February 1969: Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover" Goes Over (and Over) on the Charts

Tommy James and The Shondells' 'Crimson and Clover'
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Rhino Records

On Feb. 8, 1969, Tommy James and The Shondells' "Crimson and Clover," a perfect amalgam of soft rock and psychedelic pop, landed atop the Billboard Hot 100 and would transform the most successful single ever released by the man who sang, co-wrote, and produced the tune.

Originally released in November 1968, “Crimson and Clover” was an overt attempt by James to steer his music in a different direction - an attempt embraced by his label, Roulette Records, who gave him complete artistic control over his music. There’s a difference in opinion as far as who came up with the title of the song: James said that is  was a phrase that came to him when he was waking up one day, a combination of his favorite color and his favorite flower, but his co-writer (and Shondells drummer) Peter Lucia, Jr. said it was a phrase that came to him while he was watching a New Jersey high school football game between the Morristown Crimson and Hopatcong, a team whose uniforms were clover green.

Whoever was responsible for the title, the end result was an epic tune - but it took so long for James to put the track together that it wasn’t yet finished when Roulette came looking for a new single, so he bought himself some more time by giving them “Do Something to Me” as a stop-gap measure.

After putting together a rough mix of the song, James provided it to Morris Levy, top executive at Roulette Records, but he also popped by Chicago radio station WLS a few days later, to get their reaction. What he didn’t realize, however, was that when he played the single for them off-air, the station recorded it and then aired it. (Can you even imagine the lawsuit that would result if a station did something like that nowadays?)

Although Levy was infuriated, as was James, who hadn’t yet finished his final production on the song, the huge listener response led Levy to just release the song in its rough-mix form. Obviously, it paid off, but you can just imagine the grumbling James did when he got the news from Levy.

Before wrapping this thing up, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that “Crimson and Clover” went on to have a pretty substantial life even after James’s version, most notably thanks to Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, who covered the song on her sophomore album I Love Rock 'N' Roll and took the single to No. 7 in the U.S., No. 6 in Australia, and No. 4 in Canada.

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