Tommy James shares his stories of mobsters and drugs

“The first two singles, ‘Hanky Panky’ and ‘Say I Am,’ sold over two million,” James remembers. “Then I met producers Bo [Gentry] and Richie [Cordell], and we started down a new [pop] path with ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’ That was the song where we sort of declared our musical independence. Roulette never really knew what to do with us musically. They were caught in the ’50s and early ’60s. Creatively, they had no clue. We ended up taking control of our whole career, everything from writing to performing, producing, designing album covers, doing marketing, promotion and assembling a team. There’s no way we could have had that kind of education anywhere else. That string of singles—which included ‘Mirage,’ ‘I Like The Way’ and ‘Gettin’ Together’ — ended with ‘Mony Mony.’ Then history hit us square in the face, a perfect storm of incidents that started, actually, with politics.

Tommy with Morris and 1969 Gold Record. Photo courtesy Tommy James

“We had performed in Manhattan’s Union Square at a Bobby Kennedy rally, early in his presidential bid,” James said. “I believed in RFK with all my heart. That was back in a time when we all thought a politician could really change things. As a result, we were put on a list of groups available for other rallies. Our demographics were good. They liked us. We were then asked to perform in Los Angeles with RFK on the night he was killed. We had to turn it down because we were booked at The World Teen Fair in, of all places, Dallas, Texas. I even got one of the female reporters that very day to take me to Dealey Plaza where the President was shot. It felt so creepy to walk around there but I had to do it. When I got back to my hotel, I turned on the television and heard the news of the shooting in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel. I was devastated. I went into a personal funk for about two or three weeks. I can’t begin to tell you. I was just beside myself.

“Then we get a call from Hubert Humphrey asking us to go out on the campaign trail, and we immediately said yes. We were to meet him in Wheeling, W.V., after the Democratic Convention. We watched all those kids get beat up by Chicago police at the convention that year and thought, ‘Oh my God, what have we got ourselves into? Is every rally from now on going to be like this?’ We met him the next week, and he couldn’t have been nicer. We ended up doing the whole campaign and becoming great friends. He asked me to become presidential adviser on youth affairs if he won. He wrote the liner notes for the “Crimson & Clover” album. It was the first time that a rock act and a major politician hooked up.

“I even slipped him a Black Beauty. Oh man, you do not want to know Hubert Humphrey on speed!” James said. “I could’ve been arrested. I always felt bad about that. He would always call us into his suite after each rally for a big pow-wow. His doctor would be there. People would come from D.C. to visit. He was proud of us and he liked to show us off. One night he was complaining of being so tired. ‘I’m downright drowsy,’ he complained to me when we were alone, ‘and I have to stay up late writing.’ I told him I had what I called some ‘stay-awake’ pills in my pocket. ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘do you think a thing like that would work?’ I said, ‘I think it would, Mr. Vice President. I take it when I have to stay up late composing.’ Red lights should have gone off all over the place, but he took it from me and he told me a couple of days later, ‘That darn thing kept me up all night.’ I’ve really never told that story, but with an autobiography out, I guess you’ve got to tell on yourself.

FROM POLITICIANS, including Hubert H. Humprhey (above), with whom James spent time on the campaign trail, to alleged mobsters, Tommy James has known his share of colorful people throughout his music career. Humphrey even wrote liner notes for “Crimson and Clover.” Photo courtesy Tommy James

“When we left on the campaign trail in August, it was all singles acts. It was us, The Rascals, The Association, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, The Buckinghams. When I got back, 90 days later, it’s all albums. It was Led Zeppelin, Blood Sweat & Tears, Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Joe Cocker. In 90 days, the world turned upside down! We knew that if we were going to continue in this business, we were going to have to sell albums, not singles. And that was something that Roulette had never done. We knew we had our work cut out for us. And thank God we were working on a little record called “Crimson & Clover” at that moment-in-time. That one song allowed us to make the jump from AM Top 40 singles radio to FM progressive album-oriented rock. No other song that we ever worked on would have done that for us in one shot. It became our biggest-selling single and also permitted us to enjoy the second half of our career. And, if you think about it, there was a mass extinction of singles acts at that time, acts that just didn’t make any more records. A lot of them were our friends and contemporaries. In addition, we jumped from four-track to 24-track in the studio in about eight months time. And FM radio was, for the first time since its inception, playing rock ’n’ roll music. That’s the perfect storm of history that allowed us to mature.”

“Crimson & Clover” came out in 1969. Later that year, the first moog synthesizer in rock ’n’ roll was heard on “Cellophane Symphony” by Tommy James & The Shondells.

“We did it in a New York studio on 54th Street called Broadway Sound owned by Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford,” he remembers. “It looked like a gigantic old switchboard telephone machine from the 1920s. Again, Roulette let us do our thing with no interference. In fact, the only time they ever gave us a problem was with ‘Mony Mony.’ Morris wanted to put out ‘One Two Three And I Fell,’ which ended up being the flip side. ‘Mony Mony’ was a party-rock throwback to the early ’60s, and Morris just wasn’t sure we should do a record like that. He thought we wouldn’t be taken seriously!

“That’s when I threw my only temper tantrum in his office, screaming ‘How much more not-serious can you be with the bubble gum sh*t we’ve been doing?’ And I got my way.”

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About Patrick Prince

Patrick Prince is the Editor of Goldmine

One thought on “Tommy James shares his stories of mobsters and drugs

  1. False! In this article, it states that “later that year, the first moog synthesizer in rock ’n’ roll was heard on “Cellophane Symphony” by Tommy James & the Shondells”…..back that bus up! The first rock recording of a moog synthesizer was done 2 years earlier, in November of 1967, on the Monkees’ “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.” album. Listen to the tracks “Daily Nightly” and “Star Collector”, which were both recorded and released almost 2 years before “Cellophane Symphony”. I like Tommy James as much as the next guy, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

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