Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tommy James Reveals Secret to Crystal Blue Persuasion

Still LOTS of buzz going on about Tommy James' new book "Me, The Mob And The Music". Artie Wayne was kind enough to share some of his recent website postings with our readers:

When Tommy James and the Shondells released “Hanky Panky” in 1964, Tommy was still going to High School. He heard a local band, The Spinners (no relation to hit band), play the song at a local bar to an enthusiastic response from the crowd. The next day Tommy checked the record guide at the Spin-It record shop, where he worked, and found it listed as the B-side to a 1963 Raindrops single, “That Boy John.” by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Tommy and his group recorded it, put it out, and it bombed!

Two years later a local Pittsburgh deejay started spinning it at record hops, which prompted radio airplay and a bootleg, which sold 80,000 records!

That’s when Tommy took “Hanky Panky” to New York to show it to all the major labels, who loved and wanted to release it. Although Roulette Records, a company known more for their forty fives than for their singles, was at the bottom of the list, they got the master. It seems Roulette’s owner, the infamous but charming, Morris Levy, called each record company head, and told them, “It’s my fuckin’ record … back off!”

Although I thought “Hanky Panky” was good, I never would have guessed that it was just first of an incredible string of hits that would eventually give Tommy James and the Shondells combined sales of over a 100 million records!

I became friendly with Tommy in 1968, when Morris Levy gave me and my partner Kelli Ross our own label distributed by Roulette and sent me on a tour promoting my album as “Shadow” Mann with Tommy, at the Height of his popularity (“Crimson and Clover”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, “Mirage”) .

It was during this time that Morris sent me to promote "Come and Live With Me", and my protege Sissy Spacek a / k / a “Rainbo”) who was promoting her single "John, You Went Too Far This Time", to Cleveland to do the “Upbeat” TV show. We all hung out and had a great time until Tommy made us miss our flight back to New York because he had to go back to his hotel where he had forgotten his stash of hundreds of diet pills.

When I heard Tommy had written a book, “Me, the Mob, and the Music”, I wanted to read it and interview him before he was forced to hide out or go into the Witness Protection Program. I wanted to know more about his music and the stories behind the songs. I also wanted to hear how he finally won his battle with drug addiction.

Of course, I wondered what he would say about Morris Levy, a man who up until now has only been whispered about … usually by people who really didn’t know him.

Although I was apprehensive about having a label with Morris and being an artist for the notorious Roulette records as “Shadow” Mann, I felt somewhat safe because my silent partner in my publishing company was Irving Green (who owned Mercury and Smash Records), who was not only my partner and Kelli Ross’ father, but also Morris Levy’s best friend.

I always considered Tommy James, Roulette’s top artist, and his records to be ahead of their time, but I wonder how many people know that he was a major creative influence on the Beatles. How many people are aware that George Harrison even wrote a few songs for him (which were eventually passed on because they too much in the vein of “Mony, Mony”).

Now I had a chance not only to see how the infamous but charming Morris Levy and Roulette promoted records, but also how Tommy James made them! One day I was up at the label walking past Morris’ office and I heard some great music coming out. I couldn’t help but stop and put my ear a little closer to the door. SUDDENLY … the door swings open and I’m a bit scared to see a startled, serious looking Morris less than a foot away from me!

Then a smile sweeps across his face as he grabs my arm and says, “Shadow … I want you to meet somebody.” Then he introduces me to Tommy James, who brought by a test pressing of his next single, “Crimson and Clover”. From the beginning it sounds like a hit, but when it reaches the end and goes into an electronic chant “Crimson and Clover … over and over”, it sounds like a classic!

(Here's the original clip of "CRIMSON AND CLOVER" 1969)

When my pals at Spectropop and Forgotten Hits, the ‘60s and ‘70s music forums, heard I was interviewing Tommy, they submitted six pages of questions. Two of those pages were filled with questions that basically asked, “How did you get that sound on “Crimson and Clover”?

Tommy said, “We had done the record with tremolo on the guitar. It's just a built-in sound on guitar amplifiers. When I played the guitar, we recorded it with tremolo pretty much in synch with the music. In other words, we tried to make it so that it was vibrating at the same speed that the drums were playing. So we made the whole record that way. And then at the end, it was like one of those whimsical ideas, we said, "Why don't we put it on the voice?" So that's what we did ... we ran the vocal mike through an Ampeg guitar amp, turned on the tremolo and miked it, and ran it back through the board. It was just that simple. What was so amazing back then, if you wanted to make a sound wiggle, you had to basically do it yourself. There was no button you could push on a synthesizer, you basically had to build the circuits yourself and everything else. So that's what we did, we just ran the vocal mike through the guitar amp, and then miked the amp and ran it back through the board."

