March 15, 2013

Tommy James and the Shondells - Say I Am (1966)

Tommy James has lived an incredible life. With humble beginnings in the small town of Niles, Michigan, he shot to rock and roll stardom before reaching the age of twenty. With his backing group, the Shondells, Tommy has earned legendary status in music’s history books as the man who brought us “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” and many, many more. Along the way, he was tied to Roulette Records, a money laundering outlet for the mob, founded and run by the notorious mobster Morris Levy. Besides working under the mafia, Tommy’s roller-coaster story also included getting hooked on prescription pills, campaigning across the nation with Vice President/presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, getting screwed out of forty-million dollars, and having to travel across the country to avoid getting whacked by a rival mob. Surviving it all and living to tell the tale in his autobiography, Me, the Mob, and The Music, Tommy is still living a busy life that consists of touring, interviewing, and turning his life into an upcoming movie.

Written by Barbara and George Tomsco, the song below the interview was first released by Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs in 1966. That same year, a friend of Tommy James by the name of Bob Mack found it in the used record bin at a record shop. Figuring it would make a good song to follow their break-out cover of “Hanky Panky,” he gave it to the group to record. Tommy James and the Shondells recorded the song and released it as their second single. It reached number twenty-one in the US and number twelve in Canada. It would also later be released on the group’s debut full-length album, Hanky Panky.

This song was chosen above all others to be featured today because I feel it's one of Tommy James and Shondells' lesser known, but still great songs. If you're looking for something more well-known, check out our previous post that featured "Crimson and Clover."

A Special Edition post with Tommy James of Tommy James and the Shondells!

It's been about five months since our last exclusive story, but we've really come back strong. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with rock legend Tommy James, who was more than happy to answer some questions regarding his time in the music industry and his 2010 book, Me, the Mob, and the Music. If you're a fan of Tommy James, you'll want to make sure you check it out. It's a really great book.
At exactly 12:00pm on Wednesday, March 13th, 2013, I received a phone call at the start of my lunch break.

“Hey, this is Tommy James!”

He’s precisely on time nearly down to the second. My sandwich instantly becomes insignificant and I take a few seconds to let this sink in. We talk about my bizarre last name and the entirely unnecessary letters it has before I tell him how thankful I am for his willingness to talk with us. I admit that I think I have some really great questions for him after having read his book and a bunch of other interviews he’s done.

A Bit Like You And Me: Alright, first question. When you were growing up in Niles, Michigan, was there ever a backup plan in your head about a career you might choose if the music industry didn’t work out? You know, like maybe (joking) “Tommy Jackson: Attorney at Law”?

Tommy James: (laughter) You know, there was not. Absolutely not. I actually had one goal and I really didn’t- I guess you could say I really didn’t turn left or right. I was and am interested in a lot of things, but I did not really have it in mind to get into anything else. It was just “music, music, music” my whole life.

ABLYAM: Music or bust, huh?

TJ: Yeah, that was it.

ABLYAM: That’s great. What are some of the other interests then, that maybe you do as hobbies now?

TJ: Well, you know, I’m very interested in astronomy; I study physics; I love science. Hmm, what other things? You know, I do everything- horseback riding, swimming, you know, that kind of stuff. I really don’t have time, unfortunately, to do a lot of that stuff, but I’m always fascinated with it and there’s just a whole lot of things that I love besides music, but only one thing I wanna do.

ABLYAM: Those are some heavy topics! The astronomy and physics; those are some heavy hobbies.

TJ: (laughter)

A bit of a back story here for those who haven’t read Tommy James’ autobiography: Tommy worked for Roulette Records which was run by a notorious and often cruel mobster, Morris Levy. Tommy and Morris’ relationship was, at best, a rocky one.

ABLYAM: Okay, so here we have the next question: in your book, Me, the Music, and the Mob, you mentioned that just before your friend- I don’t want to butcher his name, Craig… Villa- Villeneuve?

