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Tommy James
Interview;
Playing Robins
Theatre July 12

Tommy James has been playing music as long as The Beatles.  He has sold 100 million records worldwide including 23 gold records and 9 platinum albums.  It is truly amazing that this man is not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his catalog and influence.

 

Tommy James and the Shondells will be playing the Robins Theater in Warren on       July 12.

 

We had the opportunity to chat with Mr. James to discuss his career, his thoughts on the Rock Hall and his upcoming appearance in Warren.

 

Greg Drugan:  Hey Tommy!  Thanks for taking some time to talk to me today, it is an honor to speak with you.

 

Tommy James: Well, thank you! 

 

GD:  I recently finished your book, Me, The Mob and Music, what a fascinating life that you have led.  I heard that it is finally going to be made into a movie, is that true?

 

TJ:  That’s right! Barbara DeFina is producing, who produced Goodfellas and Casino.  Who was married to Martin Scorsese for some time.  Kathlene Marshall is directing and Matthew Stone did the screenplay.  We were actually up and running and then COVID came along and shut Hollywood down for almost three years.  We are back up and running and were looking at another eighteen months to two years.

 

GD:  Has it been cast yet?

 

TJ:  They’re in the casting phase right now.

 

GD:  Who would you like to see play you in the film?  
 

TJ:  I have no idea!  I’m the worst!  I’d have to leave that to the grown ups.  There are so many young actors that started out in rock bands, it’s amazing.  There are so many to pick from that know how to play and sing. It’s going to be interesting to watch all of that come together.

 

GD:  I’m looking forward to seeing that film!  The last time I saw you was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions in 2015.  You performed “Crimson and Clover” with Joan Jett, Dave Grohl and Miley Cyrus- which was incredible.  What can you tell me about that night and how did that come about?

 

TJ:  Joan had asked me if I would perform “Crimson and Clover” with her because she was being inducted.  Paul McCartney who was going to be there for Ringo, we all got together and had a real love fest.  It was a fascinating night. Miley Cyrus was there to induct her (Joan) and Dave Grohl was there too.  It was literally four generations of rockers doing “Crimson and Clover.”  I was very honored and it was quite a night. 

 

GD:  You mentioned Paul and Ringo.  Were you friends with them back in the late sixties in The Beatles days?

 

TJ:  I had never met The Beatles.  I had met John (Lennon) in 1971 when we were both getting awards for songs.  I was getting one for “Dragging the Line” and he was getting one for “Imagine” and we sat together.  We ended up BS'ing back and forth and Yoko was with him.  George Harrison was producing a group in ‘68 after “Mony Mony” went number one in England. George wrote me several songs. It was delivered to my manager in New York and I was on the road so I never got the chance to properly thank him.  I still have a George Harrison tape around here somewhere with some songs on it that I never got the chance to do.

 

GD:  Wow, that’s incredible.

 

TJ:  They all sounded like “Mony, Mony!”  It was great and I was very flattered that he did that.  But I never met Paul and I never met Ringo.  That night, Ringo was being inducted and I got the chance to meet both of them and we had a great time.

 

GD:  What are your thoughts on the Rock Hall?  I think you are the biggest act from the ‘60s that isn’t in and I feel you should have been inducted long ago!

 

TJ:  Thank you!  My take on it is when our time comes, it will come.  What I would like to see happen, is for us to get in when the movie comes out.  I think that would be a nice one, two punch.

 

GD:  Yeah!  That seems to be the case when there is a movie or documentary that comes out, like The Go-Gos, people see it and that band is on the voters minds.  So that could work for you.

 

TJ:  That will give them a shot in the arm!

 

GD:  Have you been to the museum lately?  It is really beautiful and they are also expanding it as well.  Maybe you can get there when you play Warren this summer?

 

TJ:  Not since then.  I’ve been there a couple of times for various events, but I’ve not been there since that night.  It’s an amazing place.  My clothes are in the museum.  (laughs)  I’m slowly but surely getting there.

 

GD:  It really is beautiful and they are expanding it as well.  Maybe you can get there when you play in Warren.

 

TJ:  Maybe I can do that, yeah.

 

GD:  You started your career as a teenaer playing around Niles, Michigan.  You found the song, “Hanky Panky”  and you recorded it with some new lyrics.  Did you end up getting a writing credit because you did add to the song?

