Tommy James is truly one of Rock's living legends. He's had two number one hits and placed a total of seventeen records in the Top 40. Billboard Magazine voted Tommy James the country's "Top Male Artist" of 1967. His songs have been covered by everyone from Billy Idol to Joan Jett. Songs like "Mony Mony", "I Think We're Alone Now", "Crimson and Clover", "Crystal Blue Persuasion", "Draggin The Line" and "Three Times In Love" have made Tommy James' name synonymous with rock 'n roll.
Today, more than 20 years after his first hit, "Hanky Panky", Tommy James is still going strong. We talked with Tommy recently about his life, both on and off stage.
Q - When you started out, how long did you think you'd be around?
A - Well, of course, every artist likes to think when they start out that they're going to be around for a long time. Then you get into the business and find careers generally don't last that long. I was very surprised to find that mine did last that long.
Q - Your songs sound just as good today as when they were first recorded.
A - You know, it's funny, I think one of the reasons they hold up today and probably will for a long time is because we weren't writing about political events. We weren't necessarily putting ourselves in the 60s. We paid very little attention to what was going on around us, and just kind of wrote from the heart, and wrote from our feelings. I'm very glad that we kept it like that, 'cause that's the reason I think that we're still around and why our records still get covered.
Q - How much creative freedom did you enjoy in the studio?
A - We enjoyed quite a bit. One of the reasons for that is we really ran the show. We were with a small company, Roulette, who never really spent that much time thinking about record production. We had the run of the studio. I used to go in and quite literally have no idea of what I was gonna come out with; just go in with a very basic sketch of what I wanted to do. We had enough time to experiment, and we had enough time to really get to know ourselves in the studio. A lot of what we did was actually in the studio. We didn't do a lot of preparing outside. Of course you can't do that today. (laughs)
Q - Did you get cheated out of royalties from Roulette?
A - We got cheated out of millions. If there was one thing I would change about the early days of my career, it would be to be a better businessman. You get into this business and you think all you have to do is play guitar, look pretty and sing. And that isn't true. You have to be a politician. You gotta be a diplomat. You've got to be an accountant, and you've got to be a businessman. And at 18, I just wasn't all those things yet.
Q - Why were you tagged as a "bubblegum artist"?
A - I'm not quite sure. Probably because "Hanky Panky" and "I Think We're Alone Now" had more to do with it than anything else. For some reason, staccato eighth notes on a bass sounded like bubblegum. Basically, groups like the 1910 Fruitgum Co. took my early format and kind of perverted it, and made these mindless pre-fab hits over and over. In the 60s, anybody who was making commercial music, that is music that didn't have a political slant to it, or wasn't taking drugs, was bubblegum. And that term kind of hung on a lot of people back then, and it's unfortunate.
Q - How many different Shondell members have there been?
A - Oh boy, I've never figured it out.
Q - Are any of the original members still in the business?
A - One of them died this year (1987), Peter Lucia, the drummer, the fella I wrote "Crimson and Clover" with, died of a heart attack on the golf course in Los Angeles. The other 3 members of what I call the original group, the group that I was with from '66 to '70, are in the music business, have all really done well, and we're the best of friends. We still see each other all the time.
Q - If there's a downside to the Tommy James story, it's your association with drugs. How could a guy with everything going for him, turn to drugs?
A - I think everybody did their share of experimenting in the 1960s with drugs. My story is real simple. I was taking amphetamines in the late 60s and I was addicted to them. I don't necessarily know the why. I'm sure at the time I could've told you six different reasons why I was doing it. But, in the end, all of that stuff, all chemicals will hurt you.
Q - You turned down the chance to play at Woodstock. How come?
A - I'm in this 22 room Spanish villa mansion at the foot of Diamond Head in Hawaii and my biggest decision of the day was whether to go swimming in the ocean or the pool. I get a call 6,000 miles away that a farmer in Upstate New York is gonna throw a concert in his field. I said "Sure, I'm gonna leave Hawaii for that, and play in the mud somewhere in New York." I said "If I'm not there, start without me!" And they did. (laughs) But I made the Atlanta Pop Festival and that was exciting. Grand Funk, Janis Joplin, Sly Stone were there. It was a real, real great gig.
Q - You wanted to direct films and open a publishing company. Have you done either?
A - I've opened up a publishing company. You know, publishing is an interesting business. It's more mechanical than writing. It has very little to do with creativity. It's an aspect of the business that I think if you're serious about writing, you have to do. I'm also in the studio right now putting a new album together.
Q - Did John Lennon and Paul McCartney approach you about producing one of their records?
A - Not about producing them. Lennon and McCartney were just starting Apple Publishing Co. before they started the label, and they approached me with some tunes that a couple of members of The Beatles had written for me. They came to my apartment. I wasn't home. However, my manager, who was in the same building, was there, and they came to him with the tapes. I didn't particularly care for the tunes and I never recorded them.
Q - Did anybody record them?
A - No, I don't think they were ever recorded. I have them somewhere in my library of tapes.
Q - How do you feel about the cover versions of your songs?
A - I'm very flattered that these people have recorded my tunes. I think it says something about the songs themselves. I feel very good that people would record my tunes. It's always interesting to hear a different version of how somebody else hears what comes out of you.