Gary James' Interview With Tommy Heath of
In 1982, the song "867-5309 / Jenny" was all over the airwaves. You couldn't escape it. It went all the way to number 4 on the Billboard charts. The song was recorded by a San Francisco band called Tommy Tutone. The lead singer's name was Tommy Heath.
Sidewinder Records has just released a new CD titled "80s Hits Stripped", which includes an acoustic version of "867-5309 / Jenny".
Tommy Heath chatted with us about his background and the formation of his group Tommy Tutone.
Q - Tommy, since no one in the group is named Tommy Tutone, where did you come up with that name?
A - It originally was my nickname. It became the band's name. It's kind of something of something to talk about really.
Q - Is it your opinion that this CD "80s Hits Stripped", which includes your song "867-5309 / Jenny" will bring over new fans to the group? You know, people who may have never heard of you.
A - I don't know about people who never heard of me. Maybe people that didn't take it too seriously. It's a novelty song basically. As we've been playing a lot lately, people are realizing that we are a Rock 'n' Roll band. We have humor, but that's on one end of what we do, and that happens to be what we're most famous for. As for playing acoustically, yeah, that is a true test of a song, whether you can play it acoustically. I'm thrilled to be part of this record and it was a real interesting group of people. Mainly for me it was how, listening to the different ways to do an acoustic record. Like Nick from Naked Eyes, I think played the best guitar on there. He just sounds like an acoustic guitar player. I listen to mine and I go we're just playing our electric guitar parts. I wish I could've just done it like I would do it in my living room. But, that's the first acoustic record I've ever done. I think it's a really interesting set. I was surprised that it came out so well. You have no idea when you record these things, whether it's some guy's project and gonna appear on three web sites. Suddenly, it was a major deal. I feel like it's reaching a crowd that maybe wouldn't buy a Tommy Tutone record right off.
Q - Do you know why the particular artists on this CD were selected to do an acoustic version of their hit song? Was it by record company invitation?
A - Well, I got a specific invitation, so I don't really know, but I think they had a concept in mind. When we played together, we did some shows together, I haven't played with everybody, but different groups of 'em. We realized, hey, we need to do this acoustic thing more together 'cause we worked together pretty well. So, I don't know how they did it, but they knew what they were doing. They've sold a lot of those "Heavy Metal Stripped" records, which I personally don't have, but they sold a whole bunch of those. It was like they already had the machine together to do one of those records. They did two "Heavy Metal Stripped" ones, so they decided to do us. They must've had a vision, I don't think they had a cattle call.
Q - You mentioned you're playing out now. That's the whole band? And where are you playing?
A - Not the original band. Our band has been together for eight years. It started out I had a day job for a while as a computer programmer. Started out summertime, big shows. In the last few years people really seem to be interested in new and old stuff. In the 90s, it got kind of boring 'cause they just wanted to hear old stuff. I don't listen to oldies radio. I'm sitting here writing songs. So, it's gotten more rewarding and we put out a very well received record in '99 called "Tutone RTS". I didn't get rich on it, but it got a lot of reviews. That's the record I should have done after the "Jenny / Jenny" record. So, we've been out playing a mixture of that and old stuff and then all the new stuff we play. It's been building. I just quit my day job in March (2006) so I could concentrate on this. It feels like this big run is coming. I'm also starting to do acoustic shows, playing those kind of winery dates and parties. I was always too shy to do that before when I was in the band, but now I feel like I can handle it.
Q - When you say acoustic, you mean just yourself, no one else?
A - The last two I've done is me and a drummer, which is kind of fun. When I play acoustic it's a real stream of conscience. There's not set list. If I get a really good drummer, I can just play. So, that's my new format. I'm doing some by myself, some with my bass player and my lead guitar player and bass player both take turns playing acoustic leads and then some of the drummer. So, I'm still sorting out the best to do it.
Q - Where is the Tommy Tutone band performing?
A - We're playing in packages in the Sheds mostly and some casinos. We've played in Detroit. Mainly festival kind of things.
Q - The reaction to "Jenny" must be pretty good.
A - Yeah. It always gets a reaction. Then, we're trying to get something to follow that with. It gets more and more of a reaction. People remember that song and probably forgotten songs that have sold twenty times that, that year. So, it's a phenomena of some sort.
Q - A catchy song though.
A - Yeah it is catchy. I mean it's kind of like thought control. You're just repeating this thing over and over. One time I counted how many times it was in there, but now I forget. It's catchy and it's fun to do...once a day. That's like in the 90s. You played that. Either play it again or play "Freebird". We kind of quit then. It's fun to play. We have kind of a parody of a follow-up on our last record, it's called "Jenny's Calling". Sometimes we do that as a medley.
Q - You said you were a computer programmer. How long did you work at that? That sounds like a good job.
A - Yeah, it was good work actually. It was so normal. I've been a musician for so long, watching people get up and go to work. Normal actually becomes exotic. So, I went; I need to try it for a while. I did it for about twelve years. That was my adventure into normalcy. So now I'm back a being crazy again.
Q - How does it feel to be crazy?
A - It feels like I've come home. But, I understand a lot more about the world now.
Q - Did anyone ever ask about your background on this computer programming job? What would they say when you told them you sang lead on "Jenny"?
