Tommy James: Doin’ His Thing and Singin’ His Songs
There’s a Tommy James song, be it with The Shondells in the ‘60s or as a solo artist in the ‘70s, representing most pop-rock offshoots from the singer’s commercial heyday. The teenage garage rocker and “Hanky Panky” performer went on to record textbook examples of frat-house party rock (“Mony Mony”), bubblegum pop (“I Think We’re Alone Now”), psychedelic rock (“Crimson and Clover”), topical songs addressing the Vietnam War (“Sweet Cherry Wine”) and even Christian rock (“Christian of the World”) and country music (“White Horses”).countryThese songs came at a time when popular culture moved at a blistering pace. In this brisk musical climate, James took advantage of his creative freedom and explored his imagination in the public eye.
James recently chatted with Stomp and Stammer about the plus side of working with a mob-affiliated record label, his personal faith, and what keeps him on the road and in the studio after well over 50 years as an entertainer.
There’s a lot out there about you writing a hit while you were still in high school. What types of music made you interested in singing and starting a band?
“I basically started my first band when I was 12 years old. The first place we played was the variety show in junior high. We kept the band together and started playing sock hops and places around town. I grew up in a little town called Niles, Michigan.
“We had developed a local following, and we had two little label deals before I was out of high school. The second record was where we recorded ‘Hanky Panky,’ my first hit. The record was released originally in 1964. I was like a junior in high school. It did okay. It went number one in about six counties, but we had no distribution.
“We kind of forgot about the record, and then the next year I graduated from high school and I took my band on the road. We got an agent out of Chicago and basically played all through the Midwest. In early 1966, about March or April, we were playing this dumpy little club in Janesville, Wisconsin, and right in the middle of my two weeks, the guy gets shut down by the IRS for not paying his taxes. We get sent back home feeling like real losers, but that’s how the good Lord works because as soon as I got home, I got the call that changed my life.
“A disc jockey in Pittsburgh called, and ‘Hanky Panky,’ this record I had recorded two years earlier, was suddenly sitting at number one in the city of Pittsburgh. It was just amazing because Pittsburgh was a major market, and so it was going to get recognized. He asked me to come and do some shows in Pittsburgh. I went there with the original record producer and picked up a band in Pittsburgh that became The Shondells… the new Shondells. A week later, we were in New York selling the record to a major label for international distribution, and that began my career. Only in America!”
One thing that amazes me about the 1960s as someone born a little later is how fast popular culture changed in just a few years. The Beatles arrived in ’64, and just five years later, there’s Woodstock. In between, Sgt. Pepper’s turns a singles-driven business into an album-driven artform.
“In the 1960s everything happened so fast, literally… The technology in the studio, for example. In my case, when I first came to New York and we started recording, we went literally from four tracks to 24 tracks in less than two years. FM radio came in and sort of replaced AM radio. FM had never played rock ‘n’ roll before. All the changes from the space program and all the technology from the space program were finding their way into the studios, and everything from television to recording studios to making movies changed overnight. The ‘60s was an amazing moment for technology, for music, for creativity of every kind.”
Your singles in that timespan range from garage rock to bubblegum pop to psychedelic rock. Were you keeping your ear to the ground and following the wave?
“We were very fortunate to have the ear of the public for all of those years. It’d never happen today. And we were allowed to make changes. First of all, at Roulette, they allowed me tremendous freedom to put a production team together. We were constantly writing and making records and constantly in the studio. There was a natural evolution going from garage rock to every kind of music. I was very lucky to have that kind of freedom to do that.
“I don’t think at another label I’d have been given that kind of freedom. If we’d signed with one of the big corporate labels like we could have… when I went to New York with ‘Hanky Panky,’ we got a ‘yes’ from everybody. Roulette was an independent label. If we went with one of those big labels, we’d have been lucky to be a one-hit wonder. Roulette actually needed us, and they allowed me the freedom to do basically whatever I wanted to do. It was a good move, creatively.”
Right out of high school, you had that freedom that outlaw country singers and punk rockers fought for a little later in popular music history.
“That’s true. I got a chance to really get an education and learn the record business. That also wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. If we’d have gone with CBS or Atlantic, we would’ve been handed over to an in-house producer and A&R man, and that’s probably the last time anyone would’ve ever heard from us.”
