By Mike Greenblatt
Tommy James. You don’t have to say much more about his cemented place in rock ’n’ roll history than the names of his hits: “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” Hanky Panky,” Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Draggin’ The Line,” and so many more.
He’s alive, he’s kickin’, he’s active, he’s recording, performing, writing and planning a host of upcoming projects. We caught up with him on the phone from his New Jersey home.
Goldmine: It looks like 2014 is going to be a good year for Tommy James. I know you ended 2013 with a rare acoustic radio performance, your first in decades, for Sirius/XM Satellite Radio.
Tommy James: It was a lot of fun. I felt very comfortable although it was quite a different kind of a thing for me. We did acoustic versions of six hits. I want to release one of them, the acoustic version of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” as a 2014 single. I brought in the three surviving members of the original Shondells—Mike Vale, Ronnie Rossman and Eddie Gray (plus Jimmy Wisner)—and the new version is so different from the original.
Goldmine: The burning question is who’s going to play Tommy James in the Hollywood movie of your great autobiography. Me, The Mob And The Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells.
TJ: [laughs] We don’t know yet but “I Think We’re Alone Now” is going to play over the closing credits at movie’s end. That’s our plan right now. Of course, the whole premise is that the last scene of the movie will be when Morris [Levy of Roulette Records] passes away. It gives “I Think We’re Alone Now” a very different meaning…even though it will contain the exact same lyrics of the song.
Goldmine: I love the scene in the book where you give presidential hopeful Hubert Humphrey an upper.
TJ: It’s going into another printing, its eighth.
Goldmine: Who’s producing the movie?
TJ: Barbara De Fina. She’s produced Goodfellas, Casino, Cape Fear and The Color Of Money, among other films.
Goldmine: Wow, a real A-Lister.
TJ: We’re very flattered she’s going to do our story. I think Walter Brennan is going to play me.
Goldmine: He’s been dead for 39 years. How ‘bout Al Pacino? If he played Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector, he could play you. I also wanted to ask you about this new youtube channel of yours.
TJ: The youtube people came to me a few weeks ago and asked if I would be interested in doing a Tommy James channel for them. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I mean, I know we have several hundred clips on there right now but they explained to me that they’ll put all that content in one place, and then we would add to it every couple of weeks: new videos, new in-the-studio and at-home spots, maybe some behind-the-scenes stuff explaining the roots of the music. It’s called “Tommy James: Inside Tracks.” We’re going to tell a lot of stories about the music business and we’re going to be able to actually record new songs. New music. It’s like a left-handed TV show. They’re supposed to come to us with sponsors and everything, and people will be able to access it for free, of course. They don’t have to subscribe to anything. The advertisers will have their banners and…
Goldmine: everybody’s happy.
TJ: Right. Y’know, the amazing thing is that Youtube, globally, is now like a record label, a radio station and an MTV combined. This is the new music business. I mean, when you think about it, the switchover to digital has been so all-encompassing. The switch, firstly, from physical product to the Internet has been a slow but amazing process. Now, finally, the dust is starting to settle. There was such a massive misunderstanding over the Internet’s capabilities when it came to the music industry. Now, the rules are starting to get made and we’re starting to see a true digital takeover. Still, in the face of all this, we just released a piece of vinyl!
Goldmine: That’s not so retro anymore. Vinyl is practically a growth industry these days.
TJ: And they ain’t using them for Frisbees either! We have our Aura Records label, for which we have an international distribution deal through Allegro out on the West Coast. And we recently released our Christmas album on vinyl for the first time, I Love Christmas. We’re also releasing all of my product and some other people’s product before too long. It’s a boutique label. We already released the show from The Bitter End on DVD and CD as well as our last studio album, Hold The Fire, from 2006, that contained three charting records in the Adult Contemporary format. Two were Top 5 and one, “Love Words,” went #1. So two years ago we released I Love Christmas on CD and now, since Christmas albums can come back every year, we wanted to release it on vinyl as well. I’m a vinyl nut. I love vinyl. It’s such a different listening experience from a CD that just disappears in a drawer. With vinyl you gently take the record-in-a-sleeve out of the jacket and then you gently take the record out of the sleeve…
Goldmine: and you even more gently put that needle on that record while looking at the beautiful artwork or while you read the liner notes.
TJ: And then you still only hear half the album! So you’re physically involved in turning it over and placing that needle on the record a second time. Plus, the sound that comes off a vinyl disc is so alive. You hear the “s’”s and the “t”’s and watch the label spin, it’s mesmerizing…like an added flavor. When that needle hits, you can hear it becoming alive. We’re getting a great response to the vinyl release, so much so we may now release limited vinyl editions on all the other pieces. GM