Text by Joe Viglione, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Interview © 1984; RBF intro © 2010 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet
The following interview with Tommy James was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #12, in 1984. It was implemented and written by Joe Viglione.
As I was led into an office to interview novelty country musician and advertising maven Chinga Chavin in the early ‘80s, Tommy James was walking out. Being introduced by Chinga, I shook Tommy’s hand, and mine was lost in his huge mitt. That was what I took away from the three seconds I met him, physically. Musically, he was part of my life for years, through all the songs that Joe mentions in his piece. Even to this day, Joe Viglione remains a huge Tommy James supporter, which I respect. In that honor, I reprint this Q & A interview. – RBF, 2010
Tommy James, one of the master craftsmen of pop, returned to the Boston area after an absence of more than seven years. The man made an indelible impression on many a memory with such hits as “Hanky Panky,” “Three Times in Love,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage,” “Crimson & Clover,” “Mony Mony”; and there are so many more.
To any serious rock’n’roll fan, this is great news. To a Tommy James devotee, it is intense news! I first saw Mr. James at The Red Barn in Westboro (MA), on October 3, 1975. It was a magical night full of energy and hit recordings. A night we got to relive in 1977, when Tommy returned to the area to play The Weymana, in Weymouth.
In honor to Tommy’s return, I decided to track him down. It took a few days of negotiating, but before long, I found myself on the phone setting up an interview with one of my rock’n’roll idols – at his home! To say I was nervous is an understatement. What do you say to someone who has had a hand in making some of your best memories? I flipped through my Tommy James albums. Aha, maybe I’ll ask Tommy some real off the wall questions about songs, like Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” which Joan Jett’s producers, Ritchie Cordell and Kenny Laguna first recorded with Tommy; maybe I’ll ask him what it felt like, in 1977, to be produced by Jeff Barry, the man who co-wrote “Hanky Panky” more than a decade after the song made his career. There were many questions on my mind. Monday, February 6, 1984, I decided to begin with Joan Jett:
FFanzeen: Joan Jett had two big hits with “Do You Wanna Touch” and “Crimson & Clover,” proving once again that you were ahead of your time. How do you feel about that?
Tommy James: Well, it’s always flattering when people do your songs. It’s also very interesting because many of the records I did have turned into classic. I don’t know that I would go back into the studio myself and re-cut them. It would be very tough to recapture the magic. And every now and then somebody does. I think Joan Jett did a nice job with “Crimson & Clover.” They did it a little bit – they beefed it up. I don’t think as much thought went into the production; I think that it was very effective. It was done just the way it should’ve been done for today.
FF: I thought your production of “Crimson & Clover” was unbelievable.
Tommy: Well, thank you. The funny part about “Crimson & Clover,” y’know, we had two ways of doing it. As a matter of fact, we were thinking very seriously about doing it the way Joan Jett ended up doing it… which was doing it very hard and doing it with a little more of a heavy metal sound. We chose back at that time to go with a little bit softer sound, to go with an acoustic guitar. Then, I think we had a harpsichord on there, and we had a whole lot of other things that allowed us to build the record… to do both a short and a long version. The longer version has ended up to be the classic, with the big guitar solo in the middle of the record. But I must say though, for the single, Joan Jett did a real fine job. The Rubinoos did a nice job also with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and Billy Idol had “Mony Mony.” It’s very flattering when new artists do your material. I think it shows that your songs stand up to time, and that’s always a good feeling.
FF: I’d like to see these artists contacting you to have you produce some of these tunes, because you’ve really shown yourself to be a master of the studio. I don’t think a lot of people have picked up on that.
Tommy: I think that you have to – well, at Roulette Records, I had to. I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades back in the old days, because I was writing the songs, I was producing the songs, I was performing the songs, and in many instances, I was promoting the songs. It was like a one-man operation up there. But I don’t think I could’ve gotten the training any other way… the knowledge of the record industry all the way from the nuts and bolts of the production to the marketing procedures and things like that. I don’t think I would’ve known the industry like I do today if it hadn’t been for that time.
FF: I found an album called Tommy James’ 20 Greatest Hits, released in Canada.
Tommy: Well, that was all part of a package. We went platinum in 1976-77, on Adam VIII, which was released in this country, and then in Canada with another package. It has 20 songs on the one album; the fidelity is terrible.
FF: But there are two songs on it that I had never seen in America: “Celebration” and “Love Song.”
Tommy: They were both out, right at the period of time when I was leaving Roulette. They were songs that were a little bit later on, before I made the jump to Fantasy Records.
FF: The Fantasy albums were pretty great, both of them.
Tommy: Thank you.
FF: And Jeff Barry producing you.
Tommy: Jeff did the last one. It was me, Ritchie Cordell and Kenny Laguna who did the In Touch album, the first Fantasy project. And The Midnight Rider album was Jeff Barry, who wrote my first hit song, “Hanky Panky.”