TJ: Villeneuve, yes. That’s right.

ABLYAM: Just before he had passed away of an overdose, your boss, Morris Levy over at Roulette Records, had made one of his rare visits to you in the studio to try and get you to stop abusing the [prescription] pills you were taking.

TJ: Right.

ABLYAM: Do you think at that time, or any other time for that matter, that he was coming to you out of compassion? Or do you think he was more motivated to keep you clean so you could keep making him a profit?

TJ: Well, I think it was a little of both. The night that he actually came, that I talk about in the book, was the night that Frankie Lymon [of The Teenagers] died. And Morris was pretty shook up about that. Frankie died a heroin addict. So when Morris came down, the first thing he saw was, you know, a bunch of pills lying on the console and he really flipped out. And I don’t blame him. You know, he had a lot of reasons to want me to stay straight, which I ultimately did. But he really flipped out on me there and I was grateful for it.

ABLYAM: You had also mentioned in your book that you had campaigned around the United States with Vice President and presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.

TJ: That’s right.

ABLYAM: And one night he mentioned to you how he was really tired, but that he had to stay awake to write a speech.

TJ: (laughter)

ABLYAM: So you gave him what you called the “little black stay-awake pill.”

TJ: (laughter) Black Beauties, yes. Well, you know, it’s a miracle I didn’t go to jail!

ABLYAM: Do you remember what the pill was?

TJ: Yeah, they were called Black Beauties.

ABLYAM: Did it have any other effects besides keeping him awake? Do you remember?

TJ: No, I mean they were diet pills, basically. They were amphetamines. But, you know, we were taking them to write and I gave him a couple of them just- well, if I hadn’t of been high myself, I wouldn’t have done that.


TJ: It’s a miracle I didn’t go to jail! In my twenty-one year old wisdom there, I didn’t see anything particularly wrong with it. And then of course the next night he said, (Hubert Humphrey impersonation) “By God! Those damn things kept me up all night!”


ABLYAM: Yeah, that was probably one of the highlights of the book for me. That was great.

TJ: (sighing) Aw, God.

ABLYAM: And regarding the choice you made to campaign with Humphrey, it cost you a lot of sales and popularity in the UK because you had to cancel your BBC tour in England, right?

TJ: Yeah, that’s right. I caught a lot of hell for that. In fact, just recently, I did several interviews in the UK because we have product over there now. And so I was explaining and talking about the BBC and how they felt about me not showing up and they gave me some insight into it. They really didn’t play my records for like four years. And they were really upset. But I still think I did the right thing. I mean, that was what I felt I really should be doing and, so, I’m glad I did it. And Humphrey ended up writing the liner notes to the Crimson and Clover album. And, you know, we stayed friends right up until he died.

ABLYAM: I know that “Mony Mony,” like you had said, had been banned for four or five years as a consequence to canceling the tour.

TJ: Well not just “Mony Mony,” but my other records. You know, “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” and all of the others that were hits over here were not hits in England. You know, they were ultimately, but it took years to make it happen.

ABLYAM: It seems like it was a bit harsh just for canceling a tour. Do you think that there may have been any political aspect to the ban, regarding their choice [to ban it]?

TJ: Well there were other things, too, I found out. One of the things was that- I don’t know how familiar you are with the pirate [radio station] ships that were broadcasting radio.

ABLYAM: Yeah, a little bit off of the coast.

TJ: That’s right. And the label, Major Minor, was the name of the label that Roulette had in England. And Roulette didn’t have their own distribution set up overseas, so they were basically an independent label, and, would sort-of use other labels to piggy-back on. And “Mony Mony” was on Major Minor over in the UK. And one of the owners of Major Minor Records’ distributorship was heavily into one of the big pirate ships, uh, Radio Luxembourg, or whatever it was called, which was sailing off of the British Isles competing with the BBC. So there was (laughter), you know, a lot of angles to it.

ABLYAM: Yeah, gotcha.