“Crimson and Clover” was not only a major point in their career turning them overnight from AM singles artists into FM album artists; it was also the first of the hits that Tommy James and the Shondells created themselves. After working with producers Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry on his earlier records, “I Think We’re Alone Now”, and “Mony, Mony”. ” Tommy says, “Those guys were the best and we learned a lot about producing and getting new sounds from them!”

I then I told him that Forgotten Hit’s Kent Kotal, wanted to know if there are any stories about “Crystal Blue Persuasion”. Tommy said, “That’s from the Crimson and Cover” album. At that point we had drastically changed our style. It was a difficult record to make. We completely over produced it, so gradually we started pulling instruments out, guitars, congas, percussion, etc. until it became as you know it.”

Artie – “So basically you let it breathe”

Tommy – “Yeah, we let it breathe … and it came to life!”

Artie - “There has been a lot of speculation about the meaning of “Crystal Blue Persuasion”. I always thought you were writing about Crystal Meth.”

Tommy – (smiles) “No. It’s about my conversion to Christianity … just listen to the lyric.” =

The more time I spent up at Roulette I started to believe more and more of the stories I’d heard about Morris. One day I saw him and Nate McCalla, his friend and partner in Calla Records, getting off the back elevator with a dozen hot TV sets, giving me the pick of the litter!

Although I was honored to sit in on some of Morris’ meetings there were times when I’d leave the room for fear of hearing too much … especially when the conversation would turn to Morris’ favorite forms of promotion … payola and intimidation.

Tommy told me about his first day up at Roulette, when he overheard Morris and some of his pals, talking about beating up some guy for bootlegging his records, then resumed the conversation as if nothing happened.

Tommy actually tells dozens of compelling stories in his book, “Me, the Mob, and the Music”, which made my hair stand on end … or laugh, sometimes both at the same time!

I told him how my producer Ron Haffkine and I would sit in Morris’ office while he was on the phone “encouraging” disc jockeys to play my records. “You play the Shadow’s records … or I’ll break your legs!”

Then Tommy told me something that made my mouth drop open!

(Don'tcha just love a great cliff-hanger ending?!?!? Want more of Artie's interview with Tommy James??? Then just click on the link below for "the rest of the story"!!!) kk


Thanks to members of Forgotten hits, Alan O’Day, “Country” Paul Payton, Brooks Arthur, Ed Salamon, Alan Karr, Jim Cassidy, Kent Kotal, Dee Trane, Patti Dahlstrom, Ayrton Mugnaini, Robby Leff, Art Munson, AJC, and Matthew David, for the questions this article is based on..


Artie Wayne

You'll find a GREAT interview with Tommy James on the Songfacts website, too ... here's a link for that one:

And here's an AMAZING video of Tommy performing one of his biggest hits, "Crystal Blue Persuasion" at The Bitter End a few years ago:
And be sure to visit Tommy's website for all the latest info regarding upcoming performances and new releases:


David said...

Exellent! I firt heard Chrystal Blue Persuasion in the summer of
'69, I was 10 years old growing up in the Detroit area where WKNR and CKLW would give it sufficient airplay. I was introduced to true Christianity a year earlier. There was no doubt in my little mind that he was referring to Christ and the blue that makes up most of the color of our planet. I recieved a confirmation of his genuis on the night of July 20th 1970 while witnessing one of mankinds greatest achievments! I have listened to this special song my entire life with my wife and seven hildren, who to this very day ask for us to play it! Tommy was inspired from above to do such a wonderful work and was 40 years ahead of his time in all of it's meaning! this song should be the "International Anthem!" for mankind! after all "The SON is arisen, most definately! A new day is NOW! LOVE, SOUL and OPEN MINDS! PEACE and GOOD, BROTHERHOOD will truly prevail amidst all of this chaos! We can choose to see all of the good and light that surrounds us, it's healthier and is REALITY! Great post Phil! Tommy James is a true visionary! A national treasure for sure!

Anonymous said...

& of course you posted your comment at 1:11 !!! ANGEL NUMBERS! BLESS YOU!

Anonymous said...

^ DAVID ^ Your comment lifted me! SYNCHRONICITY at it's finest ♥ Love&light to you, heaven on MotherEarth is coming, OUR frequencies are vibrating at their highest! THANK YOU!