Tommy James still draggin’ his line of hits, 53 years later
Tommy James was born in Ohio, raised in Michigan, now lives in New Jersey, recruited his band in Greensburg and calls Pittsburgh his second home.
“I love coming back to Pittsburgh, where it all started for me,” he says. “I owe Pittsburgh a great deal, I truly do. It began my career. It is like a second home.”
James, 71, will headline a concert at 8 p.m. Feb. 14 in the Palace Theatre, Greensburg, with a new version of the Shondells.
It was in a Greensburg lounge, he recalls, where he saw The Raconteurs — Joe Kessler, Ron Rosman, George Magura, Mike Vale and Vinnie Pietropaoli – performing their own version of his “Hanky Panky.” They became his original Shondells, and he was excited with how natural it felt to play with them.
He doesn’t know if he will be seeing them at the Palace, which he refers to as “a great little venue.”
But he is fairly confident he will again see a multi-generation audience coming to hear his stunning array of hits, including “Hanky Panky,” of course — as well as “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Draggin’ the Line,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Three Times in Love” and “Mirage.”
The major leagues
The songs were instrumental in producing 32 Billboard Hot 100 Chart hits, 23 gold singles, 9 platinum albums and the sale of more than 100 million records worldwide.
His songs have been recorded by Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Idol, Joan Jett, Kelly Clarkson, Dolly Parton, Carlos Santana, Cher, Tom Jones and The Boston Pops.
His music has been heard in television shows such as “Breaking Bad,” “Criminal Minds,” “The Simpsons” and “The Goldbergs; more than 42 films; and in many commercials.
“I’ve been doing this for
53 years in the major leagues, and minor leagues for several years before that. It has just been an amazing run. I’m so grateful,” James says. “What keeps it fun is basically I love performing and mixing it up with people. It’s just that simple. It’s what I love to do the most.
“Traveling is not so great, but there is no getting around it. I love playing music and I am very blessed to do it. It is all I knew growing up,” he says.
On the radio
James has been honored for that commitment by being inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame and receiving Pittsburgh’s “Legend” award. BMI presented him with a prestigious industry airplay award for his music being played more than 21 million times on the radio.
The artist’s critically acclaimed autobiography, “Me, The Mob and the Music,” a fascinating look at how the underworld tried to take control of his career, is on Rolling Stone’s Top 25 Best Music Memoirs list, and is now in production for a major motion picture.
He says he is having a ball with “Getting Together with Tommy James,” his own show on Sirius/XM Radio, 5-8 pm. Sundays on the “60s on 6 channel” out of Manhattan.
“It has been one year this month. When they first came to me with this, I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ It is one thing being interviewed and one thing being on the other side of the mike and having to spontaneously come up with material, things to say,” he explains.
“It’s a nice little team at Sirius, one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been,” he says. “You never know who you will run into at Sirius: sports stars, rock stars, movie stars. They do so many genres of radio all going at once.
“They let me do my own program and pick the music I want to play,” he says. “I’m on three hours a week. That is a lot of air time. The show kind of goes through mood changes. I like that.”
Fateful phone call
All these opportunities likely were made possible by a phone call he received from a record industry representative in Pittsburgh in 1966 who told him that “Hanky Panky,” which he recorded in Ohio two years earlier and which had stiffed virtually everywhere else, was No. 1 in the city.
That call came at a time in which James was questioning his future. “It changed my life,” he recalls.
He was asked to come to Pittsburgh immediately and he did, arriving in town to guest on the Clark Race Dance Party on KDKA TV in April 1966 before he even had time to change his clothes.
A local label had pressed the record and it sold 80,000 copies.
“Outside the city limits nobody knew me, but as soon as I came through the tunnels into Pittsburgh, I’m a rock star,” he says.
His first radio interview was with KQV’s boss jock, Chuck Brinkman, who was emcee for the Beatles’ debut at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.
“Bob Livorio (of WKPA-AM, New Kensington) was one of the guys to play ‘Hanky Panky’ first. Guys like that broke the record and became friends.” Livorio still resides in New Kensington.
New music coming
“Alive,” a new album, is planned for April release.
“It is mostly new music and a couple of re-dos, including a song, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ (planned for the movie) and a new version of ‘Dragging the Line’ that is very different from the original,” James says.
He is proud of the relationship he has with his fans.
“They are the ones who keep the engine going and I have to say, any new venture I get into, they make it happen,” he adds.
One venture he famously turned down was an invitation to perform at the original Woodstock Festival, which is observing its 50th anniversary this year.
Does he ever regret that decision? “Every day,” he says, chuckling.
“I actually think I got more mileage out of not going, the story of it. I think I may have been on the cutting room floor had I gone though.”
A few years ago he did play a Woodstock anniversary gathering in Bethel, N.Y. He told the crowd, “I’m glad to finally be here. The traffic was murder!”
Wherever he plays, though, he hopes people take “good feeling and good energy around my music, good memories. Music is my life,” he adds. “When I was a little kid the only thing that shut me up from crying when I was 6 months old was my mom turning on the radio. Music has been literally my life’s thing.”
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributin writer.