'80s - Tommy Tutone (2006)
'The Man Behind The Musical Mask: Revealed'
Tommy Tutone is a rock band from San Francisco, California, best known for its 1982 hit "867-5309/Jenny", which peaked at #4 on the Billboard pop charts. The song became so popular that people in the United States to this day dial this telephone number and ask for "Jenny" as a prank.
Although they are frequently remembered as a "one-hit wonder", they actually had another top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Angel Say No" in 1980, predating "Jenny" by a couple of years.
A common misconception is that Tommy Tutone is the name of the lead singer; it is the name of the band. The lead singer's name is Tommy Heath. The name of the band developed from the original name "Tommy and the Tu-tones" to merely Tommy Tutone.
Tommy Heath and Jim Keller founded the band in the late 1970s, with Heath acting as the lead vocalist, also playing keyboards; Keller playing lead guitar and supporting vocals. Bassist Jon Lyons was later replaced by Greg Sutton and drummer Victor Carberry with Jerry Angel. Steve LeGassick joined later, playing keyboards and synthesizer.
Chatting recently with Tommy when he kindly called us from his home in Oregon - where he had to turn his dryer off so that we could actually hear each other better - I first wondered that as Tommy was his real first name, where the ‘Tutone’ element of the group’s name had originated? "It’s a long story. Back in college I had an art project, it was a ‘50s Rock ‘n’ Roll band called Tommy and the T-Tones. We had these jackets made and years later when I was playing with another band in Hawaii I had an old ‘54 Chevy Tutone somebody just started calling me ‘Tutone.’ At that time I lived in an area where everybody had a nickname.”
”So, an easy nickname for someone that mumbles like me was always the best idea. And I speak a lot clearer now than I used, believe me. Before I sang I never really said anything to anybody. I was a really shy guy. Anyway, it was not a good name, so I adopted a whole other persona. That’s just one of them. I have several others. I’ve been a country and western guy named Johnny Beige. I had a swing band and my name was Desmond Tone.”
So, you were creating these people to possibly hide behind, perhaps? ”Yeah, I was just trying to step out from the boring guy that I was and create this other guy. Let him talk for a while so it helps if you give them different names.”
Do people still to this day always assume that Tommy Tutone was an actual person ie: that you were born with that last name?! ”Well, it actually gave the people something to talk about on the first tour. I had friends that called me that before it was a band name, but they don’t call me Tommy Tutone – they call me Tommy Tutu. So, I thought that once I grew up that I’d change my name to Tommy Heath or Thomas Heath like my mom calls me. But, that kind of stuck with me. I go back and forth so a lot of people don’t get to know me.”
It’s funny as you just don’t sound like a party animal that the ‘80s were renowned for creating within musicians! ”Yeah, it’s us quiet guys that you really have to watch out for,” he laughs. ”I guess I’m kinda schizophrenic. That guy that gets up on stage, Tommy Tutone is really obnoxious! I can’t let him walk around … he’d just get arrested! I have to departmentalize – there’s Tommy Heath and there’s Tommy Tutone, and then there’s this guy called The Professor. So, when I go into my mind there’s this whole board table of all these different people.”
Who’s The Professor? ”He’s the guy who’s kinda interested in the opposite of music. He’s kind of an intellectual dilettante. He’s been doing my day job for 10 years now. I’ve just retired from being a computer programmer. Every musician needs a day job. I tried being a school teacher, but I’m just too obnoxious.”
So what’s the net day job lined up for yourself? ”I don’t do music full time, but as everything goes in cycles I’m now at the beginning of what I anticipate to be a four or five year cycle of full time music.”
So, what would you like to achieve in the music industry within that next few years? ”Well, I’ve been going back and forth. We were on TV last year [‘Hit Me Baby, One More Time’] and I got to sing a song be somebody else and I got off stage and I started thing that maybe I shouldn’t worry about being a singer/songwriter so much, but I should start just concentrating on being a singer. So, I started just recording different kinds of things to see if I could model my career on Tony Bennett or Tom Jones or somebody like that. Rather than a songwriter of sorts. Right now I’m just trying to wait and see what can happen.”
