Tommy James Finally Getting His Due

26 Mar

As a kid, I was always a big Tommy James fan. Even then I didn’t quite understand why James didn’t receive the same level of recognition that his musical peers were enjoying. His body of work is undeniably impressive. Hanky Panky, Crystal Blue Persuasion, Mony Mony, I Think We’re Alone Now, Mirage, Crimson and Clover — must I continue?

Thankfully, Collector’s Choice has re-issued many of Tommy’s recordings in a sweeping retrospective. The music captured here documents James versatility … running the gamut from bubblegum to country rock. My personal favorite of these original Roulette LPs is “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which includes the great title hit, “Mirage,” and “Baby, Baby I Can’t Take It No More.” Yes, there is some of the typical filler found here, but the gems still shimmer and there are surprises galore to be discovered anew.   

If you’re a fan of classic 60’s radio hits, bubblegum, and “sunshine pop,” it’s time to dig just a little bit deeper to fully appreciate the immense musical talents of the influential Tommy James.

LOS ANGELES, Calif.Goldmine magazine called Tommy James “the most productive rock ’n’ roll singles artist of his era” in its review of the critically hailed 40 Years: The Complete Singles Collection (1966-2006) 2-CD set, released in 2008 by Collectors’ Choice Music. Mojo added, “James should be ranked among the most undervalued workmen in the American rock quarry.” Add to the fact that James has just released his autobiography with a title that tells it all — Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells (which Rolling Stone gave 3 ½ out of four stars)— and it’s evident the time is ideal to reflect on a career filled with what the Austin Chronicle called “definitive U.S. pop.”

On April 20, 2010, Collectors’ Choice Music, which released the 40 Years retrospective, will begin to reissue the individual Roulette Records albums by Tommy James & the Shondells and Tommy James solo. The first batch contains I Think We’re Alone Now, Gettin’ Together and Travelin’ by the band, and James’ own My Head, My Bed and My Red Guitar from 1972, recorded in Nashville with many of the city’s notable players.

Ed Osborne once again annotated the reissues, featuring extensive interview material from the Niles, Michigan native who is very candid about working with Roulette owner and convicted mobster Morris Levy. The band had a remarkable run on the charts with singles like “Hanky Panky,” “Say I Am (What I Am),” “It’s Only Love,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage,” “I Like the Way,” “Gettin’ Together,” “Out of the Blue,” “Get Out Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Somebody Cares,” “Do Something to Me,” “Crimson & Clover,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Ball of Fire,” “She” and “Gotta Get Back to You” among others.

Tommy James & the ShondellsI Think We’re Alone Now: This 1967 album marked the group’s move from a singles band to a more album-oriented outfit, with new producers (Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry), a new arranger (Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner, who’s worked with artists ranging from Barbra Streisand to Iggy Pop) and a new studio (New York’s Allegro Sound). Unlike its predecessors — Hanky Panky and It’s Only Love, which consisted of the smash hits plus songs culled from Morris Levy’s publishing catalogs — this album benefitted from better song selection and the better technology of Allegro Sound. The centerpiece was the single “I Think We’re Alone Now,” brought to James as a ballad by Cordell and Gentry, but converted to a mid-tempo rocker by James and Wisner utilizing an “eighth note pegging” technique. Recorded on Christmas Eve 1966, it was on the radio by January. The hit was followed up by “Mirage,” with cellos intermingling with guitars, and “I Like the Way,” punctuated with a horn riff. Also included on this release are covers of the Rivieras’ “California Sun” and the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”

Tommy James & the ShondellsGettin’ Together: This album, released in later 1967, cemented the creative process that began on I Think We’re Alone Now. The title track had been earmarked for Gene Pitney to record, but James heard it, knew it was a hit, and “pitched a fit” to Morris Levy, who eventually granted permission for James to record it. Cordell and Gentry sped up the vocal track and the song raced up the charts. Although utilizing the same producers and studio, the album was a progression over its predecessor. “I Want to Be Around You,” “So Deep with You,” “Real Girl” and “World Down on Your Knees” are examples of late ’60s “sunshine pop,” comparable to the Mamas & Papas, the 5th Dimension or the Association. Cordell and Gentry remain the key song sources, but by now the band would write as a band. Today, James counts Gettin’ Together as one of his favorite albums: “What really made me happy with the guys in the studio is that they were like actors in a play . . . Everybody had a great sense of proportion . . . [and] everybody would contribute something. I still enjoy listening to it today.”

The new James book (seen above) is getting good reviews

Tommy James & the ShondellsTravelin’: Travelin’ followed the Shondells’ 1969 releases Crimson & Clover and Cellophane Symphony. It was created entirely by the band, from songwriting to playing to producing and arranging. The final album under the Tommy James & the Shondells name, this 1970 release is also considered by many fans to be their best. It’s their edgiest effort, recorded with very few technical effects (“gritty and grainy, just like dust in your mouth and sand in your boots,” says James). The grit theme was even carried over into the artwork in which renowned American West painter Ron lesser, a protégé of Norman Rockwell, painted a portrait of the guys in a stagecoach being chased by Morris Levy. Apart from the Shondells, James’ main writing partner was Michigan confrere Bob King. From this association came highlights “Gotta Get back,” “Moses & Me,” “Red Rover” and “Talkin’ & Signifyin’.” James says, “If we had stayed together as a group, it would have been very, very interesting [to hear] the music we would have come up with.”

Tommy James — My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar: James’ second solo album was a total departure from his earlier work. Recorded in Nashville, it featured the Music City’s “A team.” By this time, the Byrds and Bob Dylan had embraced country music. But for someone with a pop track record, recording the Nashville way was an uncommonly bold move. Produced by James with Bob King and Pete Drake, musicians included Scotty Moore (also the engineer) and D.J. Fontana from Elvis Presley’s band, Drake on pedal steel, King on bass, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on keyboards, Buddy Spicher on fiddle and Charlie McCoy on harmonica. “I was real keen on the idea of putting myself in different situations [where] I’ve got to sink or swim,” says James. “These players were unbelievable . . . I was impressed by their musical ability and lack of ego.” Interestingly, Rolling Stone finally acknowledged James’ work with this album. “[They] gave us the best write-up I ever had on any project,” he says. During the session, Scotty Moore received a phone call from Presley, who said he’d drive to Nashville to take James and Moore out for steak. The visit never materialized. But James did end up with a credible country debut.

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