In 1968, Tommy James made a dramatic stylistic turnaround, swapping bubblegum pop for full‑blown psychedelic rock. The result was the superlative single 'Crimson & Clover'.
"Isn't it terrible when the only pictures you can find of the executives at your record company are their mug shots?”
That's the question posed by Tommy James, who scored two chart toppers and five other top 10 hits in the US between 1966 and 1969 with his group the Shondells. After all, this was achieved while not only making the difficult, rarely successful transition from garage rock and bubblegum pop to full‑fledged psychedelia, but for a label, Roulette Records, that didn't exactly believe in paying its artists their rightful dues.
Roulette, you see, was run by one Moishe 'Morris' Levy, a man known as much for pressing pirated records and grabbing the royalties on songs he never composed as for his business partnerships with high‑ranking members of the Genovese crime family. That's why, purportedly, he was the model for the character of mobbed‑up music mogul Herman 'Hesh' Rabkin in the television series The Sopranos; and why a photo‑spread of gangland bosses Gaetano 'Corky' Vastola, Thomas 'Tommy Ryan' Eboli, Dominick 'Quiet Dom' Cirillo, Anthony 'Fat Tony' Salerno and Vincent 'The Chin' Gigante appears under the heading 'The Roulette Regulars' in Tommy James's excellent new autobiography Me, The Mob & The Music, co‑authored with Martin Fitzpatrick.
Born Thomas Gregory Jackson in Dayton, Ohio, on 29th April, 1947, James was introduced to music at an early age. When he was four, he began learning how to play a ukulele given to him by his grandfather, as well as the piano. He had acquired his first acoustic guitar by the time he was nine and living in Monroe, Wisconsin, inspired by Elvis Presley's first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as by the rock & roll records he was already buying.
Teaching himself to play the guitar as an accompaniment to his own singing, Tommy would tune it to open 'E' so that he could change from one major chord to another by simply sliding one finger up and down the fret. As he'd subsequently discover, this habit would condemn him to "life as a rhythm guitarist,” yet his parents bought him a Slingerland electric guitar when he was just 10 years old, and a short time later he won the second‑place prize on a TV talent contest.
During the next few months, now living in Niles, Michigan, Tommy Jackson formed his first, short‑lived band, the Echoes, followed by another called the Tornadoes that enjoyed local success playing clubs, weddings and assorted other parties. Then, in 1962, a small label released the group's first single, 'Judy', written by Tommy about a high school sweetheart and credited to Tom & the Tornadoes. Within a couple of years, the group was renamed the Shondells and signed to Snap Records, for whom they recorded a loose‑feeling version of the Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich composition 'Hanky Panky' that sold well in the local region of Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. An early sampling of what would soon come to be known as garage rock, complete with a wild, unrestrained guitar solo and Tommy's laid‑back vocal, this track enjoyed a new lease on life when, in late 1965, it was picked up by a Pittsburgh dance promoter who played it in the clubs, had new copies pressed, and managed to shift 80,000 units within 10 days.
While news about this breakout hit appeared in trade papers such as Billboard, Cashbox and Record World, Tommy Jackson immediately capitalised on his unexpected success by shopping 'Hanky Panky' to the major labels in New York. By then, his fellow Shondells had either been drafted or left the business, but after he signed with Roulette — once Morris Levy had informed every other company that this was his record — the renamed Tommy James recruited a Pittsburgh outfit called the Raconteurs, toured and recorded with them as his new Shondells, and saw 'Hanky Panky' top the US chart for two weeks in July 1966.
That same year, Tommy James teamed up with songwriter‑producers Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry. The result was a string of pop hits, including 'I Think We're Alone Now', which peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1967; 'Mirage', which reached the Top 10 a few months later; and the riotous 'Mony Mony' which climbed to number three in the US in July 1968 and number one in the UK, where it was the group's only Top 20 hit.
In addition to the relationship with Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry, 'I Think We're Alone Now' also marked the first time that Tommy James recorded at the Allegro Sound Studios facility that was run by its chief engineer, Bruce Staple. Located in the basement of 1650 Broadway, home to the Aldon music publishing company that handled the material of Brill Building songwriters, Allegro was very different to Bell Sound where, in 1966, Tommy and the Shondells had recorded their Hanky Panky album.