When your first single, 1980's ‘Angel Say No,’ didn’t exactly bolt out of the gates, but yet 1981’s ‘867-5309/Jenny’ sent the group to the top of the charts; eventually going gold, did you feel at the time that this single was something special? ”The second album took us a long time to make as we actually made it twice. Plus we added ‘Jenny’ on there at the end. I didn’t write the song, my guitar player Jim Keller wrote it with a guy called Alex Call. They brought it in and the way they sang it sounded like something that you’d sing around a campfire or something! I decided to try and inject a little should and angst into it and so re-recorded it not knowing that it would go on to ruin all those people’s lives!”
It seems that the 867-5309 number still works in some areas of the country! ”Yeah, a guy showed me the other day this web site where a guy tried it with every area code and some of them still work.”
It must be nice to know that you recorded one of the best-selling songs of that decade?! ”We didn’t sell all that many records, but everyone tells me where they were when they heard it. I don’t know what it is about that song.”
And then the band broke up after the release of ‘83's National Emotion ”Well, once again it took us two years to make a record, but our whole record company got fired and became like strangers to us. I think the album sold to around 80 people,” he quietly states. ”I think part of it is we always tried to do the opposite. So, whenever we were successful we tried to do the opposite the next time so we wouldn’t get pigeon-holed.”
How old were you when ‘Jenny’ hit the charts? ”I had already been around by that point. I was 32 and my partner was 22. Clean living made me look around 35 until a few years ago!”
And now you are back with an acoustic version of ‘867-5309/Jenny’ which can be found on the ‘80s Hits Stripped’ CD. When was it recorded? ”It was a few weeks before a gig we all did at the Viper Room [on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where a lot of the ‘80s bands came out to play] and we were working on a new record so we just stopped and knocked it out.”
Have you ever considered recording an acoustic Tommy Tutone CD? ”Yes, I’m thinking about that right now! I’m just finally learning how to play acoustic guitar. I mean, even on that record it sounded like an electric guitar player playing an acoustic guitar! I never really played much acoustic guitar in public. So, I’ve been working on that CD right now and experimenting wit our own stuff and some of these other-people songs.”
Does it have a project name yet? ”I’ve always got project titles floating around, but the one I have today is ‘Hi-Q’ … but I don’t know what it means,” he laughs.
Do you happily fall into that VH-1 inspired quote of being a One-Hit Wonder band?! ”Well, at the time we felt like we had AM/FM credibility. So, we didn’t feel like that at the time, but the problem is ‘Jenny’ came out and no song we did from there on in would ever match that. So, now days I guess you’d have to say that I am, yes.”
Legend has it that the ‘867-5309/Jenny’ song was created out of spite because of a girlfriend of someone in the band dumping him! True or false?! ”I’ve been told – and the way I remember it, because I have a very tenuous hold on reality – that she was real! In fact I ran into her a few years ago and the guy who wrote it says she was real. She was a very nice girl, who ran the sound at a club, and gave me her phone # to give to Jim (who wrote the song) but I wrote it on the bathroom wall instead!”
Any regrets or anything you would have done differently from those days? ”Well, I was a complete idiot business wise. I should have found a producer who could have knocked out a record in three minutes allowing us get back out there on tour. Other than that I think I’m a pretty lucky guy.”
Finally, when you hear your ‘Jenny’ song now at weddings and parties do you get up and dance with all the others? ”Yeah, I’d be up there dancing. I’m just a regular guy with regular people at those places. I don’t walk around looking like a rock ‘n’ roller – that would be pretty corny,” he laughs. ”So yeah, I appreciate listening to the songs as if I’m the third person.”
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
'80's Hits Stripped' CD Purchase Link