 

TJ:  No, the producer of the label who owned the record just slapped my name on it. On the second batch of records they corrected it to Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.  It was a song that I heard another group play.  I saw the reaction from the dancers and they must have requested it a half a dozen times.  I said, “We gotta record that.” I had two little label deals before I got out of high school and this was from the second one.  Jack Douglas was a DJ who owned Snap records and he asked if me and my band would record a couple of sides.  I said, “Hell yes!” and one of those songs was “Hanky Panky.” 

 

Two years later, I got a call from Pittsburgh saying “Hanky Panky” was sitting at number one.  I went there with the producer of the record and outside the city limits I’m a nobody but inside the city of Pittsburgh, I’m a rock star.  I picked up a group there to become the new Shondells and headed for New York.  Because Pittsburgh was a major market, we got a yes from all the record companies we went to.  We went to Atlantic, we went to Kama Sutra, we went to Columbia, Epic and RCA and we got a yes from everybody.  I was feeling real good that night.  The last place we took it to was Roulette Records.  About ten o’clock in the morning, I started getting calls saying “Listen Tom, we have to pass.”  All the labels that said yes before all passed.  Jerry Wexler up at Atlantic told us the truth.  Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records called all of the other labels and backed them down.  Besides being a legit record label, Roulette was a front for the Genovese crime family in New York and Morris Levy was the boss.  Bottom line, we were going to be on Roulette Records.  That was the first offer I couldn’t refuse. 

 

They took the record to number one and started my career. I can tell you right now, if we had been with any other label, we would have been lucky to have been one hit wonders. Especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.”  Roulette did right by us on a creative level, getting paid was a whole other story.  We ended up with twenty three gold singles and nine platinum albums and we sold over one hundred and ten million records. 

 

GD:  That song went to #1 in 1966 and you followed that up with “Crimson and Clover” and “Mony Mony.”  Can you tell the story of how you wrote “Mony, Mony?”

 

TJ:  That came later.  “Hanky Panky” came out in ‘66 and “Mony Mony came out in ‘68. I believe “Mony” was our eighth or ninth record.  There’s a classic story that goes with it. I wanted to put a song together that was a throw back to the early ‘60s like “Louie Louie” and “California Sun.”  Richie Cordell, my songwriting partner and I were up in my apartment in Manhattan the night before I was supposed to do the lead vocal.  We had the track finished, the words all written but we had no title. We were looking for a crazy girl's name like Sloopy or Boney Maroney and everything sounded so dumb.  So we go out on the terrace and look up at the night time sky and the first thing we see is the Mutual of New York Insurance Company. M-O-N-Y.  It sounds like a made up story but it’s the absolute truth.  We both started laughing because it was the perfect name and it registered with both of us at the same time.  That became the name of the record.  I have said, if we were looking in the other direction, it could have been called “Hotel Taft.” (laughs)

 

GD:  You had so many other big hits like “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Sweet Cherry Wine.”  Do you have a favorite song?

 

TJ:  Well, in concerts I suppose there’s two: “Crystal Blue Persuasion” at one end of the concert.  It’s a very different kind of record for us.  And “Mony, Mony” at the end of the show.  There’s not much oxygen in the room after that.  During the song, I go out and shake a few hands and mingle with the audience.  I’m very grateful for these songs.  

 

GD:  During that time in the late ‘60s you also got to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show as well as American Bandstand.  What was it like going on those iconic TV programs and how did the hosts treat you?

 

TJ:  There were a lot of live TV shows in the 1960s and The Sullivan Show was live.  If you screwed up, your career could be over.  The Sullivan Show was probably the scariest show on television because it was live.  Sullivan himself was so uptight.  Ed was known to tip a few during the show and he was a little drunk by the time the show was over and at the end of the show, he would always talk to the headliner.  You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth.  The week before we were going to appear, he said “Next week, right here, Tony Jones and the Spondelles!”  Which means he couldn’t read and he never heard of you. (laughs)  Finally he got my name right.  We did the show and at the end of the show he said, “I heard you were born and raised in New York.”  I wasn’t. I was raised in Niles, Michigan but I wormed my way out of it.  You always had to be on your toes in your performance and talking with Ed.  We made it through three of those. 

GD:  Very cool.  You mentioned your record company Roulette Records and you were a part of several acts that got ripped off by their record company.  Even today, people that go on American Idol or the Voice have to sign very restrictive contracts.  

