867-5309 . . what’s in a number ?
That jangly, arpegiated guitar intro, those four familiar chords in the verses, that phone number … it’s instantly recognizable as one of the best pop/rock singles of the 1980s – Tommy Tutone’s 867-5309/Jenny.
Tommy Heath began his musical career
In the early ‘80s, the band fine-tuned a more stylized power pop sound (and donned a few skinny neckties). They demonstrated that modernized New Wave/pop style on their first single, Angels Say No (which reached number 22 on the Billboard Singles charts), and on their reggae-influenced black humor AOR breakout hit, Cheap Date. The 1982 release of the even catchier follow-up single 867-5309/Jenny (from the album Tommy Tutone 2) – coincided quite conveniently with the advent of MTV. The video for 867 featured Heath and Keller battling over a blond beauty in a tavern. It was as goofy as any other contemporary pop rock clip on MTV at that time, but the hooks in the song’s intro and chorus were undeniably infectious. The tune became the band’s biggest hit. In
1982, it hit number four and went gold. Their second MTV hit video, Which Man Are You?, was a parody of TV commercials featuring a split-screen study of 2 young couples, with Tommy Heath playing a Midwest everyman type, Jim Keller playing a suave sophisticated yuppie, and Saturday Night Live’s Lorraine Newman in a dual-role as both of their wives.
VH1 recently featured 867-5309/Jenny in its 100 Greatest Songs of the 80s (coming in at number four). Today, the song is more popular then ever, played thousands of times venues every night in bars by cover bands, in dance clubs as remixes, and in concert halls and stadiums by to big time rock acts like Blink 182, The Goo Goo Dolls, Less then Jake, and even country superstar Keith Urban.
Tommy Tutone toured heavily in the 80’s and was able to comfortably play in bills with groups that played a wide variety of styles, from 80’s headline acts like Tom Petty and Cheap Trick, to new wave acts like Graham Parker, Berlin and The Romantics, to Classic and Southern Rock acts like 38 Special, Styx, and Climax.
Bassist Terry Nails says, “What I like about the band is that we didn’t take ourselves as seriously like the
other New Wave Bands did. Sure, we had some dramatic, angst-ridden songs, but we contrasted them with a lot of really fun tunes, and we liked to tear it up and have fun on stage”
In the midst of all this touring Tommy Tutone found time to appear on many television shows (American Band Stand, Solid Gold and others), wrote and recorded the title song for the movie The Last American Virgin, and producedseveral new artists.
Heartened by their broad based success, Tommy Heath and Jim Keller decided to record an ambitious concept album, National Emotion, for the 3rd Columbia records release. The record reveals their affection for a diverse array of American rock, soul, country, and even rockabilly styles, and was a reaction to the fact that many of their fellow bands in style-conscious California and New York compatriots were appalled that they were willing to go out to the Midwest and appear with acts whose
music styles that weren’t considered “cool” at that exact moment, and by their belief that the different musical subcultures should stop bickering with other and just embrace all the strains that make up modern American rock and roll. Tutone says “I’m afraid to say that many of my contemporaries from the 80’s were popular because of their haircuts, clothes, and attitudes rather then for their songs.”
Unfortunately, National Emotion took two years to create, and, by the time it was released in 1984, their record company had fired all the people that had helped make them famous, and Tommy Tutone never could quite reach that level of success that they enjoyed with their iconic 2nd album. That version of the band broke up shortly thereafter, and Tommy Heath decided to go it alone and to reclaim the nickname that had been his long before Columbia Records insisted that “Tommy Tutone” had to be the band name.
Tommy had grown up as an military brat, whose family had been shuffled around, starting in Philadelphia, moving to Texas, Montana, Tokyo, and, finally, Northern California where he stayed for 25 years. Tiring of the California 80’s recording scene, Tommy recorded 2 solo soul-inspired albums, one in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1986, and one in Memphis, Tennessee in 1989. but couldn’t finds any record companies willing to release them. “I guess I was type cast by the success of 876-5309/Jenny and nobody was willing to take a chance on my musical vision at the time, because there weren’t just like my famous hit” says Tommy. Although not released, these recordings inspired Tommy to return to his roots and moved to Nashville, Tennessee in the early 90’s, and, shortly thereafter, hooked up with record producer Fred James to make a recording for Italy’s Appaloosa Records in 1994. This disk, entitled Nervous Love, showcased the beginning of what would become the definition of his sound that
he calls “Soul Twang”. Known for being a hard rocker, this record explored his vast creativity and allowed him to stretch in areas that a major label would have squashed like a penny on a railroad track. He came up with the “Soul Twang” label as a way to describe his amalgamation of Soul, Country and Rockabilly, the forms of music that created the foundation upon which he built his unique sound.
After his stint in Nashville, he headed back to the west coast, to Portland, Oregon this time. It was there that he recorded his record entitled Tutone.RTF/Rich Text Files and embarked on a new, side career as a software programmer. As he explained to one interviewer, “after years of being on the road, getting up every day and going to an office was very exotic”. This period was during the years of the Silicon Valley boom and Tommy was getting paid a regular salary while getting to sleep at home in his own bed at night. The new lifestyle allowed him to raise his children in a more normal atmosphere. However, music hath powers and the savage breast needed soothing, so back he plunged.
Tutone.RTF/Rich Text Files was finally released in 1998 on Secret Disk Records, just in time to catch the resurgence of 80’s popularity, which has continued unabated up until today. “Suddenly we were cool, again, and it wasn’t just the old songs. People were ready to hear new stuff from us old rockers, and it was fun for me to go out and play again” say Tommy. Benefitting from the internet music boom, which broke the strangle hold that the big record companies had on the recording business. the new record was widely distributed and reviewed and gave Tommy Tutone new credibility with fans, radio, and even with other 80’s bands, who loved having him as part of the ever more popular 80’s shows, having gained a greater appreciation for his brand American Rock-&-Roll then they had back in the day. One reviewer said of this album, “This is the record Tommy Tutone should have put as the follow up to “Tutone-2” in 1984! …Tommy Tutone is back and better than ever!”
So Tommy quit the software gig, regrouped the band with himself Tommy Heath up front backed by bassist/singer Jimmy James, lead guitarist Greg Georgeson, and drummer Andy Gauthier, and hit the road.
In 2005 he appeared, alongside Vanilla Ice on a network television show called “Hit Me Baby One More Time”. This let the world know that Tommy was back and it’s been quite a ride ever since.
2009 found Tommy, back in Nashville, engaged in all sorts of creative endeavors. He is the host of two syndicated TV shows that are in the pilot stages. He is co-writing songs with all the Nashville cats, putting finishing touches on his new record entitled “Soul Twang”, and is continuing to tour.
He has been releasing a constant stream of internet albums, of new and old recordings. A tidy compilation of Tutone’s strongest tunes titled The Singles came out on Spectra Records in 2007, 2009 saw the release of an album of new songs, Tutone-ality, on IRIS. And 2010 is the year that Tommy
released Soul Twang, a breakthrough record that will show the world all my roots and how they all come together to make that unmistakable Tutone sound.
Continuing on his tradition of not taking himself too seriously, Tommy recently released a Christmas recording called Santa I Got Your number, a hilarious mashup of 867-5309 and Santa Claus is coming to town.
“I write and play music for three reasons: to say the things that can’t be said without music, to have fun, and to make peoples dance.” Tommy “Tutone” Heath 2015