Tommy James: Behind the Crystal Blue Persuasion
By Amy Reid with Scott Ross
The 700 Club
He had hits like “Mony, Mony”, “Crimson and Clover”, and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” 23 gold records in all, but what went on behind the scenes? I sat down with Tommy James to talk with him about his new book, Me, the Mob, and the Music.
Scott Ross: When did that start for you, the music thing?
Tommy James: It actually started when I was four years old. I started playing a ukulele. When I was nine years old, I got my first acoustic guitar, and I saw Elvis on the first Ed Sullivan Show. Rock'n'Roll suddenly became a job opportunity. So, I basically, all I ever wanted to do really was play.
Tommy James started his first band when he was 12. They were so popular with kids in the area that two local recording labels signed them. In 1964, when Tommy was a junior in high school, he recorded a tune called “Hanky Panky.”
James: I got a call from Fenway distributors in Pittsburgh. That “Hanky Panky” I had recorded two years earlier was sitting at No. 1.
Ross: Somebody dug it up?
James: Dug it up out of a record cemetery, put it on the air. And it actually broke out at teen dance clubs. And they bootlegged it, sold 80,000 of them in 10 days and were sitting at No. 1. Only in America. Only in America.
Tommy quickly put a band together and went to New York to sell the master. The Shondells were met with enthusiasm from every record company they went to, but were turned down by them all.
James: And finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic levels with us and tells us, “Well, if you want to know the truth, Morris Levy from Roulette Records called up all the record companies and said, ‘This is my record.’”
Ross: Whoa, with that tone, that attitude?
James: So I said, “This is kind of scary, actually.”
What made it scary was that by signing with Roulette, Tommy put himself under the thumb of the mob.
James: What we didn’t know and we learned incrementally was that Roulette, in addition to being a functioning record label and a good one, was also a front for the Genovese crime family in New York.
Ross: So they owned you, and you didn’t know it?
James: Well, they owned the record.
Ross: Yeah well, then they owned you, buddy.
James: This made life really interesting.
The summer of 1966, “Hanky Panky” was released and quickly went No. 1 worldwide, but in spite of Tommy’s success, getting paid was a problem.
James: I describe it as trying to take a bone from a Doberman. I mean, it just wasn’t going to happen.
Ross: He owed you about what, $30-40 million?
James: Before it ended up, our accountant calculated somewhere between $30 and $40 million that we just flat out didn’t get. But, if I’d have had that money right then with the lifestyle I was leading, I would have probably destroyed myself.
To cope with the pressure of coming up with the next hit while dealing with the mob, Tommy did what many musicians of that era did…
Ross: Here comes the booze and the alcohol.
James: … and the pills.
Ross: And everything else.
James: It’s amazing how quickly and easily you start doing that stuff. And when you’re that age, you have no fear of chemicals.
His lifestyle took its toll. Tommy married and divorced twice.
Ross: Is there ever a time when you’re sitting in a hotel room going, “I’m fooling myself?”
James: I’ll never forget one night you talk about the God meeting you where you live. I was in a Holiday Inn. I opened a desk drawer and there’s a Gideon Bible. And I just went, “God, talk to me somewhere.” And so, I opened it up and I went to Ezekiel. At the time, I’m a real UFO nut. I’m fascinated with UFOs. So I open up Ezekiel and I read the greatest UFO story in history. [Read Ezekiel 1]
Ross: Ezekiel 1 and the chariots and the lights and the wheels and the whole thing…
James: Unbelievable, yes. Exactly. I was just blown away, because I knew that was God talking to me. It really changed me. God was real. Suddenly He was in the now.
Ross: What did you do with that?
James: Well, I stole the Bible. That’s the first thing I did. It took me years before I knew they wanted you to take the Bible. I didn’t know that, so I felt very guilty about it. I tucked it away in my suitcase and took it home.
Three months later, Tommy was writing a song with the TV on in the background.
James: Billy Graham is having a crusade at Shea Stadium. So I started watching it. He gave one of the most incredible teachings on why Jesus came. I had never heard it put that beautifully and simply before. It rang something in me. And I knew I’d heard the truth. And I went up to the TV, I know I probably did retinal damage, put my nose on the set and my hand. When he gave the invitation, I got saved that night.
Tommy dedicated his heart to God, but his body was still addicted to drugs and alcohol. The band continued to crank out hits like “Mony, Mony” and “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
James: We began producing our own product and that really was a monumental moment.
Tommy managed to break away from Roulette, but addiction still had a hold on him. In 1986, Tommy checked himself into the Betty Ford Center.
James: That was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
Ross: To dry out from the pills, the booze…
James: From everything. Got rid of everything. And I must say that when I played my first gig after, you know, being high on something for 25 years every time I would play, it was the most liberating experience in the world. It was incredible.
Ross: When you reflect on all this, Tommy, do you see the invisible hand of God in your life?
James: Oh, without a doubt. It’s a miracle. What I’m saying is the Lord has not only directed my path, but He’s been my Shepherd all my life. He’s been kind to me. He’s been generous to me. But He’s also let me know that it’s Him. When I’m appearing somewhere, I get to throw little seeds out there. I’ll say at the end of “Sweet Cherry Wine”, which is about the blood of Jesus, ‘Keep looking up. Jesus is coming.'”
Ross: …and another one of your songs, “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”
James: Yeah, that was about becoming a Christian. People say, "Is that about drugs?" I say, “No, it was about Jesus.”
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