 

TJ: True enough, but back then Roulette was run by Morris who was an associate of the Genovese family.  We would start to recognize gangsters from TV.  We would recognize people that we saw on the news.  We would be in Morris’ office and he would introduce us to these guys.  Then a week later we would see them on TV in cuffs doing the perp walk out of the warehouse.  It kept happening and that’s when we realized who we were dealing with.  It was scary and we were lucky to make it out of there in one piece. 

 

GD:  You continued to put out music in the ‘70s but you became more of a producer, right?

 

TJ:  When the Shondells and I parted company in 1970, I had twelve more Top Twenty records as a solo artist.  Then I left because I couldn’t take anymore of the mob stuff.  In ‘74 I went out to the west coast and did two records with Fantasy Records.  Then I came back to New York and had another adult contemporary record with “Three Times In Love.”  Then two more Top Ten records on Millennium Records after that.  During the ‘80s I took about three years off but our songs ended up in a lot of movies.  Morris was finally convicted in ‘86 for racketeering and I finally got paid for decades of music.  I started my own label in ‘92 and we put out music whenever we want. I went back on the charts in 2019 with the “Alive” album and one of the songs that’s going to be in the movie, a slowed down version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” went Top Twenty on the Billboard charts.  

 

GD:  Your music had a huge resurgence in the ‘80s when Joan Jett, Tiffany and Billy Idol had hits with your songs.  Did you like those versions of your songs?

 

TJ:  I did!  I’m always very flattered and very honored when another artist does our songs.  It’s interesting to hear when other people do your songs.  Billy Idol for example, that’s probably the way we would have done “Mony Mony” if it would have been twenty years later.  We have had over 300 versions of our songs done by artists like Prince, REM to Dolly Parton.  

 

GD:  Wow!  Talk about influence.  That’s one of the criteria for the Rock Hall and you have all of these artists covering your music.  That’s awesome.

 

TJ:  It is and I’m very grateful for it. I’m very grateful for the good lord and all the fan support we’ve had over the years. 

 

GD:  For sure!  It seems that no one is buying physical music anymore with all of the streaming services.  A good way for new and younger audiences to hear your music is in movies, TV shows and TikTok trends. A great use of one of your songs was when Breaking Bad used “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”  

 

TJ: Yes, that’s a nice job but it was kinda strange because they were talking about crystal meth!  But you can take it anyway you can get it. (laughs)

 

GD:  What are your thoughts on the new ways of getting your music out? Apparently you are for it.

 

TJ:  It’s great with all the new gadgets.  The only problem with today is the record business that invested in artists that we all knew isn’t there anymore.  Instead of going to a record company, you have to go to a music publisher, a big one.  Work out a deal with them, bring a dozen demos and work out a deal.  A record publisher can open doors that a record company can’t.  

 

GD:  You are also a DJ on Sirus XM.  How do you like that gig and do you get to select all the music for your show?

 

TJ:  Yes, they came to me, I was a little nervous at first because I never worked that side of the mic before. I went ahead and did it and by the third or fourth show, I loved it.  Three hours a week is a lot of time to fill up.  They asked me to play whatever you want as long as it was ‘60s or early ‘70s or late ‘50s.  They asked me to play my own music too and I said, “Can’t I go to jail for that?” 

 

GD:  (laughs) The old Payola! 

 

TJ:  Yeah!  The theory behind the show is besides playing the hits, I play the songs that should have been hits because so much music was released in the ‘60s but there wasn’t enough space on the radio.  There were hundreds of records released every week but only five made it on the national charts.  The odds were so stacked against you.   It’s a fun three hours and I write the show myself because there are stories that go with every hit record.  

 

GD:  Tommy, you will be coming back to Warren at Robins Theatre in July.  What can fans expect from your show?

 

TJ:  Of course we are going to play as many hits as we can.  I’m going to go out and mingle with the crowd a little bit, shake a few hands.  I love mixing it up with the crowd.  We will be playing a slow, acoustic version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that like I said, is going to be in the movie.  All I can say is we love coming to Ohio.  Ohio really knows how to rock.  I guess that’s why they put the Hall of Fame there.  There are so many great groups from Ohio, it’s a real center piece of Rock and Roll.  We love playing Ohio! You really know how to rock!

GD:  Yes, we do!  Tommy, thank you again for your time. I wish you the best with all of your endeavors and I look forward to seeing you at the Robins Theatre in July.  Hopefully we pack the place for you! 

 

TJ:  It was great talking to you.  Take care! 

Be sure to catch Tommy James and The Shondells at the beautiful Robins Theatre in downtown Warren on July 12.  

Tickets start at $45 and can be purchased by clicking here. 

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