"The control booth looked like the console in a spaceship,” James recalls in his autobiography. "Indirect light on the walls gave the place a futuristic feel, but above all, it had a hip, creative atmosphere.”
What's more, Allegro had an entirely different approach to recording than the one employed at Bell Sound...
"Although Bell had a multitrack, they were still recording as if they were doing these big mono dates,” Tommy James tells me. "Yes, the drums would be on track one while the bass was on track two and the keyboards were on track three, but they were pretty much recording everything at the same time. So, it was essentially like a mono date, and there'd be so much leakage that it was ridiculous. However, at Allegro, starting with 'I Think We're Alone Now' in December of 1966, we began really layering the records, taking our time with the bass and the drums until they sounded pretty much like one instrument.
"We were very careful not to over‑produce things, and it was maddening because we couldn't bounce to an adjacent track. So Bruce and I would have to sit there, practically with a slide rule and protractor, mapping out the entire record and figuring out how we were going to put it together. Only years later did I find out that we could have gone to another multitrack! Still, I learned so much watching Ritchie and Bo work with Bruce. On the first couple of albums, I watched everything they did, including Bruce splicing the tapes. Everything was manual. It was fascinating, and I couldn't have got an education like that in any other way.
"They gave me the run of the place. I was running my career, and I have to say that, aside from all of the problems over non‑payment and the other things that transpired at Roulette, they left us alone in the studio to morph into whatever we could become. I was very thankful for that. If it wasn't for Morris Levy, there wouldn't be a Tommy James, so in the end we came out way ahead.”
"The Shondells were not what I'd call studio musicians, but they had a feel,” adds Bruce Staple. "Something about the way they played that made their records sound good.”
After commencing his recording career at New York's RCA Victor studio in 1957, Staple was drafted by the United States Army the following year and served not only as the chief recording engineer for the US Army band, but also as the engineer and technical director for singer Steve Lawrence, who had been drafted along with him. In 1960, Staple then returned to RCA, before joining Allegro Sound a couple of years later.
"Since RCA had its own studios, cutting rooms and re‑recording rooms, it did work for a bunch of outside labels,” he explains. "Well, one of the labels that I worked with was Laurie Records, which back then had major artists like Dion & the Belmonts and the Chiffons, and they liked the re‑recordings that I did, as well as how I cut the masters. So when Laurie found out that Allegro was available, they asked me if I'd run the studio for them, and when I accepted, they made me its President and Chief Engineer. I'd never planned or expected that, but some of the best things in life just happen.
"Originally, Allegro had been the Kama Sutra label's demo studio, but I had higher hopes for it. In the beginning, it had an old Gates Radio console with knobs and no equalisation, and overall there was a pretty poor setup in the control room. So I decided that I had to rebuild the studio, and after about 18 months I designed an all‑transistorised mixing board — probably the first one in the city — with Neumann slide faders. At first, it had 12 inputs to work with the eight‑track tape machine, and when we went to 16‑track I then added four outboard inputs, which was a lot for 1965. I also built Pultec equalisers, de‑potting all of the components and making them solid state instead of tube, and they were very quiet. With the old Pultecs, the noise flow was around 50 or 52dB, whereas mine were 65dB, which was pretty damned good.
"Every channel had a Pultec built‑in — you didn't have to patch it — as well as its own individual compressor. Fairchild had a compressor with LDRs [Light Dependent Resistors] and a lightbulb, and the brilliance of the lightbulb changed the resistance of the LDRs, thus controlling the compression. So, again, I built those — since I wasn't selling them, there was no copyright infringement — and that meant I could play with the microphone mix on each channel, equalising and compressing it as I liked. Each channel had its own individual track selector, all of which was real state of the art in 1964.
"Hanging over the console, there were four Altec 604s, which at that time were the speakers of choice, and to drive them I had four Williamson‑designed push‑pull 60W amplifiers that I myself built. I also had the same Williamson‑designed amplifier for the headphones and for the playback, while the tape machines we had were all Scully. These were in what we called the Allegro Blue cabinets — a robin's-egg blue Formica — made especially for Allegro because I liked that colour. In 1964, we went from four‑track to eight‑track; by 1965, we were 16‑track; and by 1968, we were up to 24‑track...”
It's worth noting that facilities such as Abbey Road didn't acquire an eight‑track until 1968. Allegro was clearly ahead of the curve.