TJ: So anyway, you know, I didn’t find that out until within the last year.

ABLYAM: Well that definitely explains it a little bit!

TJ: Yeah.

ABLYAM: I was reading something online that I didn’t see mentioned in your book. So you’re gonna have to tell me whether or not it was true.

TJ: Alright.

ABLYAM: Between the release of “Mony Mony” and “Crimson and Clover,” I read that George Harrison of The Beatles, who had been working with a band called Grapefruit, came to you hoping that you’d record some of the songs that he had written for you-

TJ: Correct.

ABLYAM: That was true?

TJ: Oh, yeah. Let me tell you how that is true and how that happened. The Beatles had been working on Apple. And Apple was a publishing company before it was a record company. And their original idea was, with Apple, to write music for other artists that were their friends and that they liked, respected. And that was the original conception for Apple before it was a record company. And then of course it became a label and then hooked up with Capitol.
But, right at the beginning stages, when “Mony Mony” was number one in Britain- and it was one of the largest records of the decade in England- and, so, George was producing and they were gonna be producing for other artists as well. One of the groups he started with was Grapefruit. And so George wrote with Grapefruit several songs- about six or eight of them- for us. So, George was over [in the US] and, through his liaison, dropped off a tape of these songs to my manager Lenny Stogel, who worked out of my building 888 Eighth Avenue. So Lenny got them to me and I played them and they were pretty good. But, the problem was, by the time I got ‘em, we were already just releasing “Crimson and Clover” and our style had really changed from then because all the songs, basically, were up-tempo, rhythm things like “Mony.” And by the time I got the tape, we were already doing other things. And back then, you know, it was a big deal when you changed styles. So unfortunately we never did [record them]. I always wished, though, that I had recorded one of those songs and had a chance to thank George for what he did, because I never really had properly thanked him. And I always felt really bad about that. Just one of those moments that- one of those missed opportunities.

ABLYAM: Do you recall what any of the songs were? Or if anyone else ever did wind up recording them?

TJ: I don’t believe- I can’t tell you what the titles were right now, but all of them were basically up-tempo, you know, very much like “Mony Mony.”

ABLYAM: Gotcha. Now, I know that you said your group was switching over to the “Crimson and Clover” style, but was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “Aw, crap!,” you know, “I just rejected a Beatle!” and, you know, maybe a little bit of panic?

TJ: Well, absolutely. And the release schedule was such, that we were about three months ahead of ourselves. In other words, we would record stuff that was gonna be released three months later. And it just wasn’t in the pipeline. And I felt bad about it because I really would have liked to gone ahead and done a couple of those songs, but, we didn’t.
I must tell you though, Crimson and Clover was really a monumental record for us and we didn’t want to do anything to screw it up. This was just an incredible moment and let me just tell you a couple reasons why. When we were out on the campaign with Hubert Humphrey that year- when we left in August after the convention, the records and the biggest acts on the charts were all singles and all singles acts. You know, it was us, The Rascals, Gary Puckett, The Association- I’m leaving a lot of people out, but I mean, you know, you get the deal. It was just all singles.

ABLYAM: Right.

TJ: When we got back ninety days later- it was in November- it was all albums. It was Led Zeppelin; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Neil Young, I mean it was all albums. So in that ninety day period, the industry had turned upside-down and literally gone from the singles market to the album market. And we were just very, very fortunate at that moment to be working on Crimson and Clover, because Crimson and Clover allowed us to make that jump from AM Top 40 singles to FM progressive album rock and, also, to get Roulette selling albums, which they hadn’t really done until that point. And this was a huge move, because so many acts had tried it and failed. And we were just very lucky to sort of seamlessly- I don’t think there’s any other single that would have ever done that for us like “Crimson and Clover” did. And it allowed us then to have “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Draggin’ the Line,” and all the others. And I think our career could have very easily ended with “Mony Mony” if we hadn’t made that move. So this was a big deal and we didn’t want to do anything to screw up the release of “Crimson and Clover”…which I damn near did anyway.

