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"WILD YEARS-THE MUSIC & MYTH OF TOM WAITS" BY JAY S. JACOBS

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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Music > Feature Interviews F to J > Tommy James

 

Tommy James

It's A New Vibration

By Ronald Sklar

We know what you're thinking. Not another Christmas album! But with this one, consider this HUGE plus: it's a Tommy James Christmas album, and all the standards (like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”) actually sound like a Tommy James song. 

Talk about your Christmas miracles! 

I Love Christmas (Aura Records) is just what your holiday party will crave, and frankly, who knows more about adding musical spice to a party than Tommy James? You've gotten jiggy with his 1968 hit, "Mony Mony" at every wedding reception, frat party, and any other event that required a DJ and a three-drink minimum. 

"'I Love Christmas' started out as a single, two years ago," Tommy tells me from his home in Northern New Jersey, where he's lived since the mid-seventies. "It immediately got response from radio in all genres. It just crossed all the lines. We had over three thousand radio stations playing it, and last year it was even more. We had such great response that we decided to do an album. Jimmy Wisner, my songwriting and production partner and I went into the studio and recorded the record for the better part of this year." 

That kind of focus and dedication is nothing new for Tommy James. The man earned 23 gold singles and nine platinum-selling albums, including the best song on your iPOD when played loudly, "Crimson and Clover." And don't forget (and we know you never will) "Draggin' the Line," "I Think We're Alone Now," "Sweet Cherry Wine," and "Crystal Blue Persuasion." 

His songs had been covered over 300 times, from Billy Idol and Tiffany to the Boston Pops and REM. 

Of course, "Mony Mony" remains his most popular and influential recording, although the world continues to wonder about its title.

Wonder no more. 

"'Mony Mony' was something we concocted that was supposed to be a combination of every party rock record we ever heard," he says. "It just sounded so good to us. We put it together in pieces. We sort of built the record. 

"Two nights before we went into the studio, we had the track done, but no title. We were looking for one of these girls' names, like Sloopy or Bony Moronie. A two syllable word, but everything sounded so stupid. So [my writing partner] Richie Cordell and I went out on my terrace. I was living at 52nd and 8th in [New York] at that time. I go out to have a cigarette and I see the Mutual of New York insurance company sign: MONY. And we just started to laugh because that was the perfect name. And that ended up being the name of the record. If we were looking in the other direction, we would have called it Howard Johnson's!" 

An ironic story for a naïve but ambitious young boy from the Midwest who lived and breathed the music that was changing the world. In his home town of Niles, Michigan, he worked in a record store and began performing while in high school. He and his band, The Shondells, hit the road immediately, and it wasn't long before "Hanky Panky" became their first hit, as well as one of the biggest successes of 1966. And that story remains one of the more ironic in the history of rock and roll. 

"We had put it out two years earlier," he says. "I was in high school. We recorded it in the WNIL radio studios for one of the disk jockeys who was starting a little regional label called Snap Records. I worked in a record shop in addition to having my band. He came in and asked if we would record these sides and I said, heck, yes. This was in 1964. We recorded four sides, and one of them was 'Hanky Panky.' 

"It was released and it went to #1 in at least six square blocks, but it died after that. I had graduated from high school in '65 and took my band on the road. We were very depressed and out of work and I slunk home in the spring of '66. And all of the sudden, the record, unbeknownst to me, had been bootlegged in Pittsburgh, 80,000 of them. They sold in ten days and it was the biggest record Pittsburgh ever had up to that point. We were sitting at number one when they tracked me down, because it said Niles, Michigan on the label. They told me that 'Hanky Panky' was #1 only in the city of Pittsburgh. I thought it was somebody pulling a joke on me over the phone. One of the locals there then took me to New York. I was like a frog in a hailstorm. Boom. We were in the major leagues." 

You can read (and see and hear) all about what happened to Tommy in his upcoming book (due out next year), called Me, The Mob and The Music (Simon and Shuster). He is also working on an autobiographical Broadway musical (a la Jersey Boys) and a biopic. 

"What it boils down to is my life story up until about 1990," he says of the book. "It involves Roulette Records a lot, because that's the label we had the bulk of our hits with and we sold about 110 million records with them. So much of my professional life was wrapped around Roulette and the people we met there. 

"But Roulette was – how should I say this delicately – pretty mobbed up. They were really a front for the Genovese family. That's where they were going to put illegal monies and all kinds of things. But [instead], they started having hits! I got to know Morris Levy, who was the owner of Roulette Records and a Genovese associate. 