"The minute I saw there was a new multitrack available, I bought it right away,” Staple says. "I didn't wait. Back then, I was also using noise reduction, but I did not use Dolby like everyone else. I never liked how Dolby coloured the sound,” Staple continues, "so I used Dbx.”
Meanwhile, the Allegro live room was capable of accommodating up to 25 musicians for larger sessions involving the recording of brass, strings and a rhythm section. However, this was only after Bruce Staple sound‑treated the all‑concrete basement, covering the floor with vinyl tiles, the acoustical ceiling with fibreglass, and the walls with fibreglass wrapped in fabric.
"The fibreglass was used to absorb,” Staple explains, "but then I had certain areas that reflected, and what this achieved was to actually correct the sound of the room. In the corner where I'd place the drums, I had an adjustable ceiling. It was made out of compressed fibreglass, covered with grille cloth, and it was on a pulley with hinges so I could adjust the height and vary the sound according to what was required. I thought out of the box.”
Evidently, all of the effort paid off, because once Tommy James took a liking to Allegro he booked it a year in advance.
"Bruce's partner was a guy named Bob Leaf, and he was a fantastic combination of half‑engineer, half‑scientist,” James recalls. "By the time I was done at that studio, the wall in the live area had a female jack plug about every four or five feet, allowing you to plug instruments into various effects. The whole wall was lined with them, and it was Bob Leaf who had invented these effects and come up with the circuitry. He was like Mr Wizard. He'd come out and say, 'Hey, look at what this thing does!' and we'd say, 'Hey, that's great! Build it into the wall!' That's why it became our studio. The only issue was the subway that would shake the room every now and then...”
"We'd worked with the Sparrows before they became Steppenwolf, and we also recorded Cream, Carly Simon and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels,” adds Bruce Staple. "However, once Tommy began working at Allegro I often had to turn other artists down. He would come in three nights a week and we would just keep cutting singles.”
That's because Roulette was, for the most part, only interested in releasing singles, while compiling albums from tracks recorded in that vein. Such was the case with 'Mony Mony', a raucous throwback to the party records of the early '60s, produced during the post‑Pepper era when the Vietnam War was providing ample material for protest songs while fuelling the counter-culture movement. Accordingly, what Tommy James did next was pretty astounding, especially at a time when hit singles were often followed by near‑clones that stuck to the tried and trusted formula.
'Crimson & Clover' was the antithesis of the upbeat, hard‑rocking 'Mony Mony'; a slow, trance‑like dive into psychedelia that, by virtue of its spacey lyrics and ethereal sound, perfectly captured the prevailing 'turn on, tune in and drop out' ethos, while endowing Tommy James & the Shondells with contemporary credibility. The group's biggest‑ever record, it resulted from TJ having the artistic integrity and determination to reinvent himself overnight... as well as the balls to burn plenty of bridges in the process.
Devastated by the death of Robert Kennedy after playing at several of his rallies when he was campaigning to become the Democratic Presidential candidate in 1968, Tommy James then accepted Hubert Humphrey's invitation to serve him in the same capacity. The subsequent cancellation of a British concert tour and an appearance on Top Of The Pops resulted in the BBC boycotting Tommy James's records, yet of even greater significance were the musical changes taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.
"When we became the opening act for Hubert Humphrey's campaign, singles acts were big,” says James. "There was my group, the Rascals, the Association, Gary Puckett and so on. However, by the time we returned home 90 days later, it was all about albums. The whole industry had been turned on its head and there was this mass extinction of singles acts, people who'd never have another hit record. Well, we knew that if we didn't start selling albums — which Roulette had never really done — we'd be left behind, and we were therefore extremely fortunate that the record we were working on at that very moment was 'Crimson & Clover'. Simply put, we wanted to change our sound, and that record enabled us to make the jump from AM Top 40 singles to FM, album‑oriented, progressive rock. No other record that we ever worked on, before or after, would have enabled us to do that.”
There have been numerous interpretations of the song's title: love and sex; sex and marijuana; making love in the grass, over and over... Tommy James provides a much more straightforward explanation.