ABLYAM: That’s actually what I was going to come to next. I was going to say, I think at this point, nearly everybody knows that “Crimson and Clover” was unfinished and that it leaked in Chicago in ’67.

TJ: Right. Correct.

ABLYAM: Now, you mention that in your book that you had intended to give the song a lot more ambient noise and echo. Was there already a firm plan set in your head about how it was going to sound?

TJ: Oh, yeah, definitely! Not only the sound of the record, but the marketing campaign for releasing the record. It was, you know- it was a real campaign. It was gonna have to be, because, from literally one single to the next, from “Mony Mony” to “Crimson and Clover” was about as far as you could get style-wise. And if we were gonna be believable, it really had to be done in a certain way.
Well, anyway, you know the story. I went up to Chicago and played a rough mix for WLS and, as I’m getting back into the car downstairs [after it was over], I’m hearing (radio DJ voice) “World exclusive on WLS!” and (singing the beginning of “Crimson and Clover”) “Uhhh…” and I’m going “Oh my God, I just screwed this whole thing up!” And I got back to New York, like I explain in the book, how the other station in Chicago, WCFL, sent a “death wreath” back to Roulette on the condolences of the death of Tommy James at WCFL for giving their competition an exclusive, you know? So, at any rate, I was thinking that I just absolutely ruined the thing and it turned out to be the best thing I could have done because then WLS played it every twenty minutes, you know, and broke the record. And WLS was the biggest station in the United States. So that was- that was one of those happy accidents that turned out to be (laughter) way better than if we had done it the regular way.

ABLYAM: It’s phenomenal.

TJ: And it was a rough mix. I practically mixed it with my knees and elbows. It was literally just putting up the faders.

ABLYAM: And given all the technical advancements in the studio that they have these days, have you ever considered going back to add the ambience and the echo just to hear what it would have sounded like?

TJ: (laughter) Well, that’s- that would be interesting. It’s an interesting thought. I don’t know. I don’t think it could be- well, it couldn’t get any better than number one with a bullet. I don’t know how you get any better than that so I’ll probably just leave it well enough alone.

ABLYAM: (laughter) Alright, well if you ever decide to play around with the track, I’ll be happy to provide the world exclusive.

TJ: Yeah! That’s really interesting. Maybe I’ll come to you to move it, so…

ABLYAM: (laughter) After doing some shows with The Beach Boys in 1969, you mentioned how you visited them at the Hyatt House in Los Angeles to get some pointers about appearing on Ed Sullivan, which you were due to appear on a week later.

TJ: Yep. Correct.

ABLYAM: Was the time you spent with them strictly business or did you guys get to cut loose?

TJ: Oh, no, we hung around and had some fun together and Carl [Wilson] and I actually wrote a song. You know, we didn’t have a lot of time to horse around on the road, but we became good friends.

ABLYAM: Can you think of any exceptional occurrences that happened?

TJ: Well just like in the book, when we were introduced [as next week’s guest] by Ed Sullivan, you know- (Ed Sullivan impersonation), “Next week, right here-” and we’re all sitting there- we’re all sitting around listening to this. Now they [The Beach Boys] had done Ed Sullivan at least a half a dozen times. So they were old hands at Sullivan and this is my first time and so, you know, I’m scared to death because it’s live. Everything is live. So he says, (Sullivan impersonation) “Next week, right here, Tony Jones and the Spondells will be here!”


TJ: “Tony Jones and the Spondells.” So if I wasn’t scared before, I was terrified now. And of course everybody was on the floor laughing.

ABLYAM: (laughter) Oh, yeah, I can imagine.

TJ: So- (laughter) which means he never heard of ya and he can’t read!

ABLYAM: (laughter) Well, in a completely different direction, I know that there’s some rumors going around about Morris Levy and how he was notoriously associated with the mafia and that he could have been behind the murder of “Shep” Sheppard of Shep and the Limelites. And I know that in an interview you did relatively recently on The Strange Dave Show, you said you didn’t know much about the rumor.

