had with me during that time, and then in 2006 we released the Hold the Fire album and had 3 more Top 5 adult contemporary records, from that album. One of them actually went number one – “Love Words” went number one for us exactly to the week forty years after “Hanky Panky” went number one.

That was really a great feeling; it felt like a gigantic circle had been made.

All of those years later and you’re still connecting with new fans.

And it is great because you go out on the road now and I literally see three generations of people. The colleges have been really great, college radio has been really great to us. The newest album that we released, which was our Christmas album last Christmas, has done really well for us. And we just released Tommy James and the Shondells: 40 Years, which is all of the singles from 1966 to 2006 back to back, it is in the stores now. We have had such an incredible response from college radio all over the country playing the album and they are playing the singles from all the different decades and it is just a wonderful freedom to connect with the newer generation of fans, it really is.

Yeah they have their own way of discovering the music, whether it’s internet radio or college radio.

That is right.

They are finding it on they’re own.

I have a great feeling about what is about to come ahead, you know, the CD business has pretty much tanked in the last couple of years and of course downloading keeps getting bigger by the week. Downloading will eventually in a year or so be as big as the CD market. My prediction is that once we all have high def TV, that the whole music business is going to make a move to television and we are going to have not only a lot of music shows but every major show, every music show, will have its own database songs of that you will be able to download. You know those stations at the top end of your cable system now called Music Choice?

Oh yeah, everyone gets those.

My belief is that it will all be interactive and you will be able to download right from these various channels, each channel up there up in the 4 or 5 hundreds is a different genre. One is big bands, easy listening, one is pop, one is classic rock, and each genre will basically have its own means for downloading. Your TV will become your iPod and we will probably have a little detachable mp3 player on the cable box or something and you can take into your car or your home stereo or something so it is really going to get interesting once we have high def TV.

Oh yeah, it is really exciting because there is room for more variety now.

Absolutely and there will be a dedicated channel to surfing the internet, probably from your easy chair. Do you know how when web TV came in and everybody was saying how it was so great? Well WebTV never developed but the idea of being able to surf the internet on your TV from your couch was a great idea and that is when the internet is really going to start making money.

Yes exactly. I am wondering if there are any songs that you have written over the years that you wish could have gotten more exposure…you had “Mony Mony” that became huge, but are there any songs out there that you feel…

Absolutely, the funny part is that when you are releasing singles it is a very rigid affair and so many of the songs that are my favorites ended up on an album and never got the chance to be fully developed into singles. One of them was a song back in the late ‘60s called “Loved One” that I was in love with and we were going to release it as a single, but we had so many other singles and there really wasn’t any room for this. There had also been some songs from the 1990s, one of them is called “You Take My Breath Away”, which was sort of a AC record, you know, a very haunting melody that I really would have like to released and had done a little more with. And even a couple from the last studio album that we did which was Hold the Fire, a song called “Ordinary Girl” which was never released. There are songs all the time that never get developed and never get taken to the singles market, and that I wish that we would have done more with. Of course now the one thing that the iPod has done it has brought back the singles market.

Sure.

Because single song downloads, you know. People are making their own albums of their favorite single recordings, so it’s really great that it has brought back the singles market that’s going to make a huge difference.

That’s true, and you never know, I mean some of these songs that you wrote might just have yet to surface again.

That is true, especially being heard by the new generation of fans.

Yep, I mean Tom Jones did “I’m Alive” last year.

Yes that is right, and Prince now has “Crimson and Clover” on his number one album and that was very unexpected.

Do you ever make contact with these guys who do a cover song?

You know every now and then I will get that chance to chat with some people who have recorded our songs, and I’m very flattered. Some of fans have a tough time with it but I’m very flattered and honored when a young group thinks the fast way to a hit record is to do one of our old songs, I love it.

So what has the experience been like with your own label?

It’s funny because I thought I knew the record business until I got into the record business. It’s interesting is the idea that we can release products if and when we want to, I love that where you don’t have to depend on a record company, especially now. And by the way I wanted to tell you real quick that I am working on a new album with the original Shondells.

That’s exciting.

And the way that this is happening is really bizarre because we hadn’t really gotten together before last year. We had gotten together one time when our drummer pasted away about 20 years ago, but we never really made music again together. I have always wanted to do that, and it wasn’t like we were on bad terms or anything – it just never came back together after we took a break to rest, and so we were always friends. Now last year we were doing a Christmas album called I Love Christmas, and I got together with Mike Vale, the bass player. The two of us wrote “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, “Crimson and Clover”, and several others. So we got together and wrote this song called “It’s Christmas Again” and that became the last track on the album. We said we liked it so much that it would be a great time to get the original guys back together – so that is just what we did. We called them up in Pittsburg and everybody was available, so they came up to New York into the studio and it was magic. I hadn’t made music with these guys in 37 years (laughs) but it was like riding a bike – you never forget – and when we went up to do the vocals everybody knew what part to take and it was incredible. It was one of the most joyous singles I had ever made and when we mp3’d it to radio all over the country we had a great response to it so we decided that we were going to do an album together. And it’s a great time with the movie and the book and everything else going on to have this reunion and to have the original guys back together. We may even do some showcases with the new group and old group playing together.

I feel like Captain Kirk (laughter) with the new generation of Shondells.

Exactly!

Anyway it would be really great if we could put that together.

It’s nice to have a group that doesn’t have all that tension and drama and you guys can just get back together and kind of pick up where you left off.

Oh yeah, it is so great because there are so many things musically that we never had the chance to do because we were so busy. There are so many songs that we never wrote, and now we have the chance to write. It is wonderful doing it now, even though the market is a bit depressed it is great because we might have more than one single out there at a time.

Yeah, there really isn’t a limit to what you can put out. You can release it on the internet or put it straight out on the radio.

That is right, you could do a pop record, a AC record, and maybe a hot AC record. There are so many ways you can go. We are really having fun this time.

So who is out on the road with you? Is it the new Shondells?

Yes it is, the guys have been with me for over twenty years, which is actually longer than the original band was, (laughs) but if you would like to come to our website and see where we are playing and what we are up to it is just TommyJames.com. All of our dates are up and we’re playing all over the country, and in the middle of all of this we are not able to take on as many dates this year because we are doing a screen play for the movie and this is going to be very involved because both factually and date wise, it has to be accurate or we are going to get a lot of people mad at us. And we also have to create the dialogue between the characters and so this is going to be quite a challenge to re-create Roulette records. In some ways it is very therapeutic (laughter) because we get to relive these days and I don’t know what is going to happen maybe we will remind ourselves…”Hey, we had an argument that day”…maybe we will still be upset with each other (laughs). It is going to be fun.

What songs are you playing in the live set these days?

Well we are doing the hits and we will throw in a couple of new things. You know we are always working on new things but it is very important that you play the hits and it is funny because you can’t mess with them either…you can’t play with the hits. They have to sound like the record or people get really upset, people start throwing stuff. (laughter)

I mean when you do “Crimson and Clover”, you gotta do it the way the record sounds. It has to have that tremolo at the end of the record, and it’s gotta sound like the record. These are the things you can’t take liberties with, but then we get the chance to play a couple of new things so everything evens out. I am so grateful to the fans because they have really kept the thing going for us you know over the years.

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Comments

  1. Posted by Dale Smith on February 26th, 2011, 20:42 [Reply]

    Great interview! Tommy James, the true king of rock ‘n roll!! Dale Smith, Lebanon, IN

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