Artists: Tommy James

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GONZO WEEKLY #159: Jon meets Tommy James

Regular readers of my inky fingered scribblings will be aware that I spent my boyhood in what was then the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. My parents were ridiculously, even by the standards of the dog days of the British Empire and, for some reason they seemed to think that if either of their sons listened to pop music that they would end up living a life filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and in all probability by the time they were in their late 50’s would be edited some dodgy weekly music magazine. Now, I wonder where they got that idea.

So pop music was banned in the Downes household, and – to be quite honest – it didn’t really impact on my childhood at all. While in the rest of the world the Sixties were Swinging, in my little colonial backwater the 1930’s had never really ended. The Governor went to church each Sunday wearing a uniform that hadn’t changed since Kipling’s day, complete with a hat sprouting a magnificent crest of ostrich plumes, and further more he did so being driven in a magnificent open-topped Roles Royce. And every mid day the canon near the harbour would be fired, just as Noel Coward said that it would.

But despite all of this, a few tincey wincey snippets of pop culture did sneak through the Beatles passed me by completely; I was only five years old when they played in Hong Kong but I remember several girls in my class coming to school weeping when they heard on the radio that Paul McCartney had died. That fact that it was a hoax didn’t really make much of a difference, and probably tells us more about the calibre of radio news in Hong Kong in 1969, and then it does anything else.

But I still remember the first pop song I ever heard and liked. It was in 1968 and it was called ‘Mony Mony’, and it was sung by a group called Tommy James and the Shondells. There was something gloriously visceral about it, and what was even more satisfying was the apoplectic loathing that it induced in my father.

I never dreamed that nearly 50 years later I would be in the position of interviewing the man himself.

For those of you who don’t know, Tommy James has a long and stellar career as a rock and roller From taking music by storm with his debut hit ‘Hanky Panky’ in 1966 to headlining the PBS Special "Rock & Roll Salutes America" in 2002, Tommy James has been a constant presence on the pop music scene. Between 1966 and 1969 Tommy James & The Shondells racked up 14 Top 40 hits. Two of them – ‘Mony, Mony’ and ‘I Think We're Alone Now’ - are in the Top 20 most-played songs on oldies radio today; more than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, or any other hitmaking artist of the past 50 years. Throughout the 1980s Tommy James songs were ever-present on both oldies stations - his original recordings - as well as those playing the hits of the day - in new versions by artists such as Joan Jett, Billy Idol, and Tiffany. In the 1990s movie and TV directors discovered Tommy's tunes with a vengeance and they have been featured in countless soundtracks including Forrest Gump, Austin Powers, Apollo 11, Pirate Radio, High Fidelity, Heaven and Earth, CSI Miami, Men of a Certain Age, Crossing Jordand and Boston Legal. Today Tommy James is busier than ever - playing to SRO crowds in arenas and concert venues across America and working on the upcoming Broadway show and Hollywood movie versions of his life story.

I always enjoy talking to Tommy; he is an amenable and entertaining raconteur. His book which not only tells the story of his career but explains in some depth how his record company and management – in the person of Morris Levy were inextricable linked to the Mafia. I am an abed reader of rock and roll biography’s but have seldom found one that reads so much like a crime thriller. Before reading the book my only knowledge of Levy was how he had sewed John Lennon for plagiarism of a song by Chuck Berry and, and subsequently bootlegged some of the recordings for what would eventually become Lennon’s ‘Rock & Roll’ album, released in 1975. It is, I believe, testament to Tommy’s story telling skills that the book is so entertaining.

Last year I wrote:

“…it wasn't until I read the book and found out what a fascinating career this man has had, that I sat down with my trusty Spotify account and found out what a slew of great music I have been missing out on for all these years. I am particularly impressed by the music that the man usually considered as the "father of bubblegum music" made when he was allowed to let his hair down and play games with form and style. Why these more psychedelic outings aren't spoken of more often I have no idea. But leaving the music aside, it’s the socio-political background to this book that I find most fascinating. I had no idea, for example, that Tommy James had been such an important figure in the 1968 elections. Hubert Humphrey had been unsuccessful in his two bids for the Presidency in the 1950s, he was Vice-President under President Johnson, and when – in 1968 – Johnson made his surprise announcement that he was withdrawing from the re-election campaign, Humphrey took his place. According to James’ book he was planning to end the Vietnam War had he been elected, but as the other two Democratic candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy were campaigning on an anti-war ticket he decided not to make this part of his campaign until after he had won. As we all know, this never happened. Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and the arch-hawk Richard Nixon not only became president, but condemned the United States to another seven years of a pointless, unpopular, and quite possibly illegal war in southeast Asia. Tommy James and the Shondells played a whole slew of campaigning concerts alongside Hubert Humphrey, and the two men remained friends with Humphrey quite possibly attaining a unique position in the annals of rock and roll by being the first , and quite possibly the only, senior politician to write the liner notes for a rock and roll album. When one discovers the extent of Tommy James’ involvement in the politics of the time in what were – arguably – some of the most tumultuous years in American history, then the dramatic changes in his style, from bubblegum to proggy-psychedelic make perfect sense. Usually when artists change stylistic horses quite so dramatically in mid-stream then the resulting work is less convincing as they move further away from their roots. However, Tommy Jones is a member of an elite club which also includes The Beatles, of artists who have maintained their professional integrity through radically different stylistic and socio-political eras.”

I had been looking forward to speaking to him again, and I was not disappointed!

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Music legend Tommy James has 23 gold singles, 9 platinum albums, and over 100 million records sold worldwide. Over 300 artists, including everyone from Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. to Kelly Clarkson and Broken Bells, have covered his songs! Hold the Fire, his first new studio album in 10 years, features three Top 5 A/C hits: “Hold The Fire,” “Love Words,” and “It Keeps On Goin’.” 

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Music legend Tommy James has 23 gold singles, 9 platinum albums, and over 100 million records sold worldwide. Over 300 artists, including everyone from Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. to Kelly Clarkson and Broken Bells, have covered his songs! Hold the Fire, his first new studio album in 10 years, features three Top 5 A/C hits: 'Hold The Fire,' 'Love Words,' and 'It Keeps On Goin' '.

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