TJ: No, that’s one I didn’t know much about. I actually hadn’t heard that one.

ABLYAM: Well there’s an urban legend stemming from that that I was reading about and I was wondering if maybe you could address it. You know, let me know if there’s any accuracy to it at all. The legend goes that one day after you were particularly mouthing off about not getting your royalty checks (Morris Levy owed Tommy James around $40 million in royalties throughout his career), that a couple of Morris’ thugs took you to a warehouse on Long Island and made you witness them execute a guy who was tied to a chair and blindfolded.

TJ: No, no, no-

ABLYAM: So nothing like that ever happened?

TJ: No (laughter), no. I had enough shit going on. I didn’t need any more help like that. No, what happened is a very different kind of a story. The day I signed with Roulette, right in the middle of our meeting with Morris, after I had met him for the first time, you know, I’m watchin’ this guy ‘cause he (gruff mobster voice) talks like this, you know, he’s right out of a movie. And two guys came up to the door- that I later became friends with- but came up to the door, motioned for Morris who says, (mobster voice again) “Excuse me,” and goes over and, you can hear them talkin’ about how they just busted some guy’s legs and head open in a warehouse in New Jersey. And I overheard this shit. You couldn’t help but overhear it. So that kind of set the tone for everything that happened afterwards. We’d constantly be meeting people in Morris’ office and he’d introduce us to guys and a week later we’d see ‘em on T.V. being taken out of a warehouse in New Jersey in handcuffs doing a “perp-walk,” you know. And I’d say, “Isn’t that the guy we just met in Morris’ office?!” And…it would be.

ABLYAM: Yeah, that had to have been terrifying.

TJ: That was a pretty regular occurrence.

ABLYAM: What are you listening to these days? Music from a long time ago or recent stuff?

TJ: Well, you know, I’m a jazz fiend. I love jazz; I love smooth jazz. Yeah, I listen to some of the old stuff, but, you know, there’s a lot of good music all the way around. It’s like, I’m not a rap fan. I pick and choose stuff that I like and mostly I love jazz right now. I listen to a lot of jazz.

ABLYAM: Do you ever go back and listen to any of your songs from the ‘60s or ‘70s?

TJ: Sure, sure. Sure, all the time. But you know, it’s like, we continue to write. I’m in the studio right now; we’re writing for the movie. I guess you know about the movie?

ABLYAM: Oh, yeah. That’s my next question. That’s a good one. I found out that Martin Scorcese’s ex-wife, producer Barbara De Fina- I think she produced Goodfellas and Michael Jackson’s “Bad” music video-

TJ: Yep. And she also produced Hugo last year.

ABLYAM: Oh, really?

TJ: She produced Goodfellas; she produced Casino; she produced The Last Temptation of Christ; she produced The Color of Money with Paul Newman; and she’s just had a wonderful string of big hit movies. And she’s gonna produce Me, the Mob, and the Music.

ABLYAM: Yeah, that’s a nice resumé.

TJ: And so we’re very honored. You know, she’s this petite little thing, about five feet tall, very reserved and conservative, and you would never in a million years figure she made these kinds of movies.


TJ: Pretty amazing! And I never wanna play poker with this gal, I tell ya.

ABLYAM: Oh yeah?

TJ: No, she’s just very, very calm and sedate and, you know, I can imagine her being a great poker player.

ABLYAM: (laughter) Gotcha. Regarding the movie, do you know if it’s going to be something that you guys are aiming to release on the big screen or is it gonna be like, maybe, an HBO mini-series type of thing? What exactly are the plans for that?

TJ: No, this is gonna be a movie, a major motion picture.

ABLYAM: That is excellent. I can’t wait for that; it’s going be to be absolutely wonderful.

TJ: We’re also going to be looking at a Broadway show after the film.

