Walkin’ on Down the Line

In 1956, the Jackson family moved from South Bend, Indiana, to Monroe, Wisconsin, where Mr. Jackson had gotten a job managing the Eugene Hotel, a fabulous old brick pile that still stands on a corner of Monroe’s square, although it’s not a hotel anymore. Tommy Jackson was nine that year; he most likely attended the grade school three blocks from the Eugene, which was the same one I would attend in the mid 1960s. (Very late edit: He attended the Catholic school in town.) He made friends with a boy who would grow up to be my sister-in-law’s uncle.

When Elvis captured the imagination of kids everywhere, Tommy got his first guitar at a music store in Monroe. After he became besotted with rock ‘n’ roll, one of his first public performances was for a TV talent show broadcast from nearby Rockford, Illinois. (The sound went out just as he was introduced, so nobody watching could hear him.) After Tommy and his parents left Monroe for Niles, Michigan (not far from South Bend) in 1959, his interest in music continued to grow. As he signed his first professional contract, he decided to change his last name to something with one syllable, and on the spur of that moment decided to be Tommy James.

This is just part of the story told in Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells, the autobiography of Tommy James. It is indeed a helluva ride, detailing James’ childhood and his first forays into music, his dizzying rise to the top, and his often-unsettling relationship with mobbed-up music mogul Morris Levy of Roulette Records.

If you share my opinion that James is one of the most under-appreciated hitmakers of the 1960s, you will likely enjoy the book, so I don’t want to give the whole thing away. I’ll risk one part though, involving the creation of “Crimson and Clover.” Conscious of the way the world was changing in tumultuous 1968, James set out to make a big, important record, and was in the process of working on it when he and the Shondells traveled to Chicago for a show late that year. James dropped in at WLS with a rough mix of the record to play for the station’s program director, John Rook. But Rook surreptitiously taped it while it was playing and then put it on the air. When it took off in Chicago, Levy insisted on pressing it onto 45s as it was, and so James never got to do a final mix. What we’ve heard for 40 years was never intended by its creator to be the finished product.

Another oddity about “Crimson and Clover” is that the longer “album” version of the song was built up from the single, the opposite of the usual practice. James added guitar solos and lengthened the song by two minutes. In pre-digital days, this meant copying and physically cutting recording tape and then splicing it back together. For a couple of reasons, when the album version was finished, the new parts were at a slightly different speed than the old ones—and they stayed that way until Rhino bought the Roulette masters in the late 80s and digitally corrected them.

What’s made clear by Me, the Mob, and the Music is that Tommy James wasn’t a bubblegum hack created by a producer and foisted on the public via savvy marketing. (In fact, James resents being lumped in with bubblegum acts of the time.) Even when the rocket ride got bumpy and he was just fighting to hang on, he remained intimately involved in his craft, and created an enduring body of work that’s a lot more fun to listen to today than much of the Serious rock of the 1960s. Some of us have known that for a while. More people should.

Stoned and Sugar-Buzzed

As August begins to dwindle and autumn approaches, here’s a content advisory for this blog. We’re approaching the 40th anniversary of that pivotal season when I first discovered the radio and the music on it—which means that things are probably going to be more moony and reflective than usual around here between now and Christmas, or thereabouts. Before we hit the anniversary itself, we ought to take care of some business that predates the fall of 1970.

Most of the songs on my Desert Island list are those I can remember as current hits on the radio, but not all. Nine of the songs on the list were popular before the fall of 1970. I found them in succeeding years, and by some alchemy they became favorites. I’ve already written about one of them: “The Weight” by the Band. The other eight follow here, with commentary Twitter-style:

“Crimson and Clover”/Tommy James and the Shondells. Like a marijuana brownie with lots and lots of frosting on it—you get stoned and sugar-buzzed at the same time.

“Hang ‘Em High”/Booker T. and the MGs. In which Booker T. at the organ is like a guy who’s good with a knife—when he gets you with his weapon of choice, you’re cut to shreds before you realize what’s happened.

“Only the Strong Survive”/Jerry Butler. A single drum kick, an angel chorus sings “I remember,” and the Iceman begins to preach the lesson for today. A Gamble and Huff production.

“Crystal Blue Persuasion”/Tommy James and the Shondells. Sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, weed, etc. Despite having come out in the summer of 1969, this is pure 1970s. (And I believe the version here is the mono 45.)

