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Tommy James Tells What To Expect On July 4; Gives Younger Bands Advice and More In Exclusive Interview

Courtesy of Kyle McCurry

This Wednesday is July 4, and to celebrate another year of freedom Q103 will be at the Empire State Plaza in Albany for a day of fun, including food, drinks, games, a petting zoo and the traditional fireworks. To help us commemorate the day music will be provided by Tommy James and The Shondells! I  got the chance to chat with Mr. James this week and got all the nitty gritty on what he’s been up to and what we can expect from him on Wednesday.

I opened the interview up with a question I just had to ask- what is a Shondell? It’s not in the dictionary and I was so curious. He laughed when I said this and replied that it was a name he made up, which was what I figured, obviously. He made the name up in high school but it’s actually a French word meaning a WWII airplane maneuver. He simply liked the name and thought it meshed well with his own name, as well as having a “musical effervescense.”

Having formed his band, then known as The Tornadoes, in middle school, Tommy never imagined his childhood project would become a lifelong dream. The group was solely a cover band at first, but after discovering how many cover bands were already active in their Michigan hometown, and after playing various local shows and gaining recognition they started to create their own material. By the time they graduated high school the group had already had two record deals which was prompted by Tommy’s after school job in a record shop where he could promote his band. The Tornadoes eventually became the Shondells after this.

We then got into the subject of current music and how it’s not the same. Tommy stated that “the CD business is over” and that the music industry is a ladder of upward mobility and every man for himself. He added, however, that “there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” He sympathized with newer, younger bands these days because it’s so difficult, but he does have some words of encouragement. He advises such bands to get a dozen songs together and then present them to music publishers, not record labels. This way, publishers can provide insight to the band and “open doors for bands that record companies won’t.”

Courtesy of Kyle McCurry

We then got into the subject of Wednesday’s show at Empire State Plaza, which starts at 8:15 pm. Tommy said that he was very excited and that Albany was “a great place to spend the fourth of July.” He stated that the band will be performing some new songs as well as some of their classics. He plans to socialize and meet people and sign some autographs.

It’s an honor to be performing for this Fourth of July Celebration, said James. To provide the soundtrack for such a special day is a really cool deal!Adding to the day’s festivities will be performance by Airly Acrobatics and activities for the entire family. For Tommy, the day’s earlier events make him proud to be a part of the celebration. The day is starting with a number of people becoming American citizens and I think that is a great thing for people to see.

As for the future, Tommy will be releasing a film based on his autobiography Me, the Mob and the Music in about two years. Produced by Barbara De Fina (HugoGood Fellas), it tells the story of Tommy’s relationship with Roulette Records and its owner Morris Levy, as well as some unique perspective of rock n’ roll history. 

Some other facts about Tommy include:

  • At age four, he appeared as a child model for one time only. He dressed up as a cowboy, complete with the hat, boots and toy gun. The only thing he could recount though was it being past his bedtime. He always liked being in front of people, however so this early fifteen minutes of fame showcased the talent that was to come. He commented that his parents then knew that they had their hands full with him.
  • Tommy once worked with Hubert Humphrey. He states that music and politics can and have mixed in the past. His band was one of the first to team up with a vice president, and had he ever become president, Tommy said that things would’ve went down a different path. The two remained longtime friends and Humphrey even did notes for The Shondells hit “Crimson and Clover.”
  • When he is not being Tommy James “the rock star,” he is a big sports fan and “Yankee nut.” He also enjoys the business and publishing end of his career. He never used to like this aspect but now enjoys it very much. “I’m a lifer in all this,” he said.
  • His songs have been covered by over 300 artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, R.E.M., Prince, Billy Idol, Joan Jett, Kelly Clarkson, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones and Cher. His music is in 27 films to date including current TV shows (most recently “Men of a Certain Age”, “Criminal Minds”, “In Plain Sight”, and an upcoming episode of “Breaking Bad”) and commercials.

I asked Tommy if he will ever completely retire, and he replied that as long as he’s able and healthy he will “definitely be doing this the rest of his life.” He added that he had no idea he’d be doing music this long, but that he is so grateful. 

Nine platinum albums and 23 gold singles later, Tommy James proves that when he does something he does it whole-heartedly and forever. He commented that if he ever had to stop doing what he loves, “he’d have to be taken off stage with a hook.” Let’s hope that never happens!

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