"The title came to me as I woke up one morning,” he says. "For some reason, I'm real creative as soon as I get out of bed, and those two words came to me, but they really didn't mean anything. They just sounded very poetic and very profound, and [drummer] Peter Lucia and I then wrote the song around that title. The funny thing is, when you start with a title you always have a couple of different choices, and you have to find the sweet spot where the song wants to be. A title has a kind of logic to it, and if you listen, the song will eventually tell you what it wants to be. It's not like starting with a groove or even a line; when you start with a title, the song kind of works its way backwards, and basically 'Crimson and Clover' is just a three‑chord progression backwards.”
In the studio for 'Crimson and Clover', Tommy James dispensed with many of the components behind his most recent hits: Bo Gentry, with whom he'd had a falling‑out; Ritchie Cordell, whose shared production credits with Gentry had overlooked TJ's own contributions; Shondells guitarist Eddie Gray and keyboardist Ron Rosman; and assorted session musicians. Instead, Tommy James produced himself, sang the lead vocal, and played most of the instruments — including his Fender Jazzmaster guitar and Martin D12 acoustic, and Allegro's Hammond B3 and Baldwin electric harpsichord — alongside band mates Mike Vale on bass guitar and Peter Lucia on drums.
"Tommy could play almost anything,” Bruce Staple confirms. "When I recorded the tracks, I put tape delay on everything, and I never told Tommy; I just did it. I felt that's what it needed, based on the song and what it was trying to say. Then, when I played it back and Tommy listened to it, he said, 'Man, that sounds great! What did you do?' I told him that the machine we were recording on was being fed back on itself; taking the play head, returning it to the mixer and then turning it back to the record head, so I had the delay between the two heads. By having the delay on a separate mixer for each track, I was able to control how much was coming back.”
"Allegro had just updated to 24‑track, and we knew that if we were going to sell albums, we had to be a lot more interesting,” adds Tommy James. "Radio airplay was switching over to stereo, so we had to sound better, everything had to be richer, and our whole recording technique had to be updated along with the technology. When I informed Morris about what we were trying to achieve, Roulette started planning this huge press release for the next single, along the lines of 'BC becomes AD'. The recording of 'Crimson & Clover' took about five hours — it wasn't like we sat and thought about it a lot, we just did what came naturally, and the tremolo part was something that we came up with in about 20 seconds.”
This refers to the wobbly vocal effect towards the end of the song, which was created by Bruce Staple running Tommy James's Telefunken 251 through an Ampeg Gemini 2 guitar amp, applying a tremolo whose speed matched the tempo of the track, and having James repeatedly sing, "crimson and clover, over and over,” before running the miked amp back through the console. Following the record's November 1968 release, some people thought he was singing, 'Christmas is over.'
"That was the fun part back then,” James comments. "When you wanted to create sounds, you had to build them. You couldn't just push a button and have a synthesizer do it for you. Anyway, after we'd finished recording 'Crimson & Clover', I did a rough mix. It was a Thursday night, the session ended at about three in the morning, and I practically mixed it with my elbows. Bruce and I were going to final mix it the following week.
"The next day, I went to Chicago to play a concert, and on the way from the airport I stopped off at WLS, which at that time was the biggest station in the country. It had broken a lot of records for us, and the programme director, John Rook, was a friend of mine. So I played him the rough mix of 'Crimson & Clover' to get his feedback and he went nuts. He loved the record. Next, he played it for a WLS DJ named Larry Lujack, but unbeknown to me they pushed the 'record' button and taped my tape. Jim Stagg at WCFL, WLS's main rival in Chicago, had already told us that if we ever gave WLS another exclusive like we'd done with 'Mony Mony', we could kiss his station goodbye. Well, as soon as I got back in the limo I heard Larry Lujak on the radio: 'World exclusive on WLS! Tommy James & the Shondells' brand new single 'Crimson & Clover'...'
"Holy shit, they were playing the rough mix! On Monday morning, when I walked into Roulette, there was a funeral wreath sent by Jim Stagg at WCFL with a note saying, 'Condolences over the death of Tommy James & the Shondells at WCFL Radio.' When Morris asked, 'What the fuck happened?' I tried to explain, but meanwhile Red Schwartz, the [Roulette] promo man called John Rook at WLS to tell him he'd blown WCFL for us, and his response was, 'They don't have to play the record. I'm playing it every 20 minutes.' Which he did, every 20 minutes, and I never got the chance to mix 'Crimson & Clover'. The record that we all know is a seven and half [ips] rough mix. Morris told me, 'You're the only person I've ever known who could complain that WLS is playing your record every 20 minutes.'”
