I Think We’re Alone Now…for an Interview With Tommy James (part 1)

Some acts are an overnight sensation. Most aren’t. And then there’s the rare case where a band records a song, it goes nowhere, they break up, and then the song becomes a hit. That singular sequence of events — surrounding the 1964 recording “Hanky Panky,” a hit in 1966 — kick-started the career of Tommy James. Through the sixties James led and fronted the Shondells, and subsequently embarked on a successful solo career.

After a relatively quiet period, there’s suddenly a lot of Tommy James / Shondells news to report. In 2010 Collectors’ choice reissued three Shondells albums (I Think We’re Alone Now and Gettin’ Together from 1967, and 1970’s Travelin’) and James’ third solo album, My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar from 1972. James recently published his autobiography Me, the Mob and the Music, and plans are underway for a film adaptation. And Tommy still tours with his current lineup of Shondells.

Tommy James took the time to discuss all of this and more with me recently.

Besides being a compelling story with a strong narrative, Me, the Mob and the Music is full of great little anecdotes. I’m guessing that you ended up cutting or not including some good stories.

'Me,  the Mob and the Music' by Tommy James We covered as much as we could in 250 pages. Honestly, we just scratched the surface. There’s a lot more. We tried to hit the high points. I’ve never been an author before — this is a first time for me — and I’ve just been really pleased and amazed at the reaction from the fans and media. It’s been received so wonderfully, and I really appreciate it.

Books of this type aren’t always compelling. Sometimes there’s a really strong agenda that the writer’s trying to hit you over the head with. But you were just telling a good story.

We originally had a lot of trouble starting out with this. Martin Fitzpatrick and I started this project almost eight years ago. We were going to write a book called Crimson and Clover about the hits and the music. We got about a third of the way into it, and said, “if we don’t tell the whole Roulette Records story, we’re cheating everybody. Including ourselves. A lot of the stuff wouldn’t make sense [without it], and we’d only be telling half the story.”

Initially I was very unconformable, frankly, talking about all these characters in the book. Many of the were still walking around at that time, so we put the book on the shelf for a couple of years, until the last of the ‘Roulette regulars’ had passed on. At that point I felt comfortable enough to finish the book.

As soon as we finished the book, we immediately got a deal with Simon & Schuster. Within a very short period of time, we learned it was going to be a movie. Barry Rosen and Mary Gleason are going to be the executive producers. It’s going to be a major motion picture in about eighteen months to two years, and it’s also going to be a Broadway show. We’re floored about all this. They’re still talking about directors; all that’s sort of above my pay scale.

Tommy James and Morris Levy in 1969 It was a long time to finish the book. It’s essentially an autobiography, with about two-thirds devoted to this very dark and sinister story of Roulette Records going on behind us. None of the fans knew — and we certainly didn’t know when we signed with them — what Roulette was. I was nineteen years old when we signed. Roulette, in addition for being a functioning label, was a front for the Genovese crime family.

Morris was a mobster; there’s just no way getting around it. There’s no nicer way to say it. He was an associate of the Genovese family. They financed a great deal of Roulette, and participated on a daily basis. Because Roulette was used as a sort of social club where these guys would hang out. Illegal bank accounts, laundering money…god knows what else went on. It’s really incredible: you look at all the activity that was going on at Roulette. Plus us trying to have a career in pop music with this dark, dangerous story going on.

Part of what made the book so enjoyable was your candor, your willingness to own up to what you see as your own failings, mistakes etc. You seem to have been perhaps a little harder on yourself than on others in the book. Was that a conscious goal, to be so honest about yourself?

Being a thin-skinned artist as I am, it was the hardest part of the book. There were things that I had never talked about, that had never been asked, about my own life. That and the dark Roulette situation all kind of worked together. My feeling was that if you’re going to write an autobiography, you have to be honest. And the toughest part is telling on yourself. Nobody ever knew much about my personal life.

You managed to tell the story without making it a “tell-all” book.

Sometimes it tends to lose credibility when you’re obviously going for dirt. I was careful to be as honest as I could be, to not over- or understate how things were. Because there were so many things going on at once.

Tommy  James I had a really terrific writing partner. Martin Fitzpatrick is a brilliant writer. As the book begins, it’s kind of like a train leaving the station. Slow and building up a head of steam. And gradually it gets faster and faster. And by the end of the book, — [makes chugging locomotive sound] — you’re really rollin’ down the tracks. Martin’s writing style is riveting. And of course with this story, everything is true; that’s the way it really unfolded.

You really don’t paint anyone in a wholly negative light; even your portrayals of Morris Levy, Nate McCalla and other “made guys” seem more balanced, more nuanced than one might expect. They didn’t come off as two-dimensional characters.

