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.

2 responses

  1. The Tommy James saga is, IMO, the ultimate American rock ‘n’ roll success story: one crazy instance of happenstance after another. You couldn’t have made it up, even if you’d wanted to. As wild as that ride proved to be, in the final analysis, Tommy’s recorded legacy for Roulette benefitted greatly from all he had to endure. For sure, Levy screwed Tommy out of his considerable royalties, but he at least had the sense to let Tommy take charge in the studio. Without that love/hate relationship with Levy, who’s to say that Tommy’s career would have even lasted long enough to produce a “Crimson And Clover” or “Crystal Blue Persuasion” for Atlantic or Columbia Records?

    I’m very grateful that Tommy took that ride, but no way would I have gone on it with him.

  2. glad you finally got to read this awesome book.

    It bothers me when companies (Rhino) “fix” things digitally. Part of the charm (if there is any) during the “hmmmm let’s try this guitar effects pedal, okay let’s try this one” section is the awkward moment when matching the pitch of the original with the edit.

    The same thing happened to the Beatles on the medley side of Abbey Road. After the guitar battle the piano comes in at a different pitch. I don’t have updated CD’s of their stuff so I don’t know if it’s been “fixed.”

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