I Think We’re Alone Now…for an Interview With Tommy James (part 2)

(continued from Part One)

Bill Kopp / Musoscribe: From your book (Me, the Mob and the Music) I gathered that Morris Levy’s only instructions were (a) “gimme another hit” and (b) “use something I own the publishing rights to, if you can.”

Tommy James: I really credit Roulette for leaving us alone and allowing us to morph into what we could become in the studio. I’m a studio junkie: I love making records. I love the recording process. We spent a lot of time in the studio, and Morris believed in us and let us spend a lot of money in the studio.

Now, getting paid your royalties: that was like taking a bone from a Doberman…

You made that very clear in the book. It is interesting that Roulette took such a hands-off approach.

Tommy James and the Shondells - Travelin' I’ve often said that if we had been with one of the major corporate labels — RCA, CBS, all of which said yes to signing us, by the way — we would have probably been handed to a producer. Especially with a record like “Hanky Panky,” we would have gotten lost in the numbers, and nobody would have heard from us again.

And you would have never been allowed to work with the guys from Kama Sutra.

We would have not been put in charge of our own production.

I thought it was an interesting take on history as you explained how you sort of “invented” bubblegum music without knowing it. Of course that term is often used pejoratively. I recently interviewed most of the surviving members of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and I could sense that it still bothers them — to various extents — that their music isn’t perhaps taken as seriously as they’d like. In their case it’s due in large part to their visual image. In yours, I’d argue it’s in part due to that bubblegum tag.

I love bubblegum. I just don’t want a steady diet of it! When we did “I Think We’re Alone Now,” we did the thing with the eighth-notes; that’s something I had done with my band back in Niles, Michigan. It was a way of covering for our bass player, who could hardly play. When Kasenetz-Katz came along in 1967, they started putting out records that were sort of a cartoon version of that. Their first act was the 1910 Fruitgum Company, and the name “bubblegum” came from that. We sort of got tagged with it retroactively.

But I’m a big fan of pop music. And bubblegum is one of the phases it went through. We love to play “I Think We’re Alone Now” live; it’s a killer. And I’m very true to that eighth-note part when we play it.

You don’t dare change it…

Oh, no. That would be really bad. But that was our sound for about a year. And then we moved on.

The artwork on Travelin’ depicts Morris hounding the band.

Morris has a moustache in that painting. We had the album cover done by Ron Lesser, a protégé of Norman Rockwell. He did the Travelin’ album; it was a whole mural that we ended up using on the foldout of the LP cover. It was the most expensive cover Roulette ever did. It shows the guys in the band on the stagecoach. I’m driving. Behind us is Morris Levy chasing us on a horse, and he’s with a group of robbers.

Did Morris know about that?

Yes. He thought it was great.

Are there plans to release the other Shondells albums on CD?

Tommy  James - My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar I think Collectors’ Choice plans to roll out the whole catalog. I’m a big fan of them, and of Gordon Anderson, who’s the brains and the power behind Collectors’ Choice.

They’ve been putting more effort and care into getting good quality liner notes.

Ed Osborne [author of liner notes on all the recent Tommy James CCM reissues –ed.] works with us. He’s our special markets guy. We were very lucky to get him. Ed was the second in command at BMG Special Products before Sony came in and merged with them. Sony came in and put all their guys in Special Markets. Big mistake, because the BMG guys really knew what they were doing.

If we hadn’t already been doing business, he would have gone with another company. And the rest of the BMG guys ended up running Time-Life. That’s a very successful operation.

Ed wrote the liner notes for the recent Paul Revere and the Raiders 3CD set.

He’s a walking computer when it comes to rock and roll.

In 1968 a band from Lebanon — of all places — relocated to England and cut a couple of singles that were released on Decca. They’re called the Cedars. They covered “I Like the Way.” Their version has a slightly more pop-psychedelic edge to it, with (perhaps not surprisingly) a middle eastern flavor.

Middle Eastern, huh? I didn’t know that. Did they use a sitar?

Maybe an electric one.

What’s been terrific is that we’ve had over three hundred cover version of our songs, all over the world. I’m just amazed. Everyone from the Boston Pops to Billy Idol. Just this year Prince took “Crimson and Clover” to number one on his digital album. And Tom Jones came out with “I’m Alive,” which was from the Crimson and Clover album. It’s been an amazing group of people who have done covers. I’m flattered by that.

Collectors’ Choice re-releases often don’t include any sort of bonus tracks and such. And the new Shondells albums don’t have any bonus material. So…is there anything? Alternate takes left over tracks, etc.?

