Tommy James: My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar

Tommy James’ third solo LP offers Nashville-bred country-soul

After charting fourteen Top 40 hits with the Shondells, Tommy James began a solo career on the heels of a temporary group hiatus that turned permanent. His second solo release, Christian of the World, yielded two big hits (“Draggin’ the Line” and “I’m Comin’ Home”), but this third solo effort – recorded in Nashville, produced by Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore, and featuring the talents of Music City’s finest studio players – didn’t catch on with either pop or country radio. And that’s a shame, because it may be James’ most fully realized album. With a band that included Moore and Ray Edenton on guitar, Pete Drake on steel, Pig Robbins on keyboards, Charlie McCoy on harmonica and DJ Fontana and Buddy Harmon on drums, James cut a dozen originals, mostly co-written with co-producer Bob King, and a cover of Linda Hargrove’s “Rosalee” that features some fine fiddle playing by Buddy Spicher.

There are numerous country touches in the instruments and arrangements, but also the sort of country-soul B.J. Thomas, Joe South and Elvis recorded in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. James didn’t re-fashion himself a nasally country singer, instead finding the soulful style he’d developed on the Shondells’ Travelin’ fit perfectly with the textures created by the studio players and the gospel-styled backing vocals of the Nashville Edition. James’ voice is easily recognized as the one that graced the Shondells’ hits, but it sounds just as at home in this twangier setting. The productions are remarkably undated (except, perhaps, Pete Drake’s talking guitar on “Paper Flowers”), and though not up to Nashville’s current classic rock volume, they still feel surprisingly contemporary.

James and King wrote songs of faith, romance, lost-love and lovable scoundrels, but in the pop idiom rather than the country, so while their topics fit Nashville norms, the words didn’t ring of 17th Avenue. In James’ hands, even the Nashville-penned “Rosalee” sounds more like Memphis or Muscle Shoals than Music City. The religious and spiritual themes of Christian of the World are revisited in songs contemplating the hereafter, the call to community, and the sunny warmth and peaceful satisfaction of belief. Unlike the preceding album, however, none of these songs managed to grab the ear of radio programmers or singles buyers. Perhaps no one was ready for James to fully graduate from his career with the Shondells, but in retrospect, divorced from the pop and bubblegum hits that led him to 1971, one can readily hear the new level of artistry he achieved.

Collectors’ Choice’s straight-up reissue clocks in at nearly 44-minutes, making this the longest of the four Shondells/James reissues in a batch that also includes I Think We’re Alone Now, Gettin’ Together, and Travelin’. The six-page booklet features full-panel reproductions of the album’s front- and back-cover, and newly struck liner notes by Ed Osborne that includes fresh interview material with James himself. While Shondells/James neophytes might pick a greatest hits album (such as Anthology or Definitive Pop Collection) as a starter over the Shondells’ original albums, anyone who enjoys country-rock with a soulful backbone should check out James terrific accomplishments on this release. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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