Tommy James: Bits and Pieces

(Part II of a series. Part I is here.)

Although he passed on Woodstock, Tommy James entered the 1970s with his rock credibility intact, on the heels of Crimson and Clover, an eclectic album containing both compact pop tunes and rock experiments. The album sold something like five million copies, and was so big that release of the followup album, Cellophane Symphony, was delayed by several months during 1969 until Crimson and Clover cooled off.

Cellophane Symphony was finally released at the end of the year. It was a lot like Crimson and Clover, only more so. The hit single “Sweet Cherry Wine” was a hippie brotherhood anthem that comes across like “Crimson and Clover” meets “I Think We’re Alone Now” (in a good way), but  “Changes” is pure prog-rock. On several tracks, eclecticism goes over the edge: “I Know Who I Am,” “Papa Rolled His Own,” and “On Behalf of the Entire Staff and Management ” sound not merely trippy, but as if everyone involved were stoned blind. And if I played you the album’s title track, you’d never guess it was James—it’s a nine-minute instrumental that sounds like Pink Floyd.

“Changes” is full of Biblical imagery, but “Crystal Blue Persuasion” had already given listeners a clue about James’ 70s direction. He has said the title came to him while he was reading the Book of Revelation, although other sources cite the Book of Ezekiel, the Song of Solomon, or a Jehovah’s Witnesses tract. (It’s apparently got nothing to do with methamphetamine addiction, as uber-critic Dave Marsh once speculated.) After the Shondells decided to take a break in 1970 (after one last album, Travelin’), James began recording songs with more overtly Christian themes. His second solo album, 1971’s Christian of the World, produced three hit singles including the iconic “Draggin’ the Line” (B side: “Bits and Pieces,” which is good enough to have been an A-side), but the other two, “I’m Comin’ Home” and “Nothing to Hide,” would both pass as Christian-rock tunes today.

The country-flavored 1972 album My Head, My Bed and My Red Guitar was the last substantial hit for James, although he released solo albums in 1976 and 1977. The first one, In Touch, involved a reunion with Ritchie Cordell and contained James’ version of “Tighter, Tighter,” which he had written and produced for Alive ‘n’ Kickin’ in 1970. The second, Midnight Rider, was produced by bubblegum god Jeff Barry and featured guest musicians Michael McDonald and Timothy B. Schmit, but was ill-promoted by Fantasy Records—and it seems clear that even before this time, James was suffering from a prejudice against perceived bubblegum artists, even when the music in the grooves undercut the perception. It wasn’t until the completely delightful single “Three Times in Love” came out of nowhere in 1980, debuting in the Top 40 at the end of January, that James returned to the radio in a big way, albeit briefly and only once.

In the 80s, James was discovered by a new generation of artists—Joan Jett covered “Crimson and Clover,” and in November 1987, Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony” topped the American singles charts in back-to-back weeks. In the 90s, several of his tunes were part of the endless recycling of 60s and 70s tunes in movies. Last fall, he released a Christmas album. Approaching his 62nd birthday this April, Tommy James continues gigging, and sounds pretty good still, as in this clip from last year:

Coming next: Close encounters with Tommy.

“Changes”/Tommy James and the Shondells (buy it here)
“Bits and Pieces”/Tommy James (buy it here)

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