"We met a lot of famous underworld characters who were regulars at Roulette. They had had a lot of hits before we came along, with Frankie Lymon and Buddy Knox and Jimmie Rogers and Joey Dee and the Starlighters and Lou Christie and the Essex. I could go on and on. They were great at singles." 

Tommy James was pretty good at singles himself. But once the musical charts started favoring albums in the late 60s, Tommy changed his tune. 

"We were determined to be a part of it," he says of the increasingly groovy music scene. "Roulette had never been that great at selling albums. At that moment, we decided to go for broke and we produced 'Crimson and Clover.' We did the whole record in about five-and-a-half hours and that single allowed us to make the transition to album rock." 

Tommy, who contributed largely to pop music, is equally adept behind the scenes as well. 

"Right from the beginning," he says, "I realized that I loved producing the records as much as I loved writing the songs. I was fascinated by the science of making records as much as the music itself. I got to know it at a very street level. I got to know every bit of the process, from writing the song to taking it into the studio to making the records with the engineer and the equipment and what it could do and what our limitations were and what the rules were. I was lucky I had that education because it's stuff I use every day now." 

Not one to dwell in the past, Tommy's head is currently in the here (and the hear) and now. 

"There are some real bright spots coming right around the corner," he says enthusiastically about technology's near-future. "Yes, it's true that the model of the music business that I grew up in, that is, listening for your record over a radio and then running out to a retail store and buying the record, well, those days are all over. They died a long time ago. What we have now is that we're sort of in between two eras, two technologies. Right now, and for a little bit longer, we are in sort of a badlands area where the dinosaurs have died and the furry little mammals have come out to play. And that's what I want to be, is a furry mammal! 

"I think we're going to see a big change come up in February when hi-def TV comes on. I think what we're going to see is the whole music industry move to television. And I don't just mean in an MTV sense. I mean that there is going to be a couple of thousand channels. Channels are going to be like what websites are now. There is going to be this convergence of television and computer technology. My guess is that very soon you're going to see hi-def TV become interactive. 

"In another year or two, we're going to see a new universe of the music business. We're going to see a totally new era. It's going to be user friendly, and once again we will be able to break new groups and have charts based on downloading and so forth. 

"The big problem right now is that there is no way to get new music in front of the people. We're in a twenty-first century way of what happened in the fifties. The numbers that fifties and sixties Top 40 radio brought to the table was never duplicated. There was nothing to take its place. And that's what TV's going to do." 

Still, a piece of Tommy's heart belongs to back-in-the day. 

"I miss the social aspect of the rock and roll industry," he says, "especially on the inside of the industry. Getting together with all the promotion guys and dealing with radio and program directors and that whole network of people who created the industry. They're not there anymore. I miss, for example, going up to the record company. You don't do that anymore. Today, you go to the studio and you can mp3 your product to all the radio stations. There are no middle people anymore. There is no record company to bounce ideas off of. About the closest thing there is, is publishing companies. We've got a really great relationship with EMI Music, who published all our early stuff. So the publishing companies, I think, we'll be the new record labels. I don't see anywhere else for it to go. They own the music. 

"We made it at a great time, when there were no rules. We've been very fortunate to stay around this long, because honestly this is a business that maybe gives you two years if you're lucky. I credit Roulette Records with a lot of that, because they were a big little label. They were a big independent that only did maybe one or two acts at a time. Not like the big corporate labels. So we got a chance to evolve. They really didn't have any in-house producers, so we got a chance to live in the studio, become whatever we could become, and I don't think that would have happened with any other label. If we would have been signed with a CBS or RCA back in the day, I think we would have been handed to an in-house producer and I think that would have been the last time anybody heard from us. But I thank the good Lord and the fans for [my success]. At the concerts nowadays, I look out and I see three generations of people." 

"Nothing stays the same forever," he admits, but of course, a major exception to that rule is the world's love for his music.  

To find out more about Tommy James' new CD and upcoming projects, go to www.tommyjames.com

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Photo Credits:
#1 ©2008. Courtesy of Tommy James.  
#2 ©2008. Courtesy of Tommy James.  
#3 ©2008. Courtesy of Tommy James.  
#4 ©2008. Courtesy of Tommy James.
#5 ©2008. Courtesy of Tommy James.

Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 25, 2008.

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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 25, 2008.