(Part III of a series.)
Back in the day, I occasionally did a feature on my radio shows called “Close Encounters with the Famous.” I asked listeners to call up with stories of how they entered the orbit of a famous person without actually meeting them. The way I defined a close encounter was this: If you went up in an elevator with Lionel Richie, it didn’t count—that was too close. But if your aunt went up in an elevator with Lionel Richie, that counted. (Or if you went up in an elevator with Lionel Richie’s aunt.) And so, I can report a close encounter with Tommy James: He used to sleep in my sister-in-law’s mother’s bed.
Although it’s not in any of the official biographies I can find, when Tommy was a kid, he lived in my hometown of Monroe, Wisconsin, for about a year. (The internets are crawling with citations that say he lives there now, most notably on Wikipedia, but I don’t believe that’s true.) This would have been sometime in the late 50s, when he was probably still going by his birth name, Tommy Jackson. My sister-in-law Amy says Tommy and her uncle were friends, and that when Tommy stayed overnight, Amy’s mother, who had a double bed in her room, would give it up so the boys could share it. Even back then, Tommy was usually carrying a guitar around.
Before I knew that, I interviewed James. It must have been 20 years ago now, before he played a show in the town where I was working. (I wish I knew where the tape is, but I don’t.) I recall asking him, “Draggin’ the line—so, what’s that all about?” He told me that like the Beatles, he often wrote songs with nonsense lyrics to match the tune and planned to replace them later, only with “Draggin’ the Line,” he ended up leaving most of them alone.
Let’s conclude this discussion (which started as a single post and ballooned to three—find Part I here and Part II here) where it began. I’m not holding my breath about Tommy James eventually getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall has moved on to inducting artists whose careers began in the mid 80s, so the overlooked artists whose careers began in earlier years will probably continue to be overlooked. In James’ case, that’s an injustice. The most deserving members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are those who went where no one had ever gone before, and who did it in such a way that the rest of us wanted to come along. Or, they’re those whose artistic vision made us hear the music in new or different ways. James did both, and without sacrificing the pleasures that pure pop music can bring.
Here’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion” live in 2005.
There are lots of clips of this Bitter End show on YouTube, and on every one of ’em, Tommy James sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.