FF: So that must have been a magic moment.
Tommy: It was a good combination. I gotta say I was a little disappointed with the production on that. I think the songs were fun and we had fun writing it, but I was a little bit disappointed. I think there could’ve been a little bit more depth to the production; it was real straight ahead. But you know, every producer has his own tastes and it’s so hard to tell. You’ve gotta just let somebody else pain the picture before you really see what it looks like. It’s a different way of looking at yourself when somebody else produces you.
FF: You released something called “No Hay Dos Sin Tres,” on Millennium.
Tommy: Oh, that was the Spanish version of “Three Times in Love.”
FF: Really, I didn’t know that.
Tommy: Yeah [laughs]. We had the gold record in 1980 with “Three Times in Love.” It went #1 Adult Contemporary, and Top-10 in the pop charts. That was the last gold record I had. I did a Spanish version of that.
FF: I thought it was some obscure Millennium release I missed out on. You’re recording a new album now?
Tommy: That’s right. We’re being very careful this time.
FF: You have the same band as on “Three Times in Love”?
Tommy: No, it’s a different group of musicians; a little bit different direction in the studio this time. We’re using an instrument used on the Thriller album that’s very exciting. It’s called a Synclavier – a $65,000 computerized synthesizer. It’s a fantastic instrument that can not only give you every sound that you can conceive of inside the machine, but if you want the actual sound of a human voice, or a guitar solo, or a real saxophone or something, all you have to do is blow a couple of notes into the computer and it memorizes the sound of, like, a saxophone, or the wind going through the horn, and memorizes it digitally. You can play it on the keyboard. It consists of a keyboard, a typewriter, and a TV monitor, so you can see the actual signal playing onto a floppy disk. And then, from a floppy disk, you dump everything onto tape. So you can literally make the album in your living room, or a good portion of the album in your living room, and take it to the studio. ‘Cause everything put in there would be memorized by the computer and put to memory. So about the only thing you need the studio for is your vocal and to mix. It’s fun to play with. It’s not really an ends-to-the-means, but it’s a nice instrument to build the shell of a record; to build the skeleton. In the studio, I’d probably want to use other instruments. If you wanted to use a conga or something there’s nothing like the sound of a natural conga. We’re going a little bit more electronic this time.
FF: And you’re writing all the material this time.
Tommy: Me and my writing partner, Don Ciccone.
FF: Oh, Don’s still with you, then. He did keyboards on “Three Times in Love.”
Tommy: That’s correct. Don was one of the members of the original Critters; “Mr. Dyingly Sad” [and “Younger Girl” – Ed.], and then he was with the Four Season for about 10 years. We’ve been friends for a long, long time. We started working together about four years ago, and writing together two years ago.
FF: All you released on 21/Polygram last year was the 45, “Say Please”?
Tommy: That’s right. That was a project that got hung up in production. The record company fell apart before the project got done. It’s too bad, but that happens sometimes with a new label.
FF: Are you going on a nationwide tour?
Tommy: We probably will. The thing with going on the road, I don’t do it very often. I’m very selective about the dates that I play and the towns that I play in. I’m really looking forward to coming to Boston. Always like to play up there. We’ve always had great crowds up there, and the crowds are good and rowdy. Boston’s known for that. Always loved playing in Boston, even back in the ‘60s. There’s a new product coming this spring. As a matter of fact, I’ll be in the studio right after we get done wit the Channel in Boston, so I’m looking at a spring release for a single, and a summer release for an album. That means I’ll be in the studio pretty much right up until summer. If all things go as planned, I’ll probably be touring this summer. I don’t like to do the 30-40-50-date tours. I like to go out for a week at a time and then take a couple of weeks off, and go out for another week-10 days. I don’t know how these guys do it. We put out so much energy during a show that, if I were to literally play for 40 nights in a row, I don’t think there’d be much of me when I got home.
Tommy James & the Shondells Discography
Hanky Panky (1966)
It's Only Love (1966)
I Think We're Alone Now (1967)
Gettin' Together (1967)
Something Special! The Best of Tommy James and the Shondells (1968)
Mony Mony (1968)
Crimson and Clover (1969)
Cellophane Symphony (1969)
The Best of Tommy James and the Shondells (1969)
Tommy James (1970)
Christian of the World (1971)
My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar (1972)
In Touch (1976)
Midnight Rider (1977)
Three Times in Love (1980)
Tommy James The Solo Years: 1970 - 1981 (1989)
Tommy James Discography: Deals & Demos 74' - 92' (1993)
A Night in Big City (1995)
Tommy James Greatest Hits Live!(1997)
Tighter, Tighter (2000)
It Keeps On Goin' (2003)
I Love Christmas (2004)
Sweet Cherry Wine (2005)
Isn't That the Guy (2005)
Lupe & Joe (2006)
Hold the Fire (2006)
I Love Christmas (2008)