I was amazed the first time I went down to XM Radio in Washington. This was before they merged with Sirius. I spent a whole day down there several times. And they have these alternate mixes of “I Think We’re Alone Now.’ It’s not the mix that became the record; it’s the last rough mix before we mixed for the final record. And it was fascinating: it didn’t have all the instruments taken out like on the released version. It has all the instruments: piano and guitar, all going right through the verse. I knew form being part of the production team that that was an alternate mix. The same was true for “Mony Mony.” We had added [sings] “I love ya Mo-mo-mo-Mony” as an afterthought. The version they had didn’t have that in it. So these alternate mixes do exist in the vault. So we’ll use some of those alternate mixes in the movie.

The Shondells never did a live album. How was the band live? Pretty tight?

Tommy James
They really were a great group from the minute I heard them back in Pittsburgh — I was really lucky to grab them when I did — they were great.”Hanky Panky” had been recorded two years before in 1964. And it exploded out of Pittsburgh. It’s one of those only-in-America stories: they sold 80,000 bootleg [technically “pirated” or “counterfeit” –ed.] copies in ten days. We were sitting at number one before they ever tracked me down. So I went to Pittsburgh without the original group; I couldn’t put it back together. Guys had moved away and stuff.

I needed a group of Shondells, fast. So I grabbed the first bar band I could find, and it was this group called the Raconteurs. They were a cover band, and they were really good. I sat in with them; we knew a lot of the same songs. So I asked them if they’d be the Shondells. So they came with me to New York. And they were really a good live outfit.

We ended up replacing two of the members with other members eventually. And that group was even better. So I must say that I was really happy to be with them, and we’re great friends to this day.

Tommy James We’re back in the studio making music, actually. For the movie. We just finished. We did a track for the Christmas album last year. Mike Vale — the original bass player — and I wrote “It’s Christmas Again” for the I Love Christmas album. And we thought it would be the perfect time to get the surviving members of the Shondells together to do this last track for the film.

We hadn’t made music together in thirty-five years, but it was magic. Everybody knew their vocal parts. And we decided we’d do an album together. This movie came up in the meantime, so we went in to do some tracks for it. And one of them is a brand new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It’ll be used for the closing credits. It’s totally different: no drums; it’s slow and dreamy, done with acoustic guitar.

In the last scene of the movie, and the last scene of the book, Morris Levy dies. So, “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Morris is gone. It completely changes the meaning of the tune.

Who’s going to play you in the film?

I get asked that a lot. What’s gonna probably have to happen is, we’ll get two actors. Young Tommy and older Tommy. The actor that’s being looked at most seriously to play the older Tommy is Val Kilmer. He’s a friend of mine, and he did such a great job playing Jim Morrison. All the pieces need to fit for him; we’ll see what happens.

Will you get a cool Alfred Hitchcock styled walk-on?

Tommy  James I’ll [laughs] probably be a bartender or something. Or an elevator operator.

I know Cellophane Symphony isn’t one of the recent re-releases, but I’d like to ask you anyway: you used a Moog synthesizer on the album, recorded at Broadway Sound. Since it was ’68, that would have been an early modular model, the kind that looked like a telephone switchboard. Did you have any sort of tech around to guide you through using it? Or did you sort of just wander in the dark, fiddling with it?

It was huge. The reason we used Broadway was that Allegro was being updated. We wanted to record “Sweet Cherry Wine” and start a new project. This was right on the heels of the Crimson and Clover Project. So I booked Broadway Sound, this interesting place up on 54th Street and Broadway. It was owned by Whitey Ford from the Yankees. They’d been after me to come in and try this studio out.

So the first thing I see there is this gigantic black box with old RCA plugs and a keyboard. The thing was the size of a wall. I was fascinated. They demoed it for me; it could do everything from wind to drums. Saxophones, everything. It was primitive by today’s standards, but I could see immediately that it was going to be the future. Bob Moog’s ideas were incredible. The synthesizer has become such a mainstay. But I couldn’t believe that Whitey Ford owned one!

Crimson and Clover / Cellophane Symphony Did they provide you with a tech to operate the thing?

Sure. It actually came with a couple of techs, and a keyboard player if you wanted him. But they showed us how to operate the thing. And we ended up making a whole album around the thing. We called it Cellophane Symphony because it was plastic music. It wasn’t a huge hit right at first, but it kept selling. And in the 80s it took off. It’s one of those albums that keeps on selling.

How would you like Tommy James and the Shondells to be remembered?

I’d like us to be remembered for being experimenters. We connected with the fans. Fans and the good Lord have allowed my career to go into four-plus decades. This is an industry that maybe gives you two or three years. I look out at a concert crowd now, and I see three generations of people. I’m very proud of the Shondells and what they did, and what we were able to do together to make music that has lasted all this time.

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