Song of the Week 37: Crimson & Clover – Tommy James & The Shondells

Tommy James & The Shondells Crimson & Clover

The weird logic of dreams. Images, colours, nonsense word combinations. They seem to make sense. Tommy James woke up one day with the phrase Crimson & Clover in his head. Crimson, his favourite colour, clover, his favourite flower.

Colours and music….


When we are born, our senses are combined. Smell, taste, sight and sound all mixed together. Over the first year, we learn to differentiate between the senses as the brain tree gets pruned. I don´t want to get too technical for y´all. 🙂 For some this mixing persists, and that´s why we have synesthesia,where one sensory or cognitive pathway causes an automatic involuntary experience in another. For example, days of the week or months of the year might invoke personalities.

Cross sensory metaphors and collocations are sometimes described as synesthetic, e.g. loud shirt, bitter wind, and how about Crimson & Clover? I was bound to get to the point sooner or later.

Synesthesia is often linked with perfect pitch (a friend of mine has both), where people link colours to sounds or tones, sometimes colours to numbers. The colours generally depend on the individual. For them, this is natural, and it seems like the rest of us “normal” people are the ones who are missing a sense. They can´t fathom a world without their “gift”.

As with all of these conditions, there are different levels, and there are also many kinds of synesthesia. People can get it more or less. There are people who associate tones with colours, others link numbers with colours. Some people are amusical, some unmusical, some tone deaf, others perfectly pitched, or absolutely pitched, relatively pitched. Some like to dance, some tap their toe, some play guitar around a fire, some sing low, some sing higher, some just clap their hands, etc.


We all take part in music. We listen, we sing, we dance, we clap, or beat a drum. There is no human community that doesn´t have it, and in tribes, the whole group, young and old join in. It´s part of what makes us human. Singing around a fire goes way back.

People who grow up in countries that have tonal languages tend to develop perfect pitch, because these connections are not discarded after infancy. The earlier you learn music, the more likely it is that you will develop perfect pitch.

And music is all about mixing the senses; memories, dreams, recollections…

I write songs, and often images come with the music, hinting at another world, describing a place that´s a feeling. During particularly strong migraines there can be a heightened sense of colour, light, smell, sound. I remember feeling that I was really hearing opera properly for the first time under the effects of one. Smells evoke memories. Memory for some is the stuff of imagination. Sometimes a song can be a taste, a colour, something intangible, but almost tangible, and something so difficult to describe. Describing the indescribable. And that ambiguity can also draw the listener in. Sometimes those seem to the best ones. The cream of the crop. They seem fine to me. Gratuitous plug/injoke.

Once again, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. The point to all of this rambling is that I´m not going to even attempt to explain Crimson & Clover, or what Tommy James was getting at. If you get it, you get it. Just listen. I mean he didn´t “hardly know her.” Love, music and the mind, they´re not crystal clear, they`re confusing, but then the “mind´s such a sweet thing. What a beautiful feeling. Crimson and clover, over and over…”

Music and the mind…

It´s not rocket science, but it is neuroscience, and that´s not my field. Should you wish to climb over that fence and admire the grass on the other side, check out the fascinating Oliver Sacks´ book Musicophilia for more on the strange world of musical mind phenomena. He´s also written an enlightening book Migraine, for anyone who´s afflicted with those. Required reading.

Oliver Sacks Musicophilia

In 1968, after the single Mony Mony, Tommy James wanted to change direction away from their bubblegum pop hits to something more experimental, more in step with the psychedelic spirit of the time. He wanted to move from singles to albums, out of “necessity and ambition”. He took leave from the group´s main songwriters, Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell, and was granted total artistic control by Roulette Records.

As I said at the beginning, the title which preceded the song, came from a dream, this combination of unknown meaning. The two words each mean something separately, while together they mean something altogether different. What is it?

He attempted a song to fit the phrase, co-written with bassist Mike Vale but abandoned it. He then tried to collaborate with drummer Peter Lucia Jr, which came closer to what he was after. In the meantime Roulette Records wanted a new single, so the group agreed to release “Do Something To Me” to gain time to complete the song.

