Tommy James Part III: Why Tommy Never Recorded Songs George Harrison Wrote For Him and Meeting John Lennon

In this final installment of my interview with Tommy James, he talks about why he never recorded songs George Harrison wrote specifically for him, meeting John Lennon, what he thinks of Billy Idol and Tiffany’s covers of his songs, his upcoming movie, his deal with Sony/ATV, and finally his new Youtube channel.

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(Photo by Jennifer Dodge)

 

Me: I’ve got to say that of your songs, the two that I love the most, and I like all of them, “Hanky Panky,” believe it or not, is one of my favorites…

 

James: Oh my!

 

Me: …and “Crimson and Clover” is the other.

 

James: Well thank you!  “Hanky Panky” was our very first record, and it was recorded in a radio studio in my hometown, WNIL in Niles, Michigan, in 1964.  I was 16 and the record was released locally and sort of died. It did okay, but it didn’t blow the doors down. We had no distribution. The next year I graduated from high school and took my band on the road. We played through Chicago and up through the Midwest. In early ’66 we were playing this dumpy, little club in Janesville, Wisconsin and right in the middle of our two weeks the guy gets shut down by the IRS. (laughing)  It goes belly-up right in the middle of my two weeks and I thought, “Oh God!” We talked them into letting us have our equipment back, that was a whole tussle.

 

Me: (laughing) Oh geez!

 

James: We limped back into Niles, Michigan feeling like complete losers, but that’s how the good Lord works because as soon as I got home, I got the phone call that “Hanky Panky,” this record I had made two years early was suddenly sitting at number 1 in the city of Pittsburgh. It’s one of those “Only in America” stories. They bootlegged the record and sold 80,000 in 10 days and we were sitting at number 1. I couldn’t put the original band back together, so I went with the producer of the record and we went to Pittsburgh and I sort of grabbed the first bar band I could find to be the Shondells, made our way to New York, and signed with Roulette Records. This all happened in two weeks. They took it to number 1. That was the beginning of my career. That’s just an absolute miracle.

 

Me: There’s this wonderful gritty quality on the recording. I don’t know what it is about it, but it really jazzes me up when I listen to it.

 

James: That’s because it was recorded so badly! (laughing)  Let’s tell it like it is! We did that in a radio studio, mono.  We just played it.

 

Me: Wow!

 

James: “Wow!” That’s just what it was. It was done on a mono machine and what you heard was what you got.

 

Me: It certainly worked for the song, so that’s good. (laughing)

 

James: Back then, at that moment, we were a garage band, so that’s what it sounds like.

 

Me: I read that, and this could be inaccurate, you started with your first band when you were 12.

 

James: That’s right. We originally called ourselves The Tornadoes. Very sophisticated name.

 

Me: (laughing)

 

James: We were a garage band. We started out playing and I was in the 7th grade. We played the junior high school variety show and we got such a great response we decided to keep the band together. We started playing…Oh, God…teen dances and the YMCA and any place that would have us. That’s how the band started. That was the group that eventually morphed into The Shondells. It’s all I ever wanted to do is be one of those rock and roll guys. I never really had it in mind to do anything else.

 

Me: I was kind of getting into that question, and it’s a back door method to do that, but I work as an English teacher…

 

James: Oh, is that right? Good!  What grade do you teach?

 

Me: 10th-12th grade for the past 12 years. Right now I’m taking the year off and working in a 2nd grade classroom for a teacher who is amazing. I’m getting into a whole new age group, and working also with pre-middle school kids at an after-school program. I’m picturing these kids that I work with who are 11- and 12-year olds, who really can’t get out of their own way, and I’m trying to figure out how a 12-year old starts their own band.

 

James: I know, I know. I should have been sent to my room, that’s for sure.

 

Me: (laughing)

 

James: It was 7th grade and the fellow that I started the band with was a drummer who was in 8th grade. We gradually put more guitars together. Back then, a rock band was actually a job opportunity, it was a possibility. It was like anybody could make it. Anybody could make it if you worked hard and played by the rules, as they say. Every town had a whole bunch of rock bands, cover bands, and that’s just the way it was back then. I’m talking about 1959, 1960, and 1961. A long, long time ago.

 

Me: I was curious how…I guess the question is two-fold. One is about influences. You mentioned The Beatles and people like that who really got you into music. Obviously this is before The Beatles hit it big in the U.S. 

 

James: Right.

 

Me: But you mentioned that you always wanted to be a musician, and I imagine that something must have sparked something in you to get you into that place.

 

James: I often tell the story of the first time I saw Elvis on TV. That was it for me. I was 9-years old and I had played a ukulele. My grandfather gave me a ukulele when I was 4-years old and I started playing everything on the radio. By the time I was 9 and I saw Elvis, the ukulele went out the window and I got an acoustic guitar when I was 9. The next year I got my first electric guitar, when I was 10. I just learned everything on the radio. I told Chuck Berry one time, “You know, you taught me how to play guitar. [laughing] That’s why I play so bad, Chuck.”

