James home in Niles

Published 9:43 pm Monday, January 2, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Cassopolis Vigilant
NILES - Forty years after his 1965 graduation from Niles High School, Tommy James, 58, of Cedar Grove, N.J., is back on the charts, releasing a new album in March and dueting on a countrified “Crimson and Clover” with Dolly Parton.
In 1968-69, he and the Shondells sold more singles than any other artists in the world, including the Beatles - 23 gold records, nine gold and platinum albums, more than 100 million discs.
Home for the holidays, the reception to “I Love Christmas” - that's him on the jacket seated on Santa's lap at the old Robertson's department store in South Bend, Ind. - has James contemplating a Christmas album.
Though, he admitted with a laugh, “My mother is still waiting for me to come to my senses and go to Notre Dame when I get this music thing out of my system.
His mother, Belle, 95, and his son, Brian, who designed James' Web site, live in Niles. His wife, Linda, is from Pittsburgh.
His grandfather presented him with a ukelele when he was about 4. Thomas Jackson was born April 29, 1947, in Dayton, Ohio. He was 12 when he formed his first rock band, the Tornadoes, in 1959.
For Gloria Cooper's radio program last Thursday morning on WNIL, where he recorded “Hanky Panky” and three other tracks for Jack Douglas on Snap Records when the studio was on Sycamore Street, James shared the backstory of his breakout hit, which lay dormant until exploding out of Pittsburgh in 1966.
James said he first heard “Hanky Panky,” which plays in “Forrest Gump,” performed by a Mishawaka, Ind., band, the Spinners, at Shula's.
He later learned that it originated as the flip side of The Raindrops' “That Boy John,” yanked off the air after the JFK assassination.
Selling records there and mopping its floor was Tom Jackson's first job.
Shondells “I came up with in study hall. I found out later it's some kind of airplane maneuver, but who knew? I just liked the way it sounded and everybody had an ‘ells' on their name back then.”
Jackson became Tommy James because “I wanted to keep my initials, but I wanted a one-syllable last name is really what it boiled down to. We had just signed with Roulette and they wanted my name up front, ‘So who are you going to be?' I was Tommy James in less time than it took to smoke a cigaret,” although his first time on Ed Sullivan, whom he can impersonate, the host garbled it as “Tony Jones and the Spondells. Engelbert Humperdinck he gets right. James he can't.”
That gaffe quickly brought James back to earth after touring Canadian art centers with the Beach Boys.
The long wait for ‘Hanky Panky'
The signing of his record deal was attended by Murray the K, the influential disc jockey known as the “fifth Beatle.”
James, who wrote and produced “Tighter Tighter,” which went to No. 1 for Alive 'N Kickin', said, “I've been very flattered that we've had over 300 cover versions of our songs done by artists all over the world. R.E.M. did a great version of ‘Draggin' the Line' that was in the Austin Powers movie ‘The Spy Who Shagged Me.' ”
Parton recorded “Crimson and Clover” in Nashville with James adding his parts from New York.
WNIL would like to entice James into performing in Niles for its 50th anniversary in 2006.
It's been 30 years since he performed at the Apple Festival. “I got to meet the real Col. Sanders, one of the big thrills of my life. He was great.”
James had no formal music training. “I have been accompanying myself singing since I was a little kid. I taught myself to play guitar. I still can't play the regular way. When I was 4 I had a ukelele. When I was 9 I got an acoustic guitar. When I was 11 I got an electric,” made by Slingerland, better known for drums.
Elvis Presley, Mrs. McCartney and 9/11
He spoke to Elvis on the phone. Presley invited him to Graceland, but not making it to the King's home in Memphis stands as “one of the great regrets of my life” after doing a Nashville album in 1971 with Pete Drake and two of Presley's sidemen, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana.
The photographer he worked with on the “It's Only Love” album cover, because they lived in the same building at Eighth Avenue, was Linda Eastman of the 15th floor on her first professional shoot in 1966 - better known as Linda McCartney after marrying Sir Paul.
Evangelist Billy Graham figures in the story of “Sweet Cherry Wine” with his 1967 crusade at Shea Stadium in New York.
James said, “I had always been on the fringes of being a Christian. I went to church, but I was never dedicated. He came to town and I started watching him every night on TV. By the third night he gave such crystal-clear meaning for why Jesus came, it was a pure tone like a fork hitting crystal. That's how it hit me. Only God could come up with a story that beautiful and simple. I did an album in 1970, ‘Christian of the World,' which today would be called Christian contemporary. ‘Draggin' the Line' was on that album.”
Now it's the soundtrack for Mitsubishi commercials.
Not only could James see the terrorist attacks in Manhattan from his mountaintop New Jersey home on Sept. 11, 2001, but he's been in New York long enough to have watched the World Trade Center being constructed.
Sheryl Crow,
the future of radio
and its past (WLS)
James said of current musicians, he admires Sheryl Crow, a former music teacher from Missouri.