Tuning Up - Spring 2013

Crystal Blue Persuader

Tommy James of the Shondells goes on record

By Brian Doyle | March 1, 2013


I was asked recently what music most influenced me as a boy—not the music I immediately realized was weird genius when I heard it, like Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die, or the roaring music I loved forever from the first moment I heard it, like The Who’s Quadrophenia, but the music that opened new doors, set me sprinting on new paths, presented whole new glittering worlds for contemplation and mad joy—and the more I thought about it, the further back I went down the dusty halls of memory, past the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, past even the Beach Boys and Herb Alpert (which was all about that whipped-cream cover, anyway), the more I realized that it wasn’t Neil Diamond, who was singing “Sweet Caroline” when I tried to kiss Teresa O’Connell and our spectacles got tangled and so to this day his music makes me think of lust and eyeglass repair, or even, God help us all, the Kingston Trio, who sounded like murderous chipmunks on acid to me even then. No, the one song that cracked my childhood into before and after, the one that just totally nailed me for some reason and shoved me into a lifetime of maniacal love for rock and pop, was “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” by Tommy James and the Shondells.

Maybe it’s a lesser song, a footnote not only in the glittering history of pop music but in the long and interesting career of Mr. Thomas Gregory Jackson of Dayton, Ohio, who made up the name Shondells while daydreaming in a high school class, but it nailed me then and still gives me the happy willies when I hear it again. I was 12 when I heard it first, in June of 1969, and the music was shimmering, the lyrics alluring and incomprehensible, the pulse irresistible, the way the song crawled out of the radio without the slightest acknowledgment of the way radio hits were supposed to sound … I was completely flipped out, and of course immediately rode my bike to the record shop (ah, the shaggy redolence of that tiny store on the highway, the moldy cardboard sweaty smell, the music blasting from speakers duct-taped to the wall, the vague intimation that you could buy dope if you knew the proper code words, the iconic posters, the snoring dog, the flyblown front window, the milk-crate seats out back where the owners got stoned, the disorganized bin of gleaming bright plastic eight-track tapes …) to buy the single, with its bright orange-and-yellow sunburst label, Roulette Records, of New York City. I wore that record out that summer, playing it enough times that eventually the needle slid, unimpeded by the Shondells, across the surface, and I presented it to a younger brother, with grave ceremony, probably charging him a candy bar for the privilege.

Thinking of all this recently, and playing the song 20 times on my computer, and being washed by memories of the yellow radio in the kitchen from which I had heard it sail into the universe for the first time, and of that smoky record shop, and of the brooding mania of the Kingston Trio, I resolved to call Tommy James and ask him about his song, which I did, tracking him down through his booking agent and then his manager, who warned me that the 10 minutes of conversation I hoped for might well turn into two hours.

“It started in Atlanta,” the singer began, cheerfully—it turns out that the former Thomas Gregory Jackson is a gregarious soul with a stunning memory. “A kid handed me a poem he’d written, called ‘Crystal Blue.’ We loved mysterious-sounding titles, and the poem stayed in my mind, and that night in my hotel suite we sat around and started riffing. We were always on the make for a new song. We started riffing with a major seventh on the guitar, and I started singing sounds over that, and the bass jumped in, and we just rolled along. We just played off each other. The riff had kind of an exotic feel, which we liked, and a good groove, and we stayed up all night fooling with it. No, we didn’t record it that night—we lost more songs that way, not getting them down on tape when we were working—but this one had clobbered us on the head, and when we got into the studio, two nights later, we went right at it. We all remembered it clear as a bell.

“That was a Wednesday night, in New York City—we were recording in a basement studio on Broadway and 51st Street. Spring night, warm. We had beer, and everything in the studio with us. It was just us with one engineer on the soundboard. We started out real light, just guitars and bass and gentle percussion, but then we got carried away and overloaded it with three keyboard tracks and all sorts of other stuff, and when we heard the result we knew it was wrong. So then we spent hours unproducing it, sort of, stripping it down, emptying it out, letting it breathe, until we got back to the version we loved, with a little flamenco guitar, and me playing congas, and a hint of bongo. We knew we were working on a hit record. There was a feeling of destiny about it. We were all really locked in, really working, you know? We weren’t experimenting anymore. We were focused. We knew what we wanted to get, and we worked to get it, and when we got it we knew. That’s a great feeling.

“We walked out of the studio slapping each other on the back. It was about eight in the morning. I remember we got coffee at the old Wienerwald restaurant up the street, and then the band went back to their hotel, the Gorham, on 55th Street, and I went up to my apartment, on 52nd, and slept the rest of the day. I had the tape with me, and the next morning I played it a few times in my apartment and then walked up Eighth Avenue with the song in my briefcase, to bring it to the record company. I walked proud that morning, you bet. That’s still my favorite song of all our hits. I bet I have played that song 10,000 times in shows, and I never get tired of it. It’s the second song in our show to this day. I’ll never get tired of it, I think. It’s sort of a magical song for us, and it always reminds me of that magical summer.

“You too, huh? I’d be amazed, but nothing about that song is less than amazing to me. Before that night in a hotel in Atlanta, there wasn’t that song, and in the morning there it was. Isn’t that amazing?”

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