Constant hit covers keep this band's music relevant
(No. 32 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
There have been many great recordings in the history of Rock & Roll. But to me, the greatest of all is the album cut of “Crimson & Clover” by Tommy James & the Shondells.
In 5:33, James threw just about everything recording equipment had come up with by that time into one glorious mix. Some effects happened on purpose, some by chance. The result was a No. 1 record around the world and one I can listen to “over and over.”
What does “Crimson & Clover” mean? I don’t have a clue. Supposedly, crimson was James’ favorite color and the clover was his favorite flower. So he decided to write a song using that combination.
Luckily, his favorite color wasn’t chartreuse and his favorite plant cactus. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
But “Crimson & Clover” alone would not be enough to get Tommy James & The Shondells into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The group has plenty of other credentials to support its warranted induction. In fact, few groups from the 1960s have seen their material resurrected so often and with such success as have James & company. How many groups have almost identical copies of their hits knock each other from the No. 1 position 20 years after their initial impact?
That happened in 1987, when Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” was toppled from the top spot by Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony.” Neither hit No. 1 for the Shondells, “I Think We’re Alone Now” stopping at No. 4, while the latter peaked at No. 3. However, “Mony Mony” became the group’s lone smash in the United Kingdom, topping the charts there.
“Crimson & Clover,” written by James and Shondells drummer Peter Lucia Jr., has been covered by many, the most famous being 1982’s reworking by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, which climbed to No. 7 in the states.
At the time of its release - 1968 - the music business clearly was shifting from singles to albums, and it was common for a group to shorten an album cut to a truncated single version for radio play. “Crimson & Clover” was the opposite. James had taken a rough mix with him to a Chicago radio station interview and this version was recorded and played by the station, becoming so popular James’ label, Roulette, had to rush release it as it stood. When it came time to record the album, James wanted it longer, so some additional parts were spliced into the single.
The finished cut featured tremolo on James’ vocal and guitar, giving the background vocals a shimmering effect. Three different effects on an elongated guitar solo by Shondells’ guitarist Ed Gray, resulted in steel guitars changing to wah wah then to fuzz. When the splice was done, a slight change in speed resulted, inadvertently creating yet another neat effect, a change in tone. When the album was re-released by Rhino this quirk unfortunately was “corrected.”
While the group was working on “Crimson & Clover,” Roulette released “Do Something To Me,” a driving rocker similar to “Mony Mony” as a single. It turned out to be the only cut not written by band members on the very underrated “Crimson & Clover” album. The third single from the LP, “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” reached No. 2. It sat there for three weeks as “In The Year 2525” by Zager & Evans refused to relinquish the top spot. And “Sugar On Sunday” was another Shondells’ cover that wound up a hit, the Clique taking it to No. 22 in 1969. Even earlier this year, the album was producing hits, “I’m Alive” reaching the Netherlands Top 20 for Don Fardon. Yes, the same Don Fardon who, in 1968, did “Indian Reservation,” which later hit No. 1 for the Raiders.
Strangely, between “Crimson & Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,’ “Sweet Cherry Wine” was released as a 45, climbing to No. 7. It appeared on the group’s next LP, “Cellophane Symphony,” a distinctively non-commercial outing that saw James experimenting heavily with a primitive Moog.
The progressive output was so well accepted that Tommy James & The Shondells were invited to play at Woodstock, an invitation they rejected.
James claimed he was in Hawaii when he got the message that they could take an appearance at a pig farm in upstate New York, to which he reportedly replied, "If I'm not there, start without me."
Tommy James & the Shondells had other hits, the first being the No. 1 “Hanky Panky,” which was recorded with an entirely different backing group when James was just a kid. “Mirage,” the follow-up to “I Think We’re Alone Now” reached No. 10, and “Getting’ Together,” two singles later, and “Ball Of Fire,” following “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” both reached the top 20.
The group never broke up, just retired. James continued as a solo artist, but his first real success on his own occurred in 1970 when he co-wrote and produced “Tighter, Tighter” for Alive And Kicking. It was a massive hit, topping off at No. 7. The next year, James had his biggest solo success with “Draggin’ The Line,” a No. 4 single. He didn’t reach those heights again, but a constant stream of recordings and concerts resulted in a steady chart presence and a No. 19 hit, “Three Times In Love,” in 1980.
In 2009, James, with the surviving Shondells, Gray, organist Ronnie Rosman and bassist Mike Vale, reunited to record soundtrack material for a possible film on James’ biography, “Me, The Mob and the Music.” The book, published last year, thanked Morris Levy and Roulette Records for giving James complete artistic freedom in the studio, but also mentioned that the group never made any money from their records!
You have to be pretty talented to overcome a start the likes of which Tommy James & the Shondells had. Even though “Hanky Panky” was written and originally recorded by Hall of Famers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, it had one-hit-wonder written all over it. It’s a long trip from “Hanky Panky” to “Crimson & Clover,” but they made it…and beyond.
Will they make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? If they do, it won’t be for a long while unless the Hall of Fame changes its induction process. There are many yet to be inducted that should get in first, and a lot of questionable inductees plus an unnecessarily limited group of yearly entries probably will keep Tommy James & the Shondells on a waiting list of “shouldabeens.“ But passing years have confirmed that the music Tommy James & the Shondells made back in the 60s has stood the test of time and remains relevant today, a lot more relevant and popular than many already feted.
Writing in the allmusicguide.com site, Bruce Eder notes,
"Tommy James was no Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison, to be sure, and his songwriting -- which was usually not solo, in any case -- lacked the downbeat, serious tone or the little mystical touches of John Fogerty. He's usually put more comfortably in the company of such figures as Paul Revere & the Raiders‘ Mark Lindsay, or with Johnny Rivers or Tommy Roe in the middle or early part of the '60s. But from 1968 through 1970, when artists like Jagger, Fogerty and Morrison were in their heyday, Tommy James & the Shondells sold more singles than any other pop act in the world, many of them written, co-written, or at least chosen by James. The mere fact that he released a concert DVD in the fall of 2000 is loud testament to the power and impact of his work four decades into his career.
“The group was almost as much of a Top 40 radio institution of the time as Creedence Clearwater Revival, but because they weren't completely self-contained (they wrote some, but not all, of their own hits) and were more rooted in pop/rock than basic rock & roll, it took decades for writers and pop historians to look with favor upon Tommy James & the Shondells.”