 

Me: (laughing)

 

James: Truthfully, everything you heard on the radio that you could possibly play…I had quite a repertoire. I was playing at parties. I couldn’t put it down, and by the time I was 12 I was ready to start playing. We started the first band, and it felt very natural to me. It was never a matter, “Am I ready to do this?” I couldn’t stop doing it. That’s how it was with me.

 

Me: It’s so interesting how, I talked to a lot of people as a part of this concert and I’ve asked them pretty much the same question…

 

James: Gene [Cornish of The Rascals] is the same way.

 

Me: Absolutely. A lot of answers you’re giving me, it’s amazing how in tune the two of you are.

 

James: He read in my book all of the business about the ukulele and he called me up. He said, “Tom, you’re not going to believe this!” He’d started out the exact same way. In rock and roll, you have to start out young because unless you do, you won’t be ready when you’re a teenager for the major leagues.  You really have to start out young. If you wait until you’re in your 20’s or 30’s, it’s too late.

 

Me: What is fascinating, to me anyway, about modern music is that there are some alternative or indie bands who are still actual bands, but it really has come to a point where all you need to do is have your own computer and a way to record yourself…

 

James: That’s true.

 

Me: …and there you go.

 

James: One of the things that is too bad about having the high tech stuff available to everybody is that rock and roll was always meant to be, to me, a social affair.

 

Me: Yes.

 

James: It involved lots of people. You had your audience, you involved a whole lot of people. Rock and roll was never meant to be listened to one person at a time, behind a computer. It wasn’t meant to be created that way, either. It was all about people getting together and saying, “What do you think about this?”  “How does this hit you?” “How does that fit?” The social aspect of rock and roll was, I believe, the key ingredient. When you take that away, you don’t have that anymore. You have something, but it isn’t the energy around rock and roll. Rock and roll is just made of energy.

 

Me: Yeah. It’s part of this wonderful passing on and being able to watch the person experience it that makes music powerful.

 

James: Exactly.

 

Me: I was talking to my uncle on Facebook yesterday, speaking of the computer, and I was saying that I was going to be interviewing you, and he made me promise to ask you a question that is pretty funny, because he’s kind of a humorous guy, as is my whole wonderful family: “Do you hate Billy Idol?” (laughing)

 

James: (laughing) No! No!  How can you hate somebody who made one of your songs number 1?

 

Me: (laughing) I know. I thought it was pretty funny. He also wanted to know if you hate Tiffany, as well.

 

James: No!  You know something that’s interesting, that was the first time, when Billy did “Mony Mony” and Tiffany did “I Think We’re Alone Now” and neither knew the other was going to do a cover of my song, I watched those two songs go up the charts like they were holding hands. They both went to number 1 a week after. “Mony Mony” goes number 1 first and Tiffany was at number 2, and then they switched positions the next week. It’s absolutely insane to watch that. That had never happened before.

 

Me: That was actually my first introduction to your music as I was right about the right age, 7th or 8th grade, when those came out, and those were staples of our school dances for years.

 

James: (laughing) Yes!

 

Me: They probably still are, actually.

 

James: Billy did a good job and kept the hard edges on the song. That’s probably how we would have done it 20 years later. Tiffany put the little synthesizer thing in there. That’s probably the way we would have done the song now, honestly.

 

Me: It gives a whole new life to the songs in a lot of ways.

 

James: Sure. Listen, the whole catalogue has stayed in front of people all of these years. I’m very happy about it. We tour every year and we have a movie…

 

Me: I was going to ask you about that as well as the Sony/ATV deal.

 

James: What it boils down to is that our entire catalogue will now be handled by Sony, for movies, television, commercials, and lots of other uses. They will administer our publishing which means essentially they will be collecting our royalties from around the world and they will be doing all of the paperwork and handling the licensing for movies and television and so forth. It’s really important to ownership of the songs. Ownership of the songs is publishing. An artist can write a song but that doesn’t mean they own it.

 

Me: I’ve found it fascinating over the years that if somebody writes a song, you automatically assume that they would have that song. 

 

James: Right. Not necessarily so. We’ve been very lucky because Sony already handles all of the older Roulette stuff, so now all of our music for the last 50 years is going to be under one roof.

 

Me: They also administer many of The Beatles’ song rights, too.

 

James: Yes.  They’re the biggest publishing company in the world now. Sony just bought EMI, and they bought BMG two years earlier. They already owned CBS Records, Columbia Records, so they have become the largest music entity on the planet. We’re real happy to be with them because it means our catalogue is going to be well represented.

 

Me: That’s good. There are a lot of songs that you’ve written that would be great to have some new life breathed into them.

 

James: Thank you. Absolutely.  We also are doing a Youtube channel. Youtube came to us just before Christmas and asked if we would put together a Youtube channel. I said, “Of course. What’s that?” (laughing)  They said we’re going to certain artists who have a lot of material and deep catalogues, and who have a lot of stuff on Youtube. We have over 200 videos up there right now. They asked if we’d put not only our old stuff on a channel, but they bring in advertisers, like having a mini TV show, and every two to three weeks we’ll be putting up new videos. They want us to make new music, so we’re going to be making new records. Youtube has become so powerful now. It’s your record company, it’s your radio station, it’s everything now. That started February 10th.  Man, what we’re really excited about this year is my book, Me, The Mob, and The Music, is going to be a movie.  Essentially, it’s an autobiography with 2/3 of the book devoted to our really crazy and tumultuous and scary relationship with Roulette Records. The reason is that Roulette Records, in addition to being an independent label, and a pretty good one, was also a front for the Genovese crime family in New York, and we could never talk about it. It created some very interesting situations, to say the least! (laughing)  The story is basically making it in the record business with this really dark and sinister story happening behind us that we couldn’t discuss.