ABLYAM: That’s going to be wonderful. I honestly can’t wait for that. Do you guys have a release date planned?

TJ: Well, it’s going to be at least two years because they’re bringing on the screenplay writer and the director right now. And each person that comes on the team is an individual negotiation and, you know, a very thoughtful selection. And so I’m getting a hell of an education; that’s all I can say. As we move forward, it’s a miracle any movie ever gets made. With all the moving parts, it’s really quite remarkable.

ABLYAM: That sounds like a lot of fun, though.

TJ: Well, it’s gonna be great. Of course, there’s gonna be new music in the movie, too.

ABLYAM: Oh, that’s good.

TJ: Yeah, so it’s gonna be a very wonderful project. And a real culmination of a whole lot of work.

ABLYAM: I’m lookin’ forward to that one. I can’t wait.

TJ: Thank you.

ABLYAM: Well, Tommy, I have to say it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk with you-

TJ: Well thank you so much!

And with that, my once-in-a-lifetime conversation with Tommy James wrapped up. Unfortunately Tommy didn’t have a recording device in his home to record a soundbyte for us, but he was generous enough to give us one over the phone. I thanked him again, he wished me well, and we hung up. The rest of my lunch time was spent calling up friends and family, bragging while I talked with a mouth full of food. That was a great, great phone call.
Words cannot describe how thankful I am to Tommy and all of his associates who helped set up this interview. It was an absolute pleasure to get to talk with Tommy James, who was truly a genuinely friendly and happy guy. So a big "thank you" to all of them.

To visit Tommy's site, click here.
To like Tommy on Facebook, click here.
To follow Tommy on Twitter, click here.
To purchase both Tommy's solo work and the work of Tommy James and the Shondells, click here and then click "store".
To see if Tommy James is coming to your town, click here and then click "tours".
If you're interested in reading Tommy's autobiography, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells (which I highly recommend), you can purchase it for a limited time from the front page of Tommy's site. For a limited time only, you can get a signed copy of the paper back for only $19.98! (+$5 shipping in the USA and +$10 outside the USA.) If you have any trouble, you can always find a copy on Amazon.

And now that you've enjoyed this exclusive story, why not check out what other exclusive stories we've received?

album art

Tommy James and the Shondells - Say I Am (1966)

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If you're lookin’ for a lovin’ man
A lovin’ man, say, say, “I am”
If you're lookin’ for a huggin’ man
A huggin’ man, say, say, “I am”
If you're lookin’ for a kissin’ man
A kissin’ man, say, say, “I am”
Well, if you're lookin’ for a dancin’ man
A dancin’ man, say, say, “I am”

Oh, yeah!
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake this baby up) Whoa, yeah!
(Shake this baby up) Look out!
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake, shake, shake) Come on and (Shake)
(Shake, shake, shake) Come on and (Shake)
(Shake, shake, shake) Yeah, come on and (Shake)
(Shake, shake, shake) Come on and (Shake)
(Shake, shake) Hey! (Shake)

If you're lookin’ for a lovin’ man
A lovin’ man, say, say, “I am”
I am.
If you're lookin’ for a huggin’ man
A huggin’ man, say, say, “I am”
If you're lookin’ for a kissin’ man
A kissin’ man, say, say, “I am”
Well, if you're lookin’ for a dancin’ man
A dancin’ man, say, say, “I am”

Oh, yeah!
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake this baby up) Whoa, yeah!
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake this baby up) Whoa, yeah!
(Shake this baby up) Come on and
(Shake, shake, shake) Come on and (Shake)
(Shake, shake, shake) Come on and (Shake)
(Shake, shake, shake, shake)
(Shake, shake, shake, shake)
(Shake, shake, shake, shake) Come on and
(Shake, shake, shake, shake) Come on and
(Shake, shake, shake, shake) Come on and
(Shake, shake, shake, shake) Come on and
Shake, shake, shake…


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