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Friday, December 05, 2008

The King of Psychedelic Bubblegum

Tommy James: It's Good to be King

Few American singers were as popular in the late 1960s as Tommy James. Some of his big hits are remembered well today ("I Think We're Alone Now," "Crimson and Clover," "Hanky Panky," "Crystal Blue Persuasion," "Draggin' the Line," "Mony Mony") while others, just as good and just as popular at the time, have mysteriously fallen from favor, such as "Mirage," "Ball of Fire," and "Sweet Cherry Wine."

Every few months from 1966 through 1970, Tommy and his backing group, the Shondells, would release another single that became a huge hit, and even some of the less successful singles, like "Out of the Blue," "I Like the Way," and "It's Only Love," are catchy pop creations of the highest order, evergreen blends of harmonies, exotic percussion, ringing guitars, keyboards, and insistent rhythms. With only one or two exceptions, each hummable TJ hit sounded completely unlike the last.

His ability to blend experimentation with pop smarts leads me to consider him a sort of psychedelic bubblegum artist--the best one, in fact.

Since Tommy James and the Shondells were constantly on tour in the mid-to-late sixties, many of the band's records were done in New York with session musicians such as legendary guitarist Vinnie Bell. But by 1968, Tommy and the group--Mike Vale, Pete Lucia, Ronnie Rosman, and Eddie Gray--were elbowing producer/songwriters Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell out of the way and writing a lot of their own songs.

The track featured here, "Gingerbread Man," was recorded for the 1968 Mony Mony album, and in fact was one of the first tracks the band did behind Gentry and Cordell's backs.

Roulette Records loved "Gingerbread" and placed it on the flip side of the "Do Something to Me" single, giving the band the confidence it needed to move ahead and record two excellent 1969 albums, Crimson and Clover and Cellophane Symphony.

"Gingerbread Man" is one of my all-time favorite tracks from the band. A catchy song is set off by about 300,000 guitar overdubs, a great late-60s organ part playing sixth notes, all sorts of exotic percussion during the "bridge," and that insistent beat. When the tambourine comes in for the third verse, it's pop heaven, and I still can't tell where Tommy's voice ends during the fadeout and the fuzz guitar begins!

This is the mono mix, which I find much punchier than the stereo. This version was burned from a German issue of the 45 that Mark Caro so courteously brought back from a trip across the sea last year. Hope you all enjoy this dose of pop perfection.


Anonymous Dan E said...

I loves me some ToJam!

8:42 PM, December 05, 2008

Blogger Stuart Shea said...

ToJam! That's what my friend Theresa Denovellis used to call him, too!

9:48 PM, December 05, 2008

Blogger Derek See said...

And what a cool custom colour Jaguar he's playing in that photo!

5:04 PM, December 07, 2008

Blogger HerbisOrbis said...

Ah thanks for this Stu! The first time I ever called in a request to a radio station was when I was 20. I was hungover and called WJMK (the old 104.3 oldies station in Chicago) and requested "Mirage." Also around that age I had this crazy idea that if I ever got married I'd want to walk up or down the aisle to "Crimson and Clover."

11:43 AM, December 08, 2008

Anonymous Amy said...

The full version of Crimson & Clover is one of those songs that appear when you go to the great Music Encylopedia and search for Psychedelic 60's. I adore the endless wah wah guitar and processed vocals. It's just so delightfully trippy and cheezetastic at the same time.

I love the Gingerbread Man song.. that was catchy as hell!

10:35 AM, December 09, 2008

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