 

Me: That’s going to be one hell of a movie.

 

James: Well, thank you. We were just very lucky to make it out of there in one piece. We became their biggest artist which was both good and bad, if you know what I mean.

 

Me: I can only imagine.

 

James: Barbara De Fina is going to produce the movie. She produced Good Fellas, Casino, and Hugo two years ago with Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Color of Money, Cape Fear, a whole slew of great movies.

 

Me: This is going to be big time, then.

 

James: She’s dynamite. We just got our screenplay writer now, and financing. It’s going to be distributed by Universal and so we’re very thrilled with what’s going on. It’s going to be a big deal for us. We’re looking at about a year and a half to two years before it’s finished.

 

Me: Do you have any actors in mind to play you?

 

James: You know, I get asked that all the time. I’m the worst one to ask. Really. I’m way too close to it, I have no idea. I’d say Walter Brennan can play me. No, I don’t know. The only requirement is going to be that they have to play the guitar as badly as I do to make it really authentic.

 

Me: (laughing) These are three really major things happening for you, which are all exciting, I imagine.

 

James: It’s a great moment. Of course we’re touring every year on top of that. We started on February 14th in Chicago. I’m just so thankful and blessed to be doing it this long. This is a business that maybe gives you two or three years, if you’re lucky, and we’ve been doing it almost 50. [Speaking of that] can I tell you a Beatles story?

 

Me: Umm…yes! Always! (laughing)

 

James: There were two instances. “Mony Mony,” after it was a hit here, was a big hit in England. It went to number 1 and was one of the biggest songs of the decade over there. When The Beatles first started Apple, it was going to be a publishing company before it was a record company. Their original idea was they were going to write songs for other artists they liked and who were having hits at the time. George was producing a group called Grapefruit at the time, and George and the members of Grapefruit wrote me about eight or ten songs. They got them over here to me. I was on the road at the time and when I come back, here were all of these great songs by George Harrison, and I was just flattered and honored. I couldn’t believe it. The problem was they all sounded like “Mony Mony.” They were all the same basic formula as “Mony Mony” and we were on to Crimson and Clover by that time.

 

Me: (laughing)

 

James: I never really did any of the songs, but I never had a chance to really properly thank him for writing me those songs. Of course, now I can’t. I always appreciated the fact that George wrote me those songs. It was always something I bragged about.  The other story was the night I had a great conversation with John Lennon. This was 1971 and we were both getting awards at the BMI dinner. I was getting it for “Draggin’ The Line” and he was getting it for “Imagine.” We were almost back to back. They had big, round banquet tables. He and Yoko were at one table and I was at the other, back to back, and we turned around and had the most wonderful conversation. I’ll never forget that. John was always my favorite Beatle and so it was really great to be able to talk with him like that. We were fans of each other. It was really a nice moment.

 

Me: What did you guys talk about?

 

James: Just the craziness of the record business, radio, stuff we had in common. How much we hated BMI dinners. (laughing)  Stuff like that. It was just small talk, but it was really wonderful to talk with him.

 

Me: I can only imagine, no pun intended!  In terms of people who you’ve worked with, who you really had a good rapport with for whatever reason, can you think of any folks you’ve worked with who stand out for you?

 

James: Oh sure.  Of course we wound up playing with just about everybody in the 60’s. I recorded in just about every decade. In the 70’s I was on the West Coast and I finally broke away from Roulette Records. I signed with Fantasy Records on the West Coast and one of the albums I did was the Midnight Rider album (1977) which I had Michael McDonald on, Al Stahaely from Spirit, Timmy Schmitt from The Eagles, just a whole lot of people who were really happening right at the moment in the 70’s. I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of people. Luther Vandross sang background for me, I produced Patti Austin for Columbia Records…a whole slew of people. The most fun times I had was in 1971. I recorded an album in Nashville, so all of the Nashville pickers came and played, and D.J. Fontana and Scotty Moore from Elvis’ old crew played on my record. Scotty was also the engineer, and he had a studio called Music City Records and we recorded there. I’ve been so lucky over the years to work with just about everybody.

 

Me: To go from somebody who was influenced and inspired by Elvis, to come full circle in a lot of ways and work with his old crew…

 

James: Sure!  I told them about my Elvis story, how he influenced me and was really the reason I got into rock and roll.

 

 

Me: The last question is if there’s any kind of parting shots or anything you want to say to your fans.

 

James: How much I appreciate them. Honestly, I really feel that between the good Lord and the fans, those are the two reasons for the longevity we’ve had. I appreciate the fans so much and I hope I get a chance to meet some of them.

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~ by Jennifer Dodge on March 4, 2014.

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