As his 1971 hit, “Draggin’ the Line,” goes, Tommy James made his ‘livin’ the old hard way’ through relentless touring and studio sessions that afforded him little time to sit around basking in his success. His label wanted hits and wanted them yesterday, which, amazingly, he was able to deliver in rapid fire succession from 1966 until 1974 when he finally got out from under The Mob’s control.
While his run on Roulette Records remains as impressive as any other artist from the era, the material that followed is also inspired despite not being as celebrated by the mainstream in 2021. For example, 2019’s “Alive” found his voice in peak form and listening to it should eliminate any question as to whether or not the 74-year-old version coming to Batavia Downs on July 19 is the real deal.
I spoke with James this week to discuss his history and what fans can expect when they come out to the show. At a time when social media has conditioned everyone to believe that their life story deserves the Hollywood treatment, in his case, that’s actually true.
MNOD: You’ve been on the road for most of your life, so what was the pandemic like for you?
TJ: It was tough. We haven’t played in a year and a half, so the show in Batavia will be our first show back and we’re really excited.
MNOD: How did the current lineup of your band come together?
TJ: The current band is made up of guys that have been playing with me for a couple of decades. This thing has been a long time coming, because I’ve been at it for 56 years. It all started in 1966 in Niles, Michigan and I’ve had a very long run. I have to thank the good Lord and the fans for the longevity, because the music has never gone away. I look out at concert crowds now and see three generations of people, which is really amazing to me. The hits are still appreciated and younger people are becoming familiar with them, as well.
MNOD: I read your book last night and you wrote a lot about how working in a record store was an integral part of your musical journey. Describe the significance of that, because that’s not something that young people today can appreciate.
TJ: I learned so much from working there when I was in high school. It was a hell of an education. I learned about the retail side, the labels, and how to work with distributors. I also promoted my band out of the store, which was important. When I recorded ‘Hanky Panky,’ I actually had two offers from little labels before I even graduated from high school. The second was when I was 16-years-old. There was a DJ named Jack Douglas at WNIL in Niles who started Snap Records and he agreed to release the single. It did OK locally, but nothing too serious. I graduated in 1965 and I remember playing a dumpy little club in in the Midwest that ended up getting shut down by the IRS for not paying taxes, so we couldn’t play there anymore. ‘Hanky Panky’ was essentially forgotten about until the Spring of 1966 when I got a call saying that it had gone to Number One in Pittsburgh. People had bootlegged the song and it sold 80,000 copies in 10 days. I had calls from other labels, but then I wound up with Roulette Records. I found out that Morris Levy, who ran Roulette, called all of the other labels and scared them to death. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic passed, as well. He told them to back down and I was his artist. I found out later on that Roulette was actually a front for the Genovese crime family and Levy was heavily connected. I finally left Roulette in 1974 and made some records for Fantasy and Millennium. My songs have been covered by everyone from Billy Idol to Prince and the music has stayed in front of people all this time with 110 Million records sold worldwide. I know I’m getting a little long-winded, but so much of my career started from the connections I made while working at the store.
MNOD: Did you always have plans to write a book or did it come later on?
TJ: I had the idea around a long time. Martin Fitzpatrick, who wrote the book with me, and I initially wanted to write about the music and call it ‘Crimson and Clover,’ but then we decided that we’d be cheating ourselves and the fans if we didn’t tell the whole story. So it sat on the shelf for a while until 2006 when I figured that most of the Roulette regulars had passed on and we were safe to put the story out there. It’s actually in pre-production for a movie right now with Barbara DeFina producing. She produced ‘GoodFellas,’ ‘Casino,’ and ‘Hugo’ with Martin Scorsese. Kathleen Marshall is directing and the script was written by Matthew Stone. Hollywood is just starting to get going again, so hopefully it’ll be continuing production soon.
MNOD: ‘Crimson and Clover’ was a sonic step forward for the band at the time. Did you make a conscious effort to keep pushing the sound or was it a natural evolution?
TJ: I think it was a conscious effort on our part, because we knew we had to keep up with the changing culture. We wanted to become an album band and not just focus on the singles. Technology was also evolving with studios moving from 4 tracks to 24 tracks. That album did so much for us as a band that I don’t know how things would have worked out had we not gone to that place.
MNOD: ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’ is another key track from the album that is notable for its production. What do you remember about the creative process on that?
TJ: That was a song that came together unexpectedly. I was playing a show in Atlanta and someone had given me a poem that was based on the Book of Revelation. It contained the phrase ‘Crystal Persuasion,’ which immediately stuck with me. As a songwriter, you’re always trying to come up with unique word combinations, so I went back to the hotel and worked on it. I added the word ‘blue’ and it became something real in the studio in about 45 minutes. I thought it was overproduced at first. We knew it would have somewhat of a Latin feel, but I ended up reworking it for two to three weeks until I pulled out everything except for my tremolo guitar, bongos, the organ, and the Flamenco guitar you hear on the record. I think it’s my favorite of all the hits.
MNOD: Your latest album, “Alive,” features a collaboration with Steven Van Zandt. How did that come about?
TJ: Steven’s been a friend of mine for a while, so it was easy to work with him. ‘Alive’ is available now and I’m pretty proud of it. I also put out a 6-CD box set called ‘Celebration,’ which contains all of the Roulette recordings in addition to some B sides.
MNOD: New York City has changed so much since the ’60s, so I was wondering what your fondest memories were of living there at that time.
TJ: New York was a gas back in the ’60s. It was just this amazing place of creativity for everything, but especially music. There were bands everywhere. There were studios all over the city and Midtown Manhattan was ground zero for the music business. That’s really where the business started. I was lucky to live there at the time and I’m lucky to still be doing it after all these years. It seems like someone else is covering one of the hits all the time. Green Day recently put out a version of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ and I was honored. Again, I have to thank the good Lord and the fans for continuing to keep this music alive.
Tommy James and the Shondells will be at Batavia Downs Gaming and Hotel on July 16.