“I’m Gonna Make You Mine”/Lou Christie. One of the first pre-1970 records to make the Desert Island list, back when I was creating it as some point in the 1990s. It doesn’t matter that I can’t remember why. What follows is the most bizarrely incongruous video I’ve ever seen. The process by which this was deemed a good idea, I can’t imagine.

“Love Goes Where My Rosemary Goes”/Edison Lighthouse. First heard this during the 1970 year-end countdown on WLS. Have maintained ever since that the louder you crank it, the better it sounds.

“Ride Captain Ride”/Blues Image. In which the hippie dream of sailing off someplace and building a brand new world still seems possible. (Click here for a clip of the band performing the song on the John Byner-hosted music series Something Else.)

“Into the Mystic”/Van Morrison. Relatively new to the Desert Island list. Sounds like it has existed forever. (Not linking to a version of this, since Van hates the Internet—he’s dumped his official YouTube channel and reduced his own website to a single page with no content. Aim the gun a little lower, sir . . . yeah, right at your foot. There you go.)

When I put the Desert Island list into chronological order, the next song on the list comes from October 1970, so you know what that means.

Recommended Reading: A review of the opening night of the Donald Fagen/Michael McDonald/Boz Scaggs “Dukes of September” tour. They’ll be in Milwaukee on September 15th, but we can’t go, and it’s killing me. The Mrs. will have to sedate me that day. Anybody who’s ever stared at a blank page for too long  will probably enjoy whiteray’s struggle for inspiration. At 30 Days Out, the recurring feature “Your Sister’s (Record) Rack” has been looking into her singles collection. (Part 1 here, part 2 here.) And for a while now, I have been digging the eclectic selection of tunes at Four Steps From the Blues. You should check it out, too.

Among My Souvenirs

One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote about music was seven years ago this month.

Out of force of habit, Americans still call pop stars “artists,” but how many of our most popular “artists” think of what they are creating as “art”? Does Kelly Clarkson know what an artistic vision is? Shania Twain says she doesn’t even like music all that much. . . . So unlike real artists, who tell us useful truths about ourselves that we wouldn’t otherwise recognize, such people merely collect our money. But instead of feeling cheated by them, lots of us feel fulfilled, which can only happen in a country where “consumer” has long since outstripped “citizen” as the primary civic ideal. . . . In a better world, Shania’s shocking admission and Kelly’s oceanic vapidity would be powerful indictments of their right to command our attention. And in a better world, Peter Wolf would be our American Idol.

If forced to choose only a dozen-or-so albums from my collection to take to the fabled desert island, Wolf’s 2002 album Sleepless would be coming along. It trips through several genres, from Memphis soul to Exile on Main Street-era Stones (with appearances by both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards), to Drifters-style baion, to Wolf’s own musical past (with a version of “Homework,” which was on the J. Geils Band’s debut album). Wolf took his time putting together a followup, which was finally released earlier this month: Midnight Souvenirs, which has been described by more than one critic as Sleepless Part II—which was recommendation enough for me. It’s a soul record, a country record, and a rocker at the same time, and it features guest appearances from Shelby Lynne, Neko Case, and Merle Haggard.

Here are Wolf and Lynne on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, doing “Tragedy.”

There’s a two-part documentary about the making of Midnight Souvenirs at YouTube; the first part is here, and from there, it’s easy to find the second part.

What I wrote about Sleepless seven years ago applies to Midnight Souvenirs, too:

Wolf shows us that the first criterion for being comfortable in your own skin is knowing where you come from. Such knowledge can be a beacon to help us navigate a future that will take us who-knows-where. If nothing else, it can give us the heart to keep moving. This is one of the things art is supposed to do, and we have rarely needed it more than we do right now, at a time when we seem to have lost sight of all the landmarks out here in the fog.

Also: Four albums by Tommy James, with and without the Shondells, have just been re-released. As it happens, three of them I don’t have: I Think We’re Alone Now, Travelin’, and My Head, My Bed, and My Red Guitar. (Gettin’ Together is the other one.) My Head, My Bed, and My Red Guitar, released late in 1971, features the work of top-shelf Nashville session men Pete Drake, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and Buddy Spicher, and was engineered by Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley’s guitarist. Moore doesn’t play, but he didn’t have to.

James has just published a book called Me, the Mob, and Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells, which tells the band’s story, particularly its relationship with Roulette Records impresario Morris Levy. Levy is the man who strong-armed his way to the top of the music business in the 50s and 60s with such dubiously legal gusto that he eventually inspired a character on The Sopranos. More about that as soon as I lay my hands on a copy.