One of pop music's great unsung heroes, Tommy James, with his band the Shondells, recorded an impressive and nearly seamless string of hit singles in the late '60s that bulleted toward the top of the charts, often landing alongside such acts as the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. Like the members of those legendary bands, James continues to make music today. His new CD -- his first in five years -- titled A Night in Big City, hit stores earlier this summer, as did the single, "Who Do You Love?"
In Oklahoma City for a concert, James, now 48, granted Hitch an interview. He seemed genuinely thankful of my appreciation and knowledge of his music, especially when I mentioned that I was a mere two months old when "Draggin' the Line," his 1971 comeback, hit its peak.
HITCH: What the heck is a Shondell, anyway?
[Tommy] James: (laughs) I get asked that once a week, and I wish I had some great, profound answer, but it just sounded like a good, musical name to me. In high school, it seemed like every group ended in "ells" -- the Hondells, the Schmondells, the Shondells. It wasn't until years later that I learned it was an airplane maneuver from World War II.
HITCH: You were, what, 19 years old when you had your first hit?
James: It's like a Cinderella story, but I first recorded "Hanky Panky" when I was 15, just as a fluke, as a favor, and it was a hit in about four square blocks. I graduated high school in 1965, and somehow a DJ in Pittsburgh got a hold of one record, put it on the air and the switchboard lit up. Then someone bootlegged 80,000 copies and it jumped on the charts.
HITCH: Wasn't it scary to have success like that come so early in life?
James: Oh, it was wild, and I was totally blindsided by it. But that's what I wanted; that's why everyone in high school had a band. When I look back on it today, the more impossible it seems. The Man Upstairs definitely had something to do with it.
HITCH: Yeah, but take for instance, Tiffany, who hit #1 her first time out, redoing one of your songs. I don't think she was even 19 at the time, and look at her now. She's nothing.
James: (laughs) Well, I wouldn't say she's nothing. She's just not on the charts.
HITCH: You're lucky to have escaped that.
James: You bet. You really are a spectator when it happens. When success is handed to you overnight, you aren't ready for it. I look at how fortunate I've been, 30 years in the business and on the radio everyday, and I have to thank the good Lord for it, because it's been astounding.
HITCH: Not only are you on the radio daily, but other artists have had big hits doing covers of your songs. What is it about your music that lends itself to remakes?
James: I'm not sure, but I think that good energy surrounds our music. There's like an aura about it; it kinda represents the good times, basically.
HITCH: What did you think of Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now"?
James: She did fine. You know, it's amazing because she had that and Billy Idol redid "Mony Mony" at the same time, and they were back-to-back #1 hits. But both Tiffany and Billy kept the songs uptempo and danceable. What throws me are the covers that take a lot of liberties.
HITCH: What about Joan Jett's "Crimson and Clover"?
James: She kept it rockin'. That's the way we would've recorded it, if we had done it in the '80s instead of the '60s.
HITCH: What about John Wesley Harding's "Crystal Blue Persuasion"?
James: You know, I've never heard that, and a lot of people have told me how fantastic it is. Apparently he had a big hit up in Canada with it, but I've never heard it.
HITCH: What does "Mony Mony" mean, anyway?
James: True story: I had the track done before I had a title. I wanted something catchy like "Sloopy" or "Bony Maroney," but everything sounded so stupid. So Ritchie Cordell and I were writing it in New York City, and we were about to throw in the towel when I went out onto the terrace, looked up and saw the Mutual of New York building (which has its initials illuminated in red at its top). I said, "That's gotta be it. Ritchie, come here, you've gotta see this." It's almost as if God Himself had said, "Here's the title." I've always thought that if I had looked the other way, it might have been called "Hotel Taft."
HITCH: So what does the phrase "Crystal Blue Persuasion" mean?
James: I took the title from the Book of Revelations in the Bible, reading about the New Jerusalem. The words jumped out at me, and they're not together; they're spread out over three or four verses. But it seemed to go together, it's my favorite of all my songs and one of our most requested.
HITCH: Have the success of all the remakes kept you well-fed in the last decade?
James: (laughs) I'm real happy that the catalog's stayed active, but my dream has always been to start my own record company, so I did. It's called Aura Records, and the first thing I put out was a double CD called Discography of my '74-'92 hits and big album cuts. Now with the new album, I've never had this kind of creative freedom. I'm having more fun now than I ever have. When I'm doing concerts, I'm happy to see that we've acquired another generation to keep my music going.
HITCH: What does the new album sound like?
James: It has an Alice in Wonderland quality to it. We called it an "audio movie"; it's like a soundtrack album without a film. There are 10 brand new songs, with dialogue and sound effects in between. It's like a cartoon version of New York City and our night out on the town. It was a lot of fun to do and, frankly, I haven't enjoyed myself this much in a long time. We're very high on this album.
HITCH: Personally, I think "Crimson and Clover" -- as well as "Sweet Cherry Wine" -- is your finest hour. I mean, the first line -- "Now I don't hardly know her/But I think I could love her" -- you don't know how many times I've actually thought that.
James: Perhaps the most gratifying thing about what I do is becoming a part of people's lives. Your fans become part of your extended family. That's the payoff to me.
HITCH: With that song, it seems like you took a turn from your clean-cut popster image to a more earthy, psychedelic route. Was that intentional?
James: That song was very strategic for my career; it was the first time I wrote and produced on my own. If we had bombed with that, I would've never lived it down. I felt it was a song I had to make, and there was a whole magical feeling surrounding the making of it.
HITCH: So if you produced it, the broken vocals at the end were your idea?
James: It was pretty simple to do, but back then, if you wanted to make sound wiggle, you were pretty much on your own.
HITCH: What do you listen to today?
James: Sheryl Crow's album was great. I like R.E.M. and I thought INXS had some groundbreaking singles back in the late '80s. I think Hootie and the Blowfish are the most refreshing breath of air we've had in a long time. But I take each record one at a time, because, and I hate to say this, there's a lot of crap out there.
HITCH: Do you ever get tired of your own stuff? Are you ever driving around and "Mony Mony" comes on the radio and you think, "Oh, God, no, not again," and turn the dial?
James: Sometimes I feel that way when they're on the radio, but when you do it live with 1,000 people in front of you, suddenly it's now, and there's a timelessness about it.
HITCH: Are today's Shondells the original ones?
James: No. We play 40-50 dates a year, and this is the band I've had with me approximately the last 10 years. When it comes to Shondells, I've had so many it's sort of like Spinal Tap. There have been like four or five different groups of them.
HITCH: Do you expect to chart again with the new album?
James: Little by little, we're chipping away at it. I really believe this is the finest thing I've done since my last gold record. And I love the single.
HITCH: Have you shot a video for it?
James: We will in about four to six weeks.
HITCH: Have you ever done one before?
James: We shot one for "Mony Mony," but back then, no one would play them. It's pretty archaic by today's standards, with the love beads and everything, but every now and then, MTV shows it.
HITCH: That goes back to my "Crimson and Clover" question. You suddenly went from wearing V-necks to having long hair and bell-bottoms. What's that all about?
James: Too many road gigs. Those are the before-and-after pictures.
HITCH: But your hair today is long.
James: Well, I've learned to eat my vegetables and get eight hours' sleep every night. I'm a new man.
HITCH: I guess that's all my questions then. Thanks for your time.
James: You're welcome. Thank you....And my favorite color is blue.