Tommy James sees “Crystal Blue Persuasion” — the 1969 hit for his group, Tommy James & the Shondells — as “a song about hope.”
And so when James was asked, earlier this month, to record a song for SopranosCon Cares — an online telethon organized by the people behind last year’s SopranosCon convention, to raise money for first responders in the pandemic — he performed a sweet, soulful solo version of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” in his Essex County home and ended by telling his fans to “stay home … be safe, everybody.” You can watch it below.
Though the song was originally released at the height of the hippie movement, and fit right into the spirit of the times with lines such as “a new day is comin’,” “people are changin’ ” and “There’ll be peace and good/Brotherhood,” James — who wrote it with Shondells members Eddie Gray and Mike Vale — said it was really about becoming a Christian. “Everyone in the band did become a Christian at that time,” he said.
They got the idea for the title from a poem a fan wrote for them and gave to them at a show in Atlanta. It was called “Crystal Persuasion.”
“I just loved the title,” said James. “We didn’t use the subject matter in the poem, but took it back to the room in Atlanta that night, and wrote the song that night. Eddie came up with the guitar riff, and we wrote the lyrics to the song. And we made the record the following week.”
They weren’t satisfied with that initial recording, though.
“We completely overproduced it,” said James. “We had a full set of drums, and guitars, and keyboards. And we got finished with the thing … we looked at each other and said, ‘You know what, that isn’t the song we wrote.’ And so we spent the next four or five weeks unproducing the record we made, and experimenting, and pulling things out. And finally, all that was left was a bongo drum and a flamenco guitar and a couple of little organ parts and things like that. We had to empty out the record and let it breathe, in order for it to be ‘crystal blue.’ ” (You can hear the ’69 single below, too.)
The song became a No. 2 hit for James and the Shondells and has been covered many times, by everyone from Latin jazz legend Tito Puente to the alternative-rock group Concrete Blonde. And has been used in many movies as well as the television series “Breaking Bad,” where it seemed like a particularly good fit because of the prominence of crystal blue meth in the plot.
James said the song was never meant to be about drugs, though. “Back then (in the ’60s),” he said, “whenever they didn’t quite understand what you were talking about, (they thought) it must be drugs.”
James continues to perform “Crystal Blue Persuasion” regularly at his shows, of course.
“It’s been one of those songs that has just been a favorite,” he says. “It’s just been a marvelous song for us, over the years. It’s sort of a naturally evolving song, and we have a lot of different versions of it. I’m just so glad that it has lasted all these years.”
Like the rest of us, James has spent the weeks of the coronavirus crisis isolating himself at home, and doing a lot of thinking.
“I really believe God is up to something,” he said. “We’re certainly going to remember 2020, aren’t we? It’s just an incredible moment in our history. I don’t even know what to say except we will get through it.
“The people who have died from this thing … it’s a hard thing to get your mind around. It’s so awful. But we will get through this, and we will do it together.”
For more on James, visit tommyjames.com.
NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.
We encourage artists to email us submissions (newly recorded, if possible) at email@example.com. Please include links to sites such as Patreon and Venmo. Readers can also make suggestions via that email address.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.