In late 1968 during in the midst of psychedelia, Crimson & Clover was recorded in about 5 hours, with Tommy playing most of the instruments, Mike and Peter on bass and drums. It´s a very simple chord progression, just C, F and G with a key jump midway through. The tremolo effect on the guitar vibrates along with the song´s rhythm and it gets me every time. The band had the idea to stick the same effect on the vocals, with the microphone plugged into an Ampeg guitar amp with the tremolo effect, and Tommy singing “Crimson & Clover, over and over.”

Tommy made a rough mix to play to record exec Morris Levy, for his feedback. The band had intended to improve on the mix with ambient sound and echo.

A few days later James stopped by WLS radio station in Chicago, a station he´d already had a good relationship with, to get their view on it. After an interview talking about the forthcoming single, he agreed to play a rough mix for WLS off-air. Without his knowledge, they recorded the song, and played it on air in November 68 as a world exclusive.

Morris Levy initially pleaded with WLS not to play the record before the release, but changed his mind after the enthusiastic reaction it generated. Roulette Records produced a specially pressed single and posted it to listeners who had called up about the song. WLS was also sent 800 copies for promotional purposes. James wasn´t allowed to produce the initial mix, and the rough mix was released as a single, with Some Kind of Love as the B-Side.

After a trippy performance on the Ed Sullivan show, the song hit number 1 in the U.S. in February 1969.

It was a number 1 in many different countries, but for some reason it didn´t chart in the U.K. The band were invited to play Woodstock, but declined.

For the album, Tommy and his Shondells created a longer version, choosing to expand the original. The first two verses were copied without vocals and overdubbed with guitar solos by guitarist Ed Gray, who used steel guitars and fuzz guitars. Issues with the speed of the single version and the master resulted in a slight pitch drop during the solos, which went unfixed, but maybe only those of you with perfect pitch will spot it. Here´s the longer album version…

1991´s Crimson & Clover/Cellophane Symphony corrected these errors, with the guitar solos at a fractionally higher speed, and the CD booklet states the record is now as it was “meant to be heard” with James very satisfied with the results.

Speaking of cosmic musical voyagers, in Keith Richards´autobiography, Life, while talking about the friends he lost to the Vietnam War, Keith mentions being on the Sunset Strip in the 60´s trying to get through with his car, while The Strip was full of people…

” I remember once Tommy James, from the Shondells – six gold records and blew it all. I was trying to get up to the Whisky a Go Go in a car, and Tommy James came by. “Hey, man.” “And who are you?” “Tommy James, man.” “Crimson and Clover” still hits me. He was trying to hand out things about the draft that day. Because obviously he thought he was about to be fucking drafted.”

The group continued until 1970, when at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, James collapsed due to a reaction from drugs after coming off stage and was pronounced dead. Luckily he recovered and moved out to the country to recuperate, but the band was no more.

Their follow up single Crystal Blue Persuasion, also on the Crimson & Clover album, was featured in an episode of the wonderful Breaking Bad. I´ll return to that series another day to talk about one or two other songs featured in episodes.

Me, the Mob, The Music Tommy James

For anyone interested in finding out more, an autobiography, Me, The Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells, was published in 2010.

Well, that´s all for today. I´ve either been crystal clear in my persuasion, or I´ve muddied the water a little more. Either way, enjoy the music, and of course the pretty colours…

Me, I´ve got to catch a bus…


Peace out!

7 thoughts on “Song of the Week 37: Crimson & Clover – Tommy James & The Shondells

  1. Tommy James’ brand of bubblegum garage/psych was very popular in the US but only “Mony Mony” made much impression in the UK. He was a follower rather than an innovator but his records do have that 60s freshness & “Crimson & Clover” is a belter. I’ll keep my powder dry as my own T.J. piece is still a draft.

    This with, as far as I know, no composing credit, is from Jarvis Cocker’s first solo LP.

    1. They had a team of writers working for them for the bubblegum pop/rock stuff. Crystal Blue Persuasion rocks as well. Love it. Looking forward to reading your piece too. Yep, I´d read about Pulp using the sample for that tune, but didn´t bother including all the versions. Other artists, including Billy Idol had hits with their songs in the 80s too. Two number ones. I avoided mentioning Tiffany and I Think We´re Alone Now, but I´ve gone and done it now.

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