"Right after the session, I would do a mix so that Tommy could take it home and listen to it,” adds Bruce Staple, whose tenure at Allegro would be followed by executive‑level stints at Electric Lady, Soundmixers, Sound One Corporation and Motorola, before his relocation to the Philippines, where he currently farms mangos and sells motorcycles. "I basically mixed while I was recording, and so all I had to do was take it off the multitrack tape and it was there.”
Tommy James concurs. "I really wanted to create something ambient and futuristic‑sounding,” he says. "But I suppose that was God's way of saying, 'Don't mess with the record any more.' Bruce did such good work that the rough mix stood up.”
However, there was still some more messing to do. For the Crimson & Clover album, which featured liner notes by Hubert Humphrey, as well as the number two psychedelic hit 'Crystal Blue Persuasion' — a follow‑up to the top 10, equally trippy 'Sweet Cherry Wine' — James and his colleagues wanted to retain the sound and energy of the title track. They also wanted to appease FM radio, by extending that track from just under three‑and‑a‑half minutes to just over five‑and‑a‑half. This ran contrary to the normal procedure of editing a song down for single release, and entailed a lot of work.
"I used to master the singles over at Bell Sound,” explains James, whose autobiography is currently being adapted into a movie and a Broadway musical. "The head engineer was a heavyset guy named Big Dom who worked on an old Scully lathe, and he was a master craftsman. Nobody could cut singles like him. Well, one of the things that he used to do if we needed a little more pep to a record was to ever so slightly speed it up by a process called 'wrapping the capstan'. He would take a piece of Scotch tape, slice it diagonally, put it on his thumb and run it up the capstan to make it a little larger. That meant it would pull on the other reel a little harder, causing the record to speed up, and that's what he did with 'Crimson & Clover'. The version that was on AM radio was sped up by about an eighth of a tone.
"When we back into the studio for the album version, we wanted to make it like the single, and that meant it would have to be at the same speed. Bruce had just brought in this contraption called a variable‑frequency oscillator — it sounded very important — which could slow down or speed up the normal wall current from 60 cycles. The idea was to make tape copies of the original 24‑track, add more instrumentation and then splice it all back together. That was pretty simple, but we also had to slightly speed up the machine we were going to record on. So we took it up an eighth of a tone and got it exactly right, and then we began making tape copies and recording over them; removing the vocals and adding steel guitar, wah‑wah pedals and stuff like that.
"Everything was going great, and in about a day and a half we completed all of the parts. Then we spliced it all together and discovered that the damned varispeed had drifted, meaning it was ever so slightly slower. I didn't have the time to change it, and so for the next 20 years, every time I played the long version of 'Crimson & Clover', I'd hear a slight drop in tone where the edit would go into the instrumental part. It wasn't much, but enough to piss me off, and it stayed that way until Morris sold Roulette to Rhino in the United States and EMI overseas. Finally, Rhino's great mastering engineer, Bill Inglot, fixed it digitally, and so since 1988 everything is right.”
Not that record buyers didn't think it was right on the day of release. While the Crimson & Clover album was Tommy James and the Shondells' most successful long player, reaching number eight on the Billboard 200 and remaining on the chart for 35 weeks, the single spent the first two weeks of February 1969 atop the Billboard Hot 100 and was, according to TJ, "a blessing. It changed everything for us, opening up the second half of our career... and what with the book, the film and the musical, the ride continues!”
Track: 'Crimson & Clover'
Producer: Tommy James
Engineer: Bruce Staple
Studio: Allegro Sound
The sound created in the studio for 'Crimson & Clover' — including the tremelo'd lead vocal — is less than easy to reproduce on stage. So, when Tommy James & the Shondells were asked to perform it live for their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, they demurred.
"We knew that was a train wreck waiting to happen,” James says. "The Sullivan people finally let us lip‑sync it, but only on the condition that we supplied them with a four‑track that they could mess with so that it didn't sound like the record. So we said OK, and then Bruce and I went to the studio and put together four tracks of mono at different volumes and different EQs. That way, the needles didn't look exactly the same, but all they'd be able to do was raise or lower the mono level. That's how we handed it to them and they never knew the difference. They still run that show all the time.”