You played the first Atlanta International Pop Festival the weekend of July 4, 1969, but you missed a more ballyhooed festival later that summer…
“We were invited to Woodstock, and we were in Hawaii at the time. I turned it down. My secretary called me up and said, ‘Listen, Artie Kornfeld is up.’ He was a friend of mine and one of the promoters of the show. ‘He wants you to come up and play this gig in upstate New York at this pig farm.’ I said, ‘What?’ I’m in Hawaii at the foot of Diamond Head, and she’s asking me to fly 6,000 miles and play at a pig farm. I said, ‘Is that what you said?’ She said, ‘Well, they say it’s going to be a big gig.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, if we’re not there, go ahead and start without us’ and kind of laughed it off. By the end of the week, we knew we screwed up really bad.”
I mostly write about country music, so I’m very curious about the album you did with Atlanta music legend Pete Drake. I doubt you get asked about it much now (laughs). One thing that stands out, beyond Pete Drake’s involvement, is that you wrote the songs. Usually when someone like John Fogerty or Mother Earth delved deeper into country, they relied on covers.
“The album that you’re talking about, I made that in ’71. We did it in Nashville, and it’s called My Head, My Bed, My Red Guitar. It got great reviews and sold about four albums. It got the best review I ever had in Rolling Stone.
“The funny part was I had some really great players on that album: Pete Drake and Buddy Harman and Dave Kirby and Buddy Spicher. A whole lot of buddies! And Elvis’ guys. DJ Fontana played drums, and Scotty Moore was the engineer and played guitar on some of it. That was a hoot. The whole album was fun. We put the whole damn thing together in about two weeks. The players were so good.”
Did you consider making more music like that?
“I’d love to. We have a brand-new album out right now. The album is called Alive, and it’s my first studio album in almost 10 years. It’s got a whole array of different kinds of music. That’s what I like about the album. There’s nothing thematic about it. It’s a whole lot of music that I’d wanted to record for a long time.”
One quick question about your Nashville experience. By ’70 or ’71, you still had that pushback against long-haired rockers that’d impacted The Byrds. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band hadn’t narrowed that rock and country divide just yet. Was there pushback with you showing up with long hair and coming from the rock world?
“Yeah (laughs). Well you know something, I didn’t really play a lot of country venues or anything like that, and we didn’t really change. It’s just something I did in the middle of the other stuff I was doing. What was great is, first of all, I’m a natural-born hillbilly. I’m from Michigan, and the definition of a hillbilly is a Michigan dirt farmer. If the music thing doesn’t work out, I know what I’ll be doing!
“Anyway, I love country music and I love the harmonies, and I got a real chance to play with some of the country greats at that moment. I really, really had fun making that album.”
Being a Christian in rock ‘n’ roll, when people panicked in the ‘80s about Satanism and playing records backwards, did you get any sideways glances from that, or not really?
“I did a Christian album called Christian of the World in the early ‘70s, and nobody was doing that. I always figured that being an artist really meant bringing your audience along with you wherever you happen to be and whatever you happen to be doing. I was glad. Of course, at Roulette Records, they had no idea what I was doing. I remember when I took the Nashville album to them, they were like, ‘What, are you a cowboy now?’ That’s how enthused they were with it.”
When you were promoting the book Me, The Mob, and The Music in 2010, there was talk of a feature film based on your life story. Is that still in the works?
“Yes, it’s being produced by Barbara De Fina, who produced GoodFellas and Casino. The screenplay has been written by Matthew Stone, and our director has just been chosen. The next thing they’re going to do is casting. We’re probably looking at another 18 months, two years. I’m really thrilled to see it all come together.”
In closing, what keeps you hungry and wanting to put out albums after all these years?
“I’m so lucky. I’m so blessed by the good Lord and the fans to have the kind of longevity we’ve had. As long as I’m healthy, I’ll keep doing it. There’s no reason not to. The fans have been so good to me over the years. I look out at our concert crowd now, and I literally see three generations of people. I love performing, I love mixing it up with the people and the fans. As long as I can do it, I’ll be doing it. I’m a lifer, I guess they say.”
With you being so upfront about your faith, I can’t help but think about Wanda Jackson. She retired recently, and until the end she used her live sets to share her testimony in secular settings.
“I love talking about Jesus, and He’s coming back soon. It looks like we’re the generation that’s going to see all of that.
“The bottom line is, I meant what I said when I said I thank the good Lord and the fans because God has always been a big part of my life. I didn’t always live like it, but the Lord has always been the number one part of my life.
“I don’t get real preachy in my show, but at the end of ‘Sweet Cherry Wine’ I always say, ‘Keep looking up. Jesus is coming.’ That’s what the song is about. ‘Sweet Cherry Wine’ is the blood of Jesus. Then after the show, we do merchandise and I sign autographs and stuff. You wouldn’t believe how many people come up to me and talk to me about the Lord from that one line I throw out there.”