I always felt in this relationship with Roulette, that there were pluses and minuses. Big pluses and minuses, but with Roulette it was always a love-hate relationship. I don’t know that I hated all that much, but what I mean is that there were true ups and downs.

And nobody’s completely bad. So whenever I’d go to say something really nasty about Morris, I always have a bad conscience. Because the truth is that if it wasn’t for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James.

Whoever the screenwriters for the film are going to be, you’ve made their job easier. They won’t have to say, “We’ve got to put some flesh on these characters.” They don’t have to conjure it up.

Thank you. You never know if you get your point across until somebody tells you. I tried very hard to humanize these characters. Because they were human. Nate McCalla, for instance — who was Morris’ enforcer if you will — was one of the top-decorated heroes out of the Korean war. He was an MP; he had a lot of very good qualities. It’s just that these guys chose the dark side.

If you look at Morris’ achievements — he owned Birdland, he owned the Roundtable, he owned the Strawberries record chain — he was one of the main players. They called him the godfather of the record business. He was rightly named. But his accomplishments were amazing.

Tommy James and the Shondells - I Think We're Alone Now One of the interesting things to me about the production on the album I Think We’re Alone Now is that while it is clean and straightforward and incredibly well suited to AM radio, there’s an unusually consistent sonic style to the songs, almost as if the basic tracks were all done at once, and that you used the same guitar throughout, and the drum miking wasn’t changed during the session, and even the organ stops weren’t adjusted. So even though it’s a consistent, quality album, it sounds to me like it was knocked out in a single session. Is that true?

That’s true. We’re going back to 1966 here. I had recorded my first two albums at Bell sound studios in New York. We had “Hanky Panky” first, of course, then “Say I Am” and “It’s Only Love.” And then I got involved with Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell from Kama Sutra. They came over, and became my first real producers and songwriting collaborators. The first song that the two of them brought to me was “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It was almost a ballad; it was very down-tempo. It was not the uptempo song that we all know. We went into the studio to do a demo, and that’s where we came up with the pegging eighth notes. We added that to the record, and Bo sang on the demo. We took it to Morris, and we were all really excited about it. Morris heard it and flipped out. He — strangely enough — had a pretty good set of ears. Morris wanted us to make the record right away.

So we brought Bo and Ritchie on board immediately. They were the producers of the record. And we added Jimmy Wizner, the world-class arranger. So he sort of became our George Martin. So we went to the studio that Bo liked best, which was Allegro, Kama Sutra’s demo studio in the basement of 1650 Broadway. We actually finished the record Christmas Eve of ’66; it was a great Christmas present. The record was released and was an instant smash.

Tommy James and the Shondells - Gettin' Together So we basically re-traced our steps [to complete the album]. The follow-up track, “Mirage” was really interesting. We were listening to a reel-to-reel of the final mix of “I Think We’re Alone Now” up at Bo’s apartment in New York. We ended up with the tape backwards, and we started listening to it. We said, “Hey, you know, that’s not a bad chord progression.” So Bo and Ritchie actually went off and wrote “Mirage.”

We just had this incredible feeling. So when we went back in the studio, we knew that we were going to record more hit records. So we went back to Allegro, used the same players. This new team — Bo, Ritchie, Jimmy and Bruce Staple the engineer — was a magic team, a great force. Plus the guys in the band. We used the guys in the band plus a few studio guys…we had a harp.

There’s harp all over the album.

And there’s ondioline, and some really exotic instruments. The point was, we completely changed production crews and studio starting with that album, and it made a big difference.

EXCLUSIVE! Listen to Tommy James
tell the story of how the Shondells stole part of
Paul Revere & the Raiders’ act, and the disaster that ensued.
(recording © 2010 Bill Kopp)
The use of “crickets” on “I Think We’re Alone Now” is brilliant. How did that idea come about? Real field recordings or pulled out of a sound effects library?

Those [laughs] were professional crickets. We brought those crickets in and made them work!

No, that was from a sound effects tape. Bo came up with that idea. Beginning with that single, we began to layer our records. Over at Bell Sound, all the parts were separated, but everything was recorded at the same time. At Allegro, went the opposite direction. We did the bass and drums, and then put the other instrument on there one at a time. We really began the process of layering the records, creating them under a microscope, so to speak. And it really paid off for us.

These four albums reissued by Collectors’ Choice — they’ve never seen the light of day, not since they were originally released.

Your style, your approach, did change from album to album. There were certainly common threads, and it all sounds like you, but like most artists of the era, your sound developed.

Remember, too, that in those days technology was changing right underneath us. You can hear it. If you listen to the albums sequentially, you can hear technological changes. For the better.

In Part Two Tommy James discusses trying to get royalties from mobsters; “inventing” bubblegum music; the unusual artwork for the Shondells’ 1970 LP; plans for future reissues; the upcoming film adaptation of his autobiography and more.

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