A - I would have to be trapped and admit to it, because I do a pretty good job of blending in. I don't talk about Rock 'n' Roll when I'm doing that. Eventually somebody would figure it out. I tried to work somewhere where it took a few months to figure out. I was actually a good programmer. If they found out too soon, it would ruin the whole thing. People want to waste time and buy me. I'd admit to it. I'm just walking around me. It's hard to believe I'm Tommy Tutone when you see me walking around. I'm just a regular guy. Offstage I'm very quiet. People find it very hard to believe.
Q - Aren't most performers that way when you get down to it? Onstage they want the attention. Offstage they want their privacy.
A - Well, I would see people in my years in Hollywood who were always on. They would go to a party and they weren't having fun. They were working and talking about themselves. I'm sitting there talking about ideas. They may have helped them. Self-promotion is something you need to do. It's something I never did. I'm not a millionaire. I'm a very private person. Its kind of worked out alright.
Q - Before there was a Tommy Tutone, you were working on demos and writing songs. Was that for yourself or others?
A - The band Tommy Tutone actually existed up in Northern California, in the Mendocino area. It was a huge variety of music we played, all the way from Boz Scaggs to Country on the other end. All this stuff. Then about 1978 I moved back to San Francisco and just started to refine it. I had to narrow the focus a little. I was dreaming of maybe being a publisher someday, and write for other people. But again, you gotta be able to knock on doors and talk about yourself. It's easier to record actually than to do something with it. So, I was floundering a bit and met my partner at the time, Jim Keller, who was very good at talking and also wrote a good song. We were writing songs in San Francisco during the beginnings of when the real Punk movement was on, in '78, beginnings of '80s Pop music. But we weren't cool there at all. It was a very fashion oriented scene. We were just writing songs. We came out of there and got a lot of respect everywhere else. We went to Los Angeles and were treated very well, met a lot of professional people. Went all around the country. I don't know, it was just the right time I guess. I had ten years experience playing in bars and my ex-partner had never played in a bar at all. He had an original approach. We were a very quirky band. We didn't really rock. We just sounded different. Somebody asked us to do a showcase for this other band that everybody thought was real cool in San Francisco, and the people from L.A. came out and said forget those, we want that opening act. So, that's how we got signed.
Q - To Columbia Records?
A - Actually we had a bidding war after that. We did two sets of demos for Warner Brother because Warner Brothers New York was very modern and hip. I forget the lady's name. She signed Bigstar back in the 70s. She thought we were really cool. She sent us over to Warner Brothers L.A., which was kind of laid back. They didn't know what to do with us. So, we hung out there for a while and then we just put it out. We had a bunch of labels interested in late '78, early '79.
Q - After your debut album, one critic wrote about you and your partner Jim Heller that you had "a rare talent for writing catchy hooks and memorable melodies." Isn't that exactly what you need to have in the music business?
A - Yeah. That's right. He and I couldn't have been more different, but we just came up with stuff. And we had a couple of ghost writers helping us out. He had a friend who was a doctor who'd send us ten songs that he would stay up all night typing. We'd just sit down and run through all of them and if two or three of 'em made us laugh, we'd just keep 'em. People would call us up and say "I'm trying to forget that damn song." I guess that's what our calling card was.
Q - I guess what I wanted to ask is, if you could write catchy hooks and memorable melodies, you should've had a string a hits. But that didn't happen.
A - No. It didn't. After you write the catchy things, you have to produce 'em. We had such a different, quirky sound, that they were afraid to mess with us, so they let us follow our own trail. Our second album took us two years to do. That's actually two albums put together. Then the next one after that did the same thing. The Columbia production machine was very helter-skelter. Then after I broke up with Keller, I was still as shy as I ever was, I was writing a decent song. He was writing ten songs a day, fifteen good ones a year. But, I was still too shy to go out and become a writer. You really have to find people who believe in you. So, I just kind of faded out for a while...played here and there. Just kind of followed my own instincts. I was always distilling myself. There's something about the way I play and sing that is unique, so I try to follow it. It's not the kind of song that always impresses a publisher. I write Country and Western songs too, so I moved to Nashville. They said "kid, your songs ask too much of the listener. Very challenging what you're saying here." When you're screaming it in a Rock 'n' Roll song, it's not so obvious. I'd never played anybody else's music, so I said I'd rather have a day job than have to tailor my music. I'm not writing to be a popular musician. It's almost psycho therapy to understand myself. That's the only way I can get things out. I just couldn't get it out any other way. I wouldn't be able to tell you about it. I couldn't sit here and think about it. But, I kind of shape something that I think I can say and start singing, it forces me to go to these places and start talk about these things I'd like to talk about, but don't know how to do when I'm singing.
Q - Are you telling me you've had a troubled background?
A - (laughs) Yeah, I've had my troubles. Well, five years ago I figured out I was Attention Deficit Serious Case. That's my way of doing things. There's more people with Attention Deficit in the U.S. than left-handed. So, it's not really like an obscure group. But, there are gifts that come with the affliction. It's a package. So part of what's enabling me to have this viewpoint is that I am not seeing things the way everybody else is.
Q - How long did it take to write "Jenny"?
A - I didn't write "Jenny". Alex Call from Clover, that's the band Huey Lewis was in, and Jim (Keller) wrote it.
Q - Is there any significance to that number 867-5309? It fits so beautifully in the song.
A - Well, Keller says they just made it up. I actually know Jenny and that was her parent's phone number. But, I have somewhat of a tenuous hold on reality. I saw her about five years ago and asked her if she wanted anybody to know who she was and she said no.