Tommy James rose to fame during the early days of rock & roll. His group, Tommy James and The Shondells even outperformed The Beatles occasionally on the record charts back in the late 1960’s. To date, Tommy has sold over 100 million records, as he celebrates 45 years in the music business.
But it was in a motel room in the fall of 1966 that Tommy’s life would intersect with a Gideon Bible. That moment would set him on a path toward his salvation.
Recently, Tommy talked with us about the key role that a Gideon-placed Bible played in his coming to receive Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
Tommy’s Opening Number
Tommy James’ life reads like a classic rock and roll biography mixed with a mafia thriller. He was born in a small Midwest town and raised as Tommy Jackson by his mom and dad, Belle and Joseph. In his early teens, he formed a rock and roll band and began playing live gigs and writing and recording songs at a local small town studio.
But just as he was about to begin his senior year of high school in 1964, Tommy’s girlfriend dropped a bomb on him. She was pregnant with his baby. The following spring they married and shortly after, she gave birth to a boy.
Tommy graduated high school and continued playing music while trying to support his wife and baby. Several months of playing clubs in the Midwest ended with Tommy returning home frustrated, feeling like his music career was going nowhere.
But then he received a phone call that would change the course of his career. One of his first records, “Hanky Panky,” had been bootlegged in Pittsburgh and had climbed to number 1 on the music charts.
“If I hadn’t been home at that exact moment I would have never gotten that call. That was quite literally a miracle. There’s no other way to explain that,” says Tommy.
A Deal With The Mob
Soon, the young Tommy found himself in New York City meeting with some of the top executives in the music industry. Each label expressed interest in signing Tommy to a record deal. Capitol, Columbia Records’ Epic, RCA and Atlantic were among the labels he talked with.
“The last place we took the record that day was Roulette Records,” says Tommy.
“The next day, I start getting calls at about 9 o’clock in the morning from all the record companies that had said ‘yes’ the day before. They all said, ‘Tom, we got to pass.’”
Tommy couldn’t believe what he was hearing. What had happened overnight?
Finally, one of the label executives explained to Tommy what was causing this sudden change of heart. Each of the labels had been contacted by Roulette Records, a company that had close connections to the mafia. The owner of the label, Morris Levy, told each of the labels to pass on the song. He wanted it for his label. Levy’s reputation as the “godfather of the music business,” scared the major labels away from Tommy.
With all the other labels backing out, Tommy felt he had no other option than to sign a record deal with Roulette, even though he was aware of their mob connections. It was on the day of his label signing that he made the split-second career decision to change his last name to “James.”
The Pressures Of Fame
His new record deal was confirmation that he was a successful music star. But with the newfound success came new pressures, including the pressure to continually churn out hit songs.
“You have this fanciful idea that once you make it you’ll have all these people guiding you. But you’re really by yourself. You’re truly alone. You very easily can end up over your head,” says Tommy.
“That kind of pressure, can really do a number on you. You find that you’re not only alone, but that you’re not allowed to really show your insecurities with other people.”
Tommy hit the road, touring with his new band. To cope with the new pressures, he turned to drugs and alcohol.
Then one night in a motel, Tommy came across a Gideon Bible.
“We were staying in a Holiday Inn, this was 1966, probably October. And I see a Gideon Bible. I pick it up. And I honestly didn’t know the Old Testament from the New Testament. I just knew that God was going to say something to me.”
Tommy opened the Bible to a passage in Ezekiel in which the prophet is revealing a vision.
“I knew that the Lord had just met me right there where my heart was,” says Tommy.
He became captivated by what he was reading.
“I couldn’t put it down,” says Tommy. So he did what many people do with a Gideon Bible – he stole it from the motel room.
“I was guilt ridden about stealing it. It took me years before I figured that’s what I was supposed to do with it,” says Tommy.
“But it was huge. I mean really huge. It led to my salvation.”
“So I put it in my suitcase and took it home and that was my Bible. And I read the Bible as I could. I started there in the New Testament. A few months later in early 1967, I was writing alone one night and I had the TV on. They were broadcasting a Billy Graham crusade. The first night I watched it, and thought it was interesting. The second night I was just listening to it and still writing. And the third night, literally, I was down on my knees in front of the TV.”
For the first time in his life, Tommy understood that he needed a Savior and that Christ had died to take his sins away. So as Billy Graham led the audience through the sinner’s prayer, Tommy accepted Christ as his Savior.
Living A Double Life
But while Tommy knew Jesus was for real, the drugs and alcohol continued to influence his life and decisions.
Tommy James and the Shondells were touring with groups like The Beach Boys and appearing on national TV programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show. And he continued to spin out hits like, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crimson And Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Mony, Mony” and “Draggin’ The Line.”
But his life also continued to spin out of control.
“It took many years for me to come to my senses and realize I was being a complete hypocrite. It wasn’t until my third marriage that I realized I couldn’t stand myself. Booze and drugs caught up with me,” says Tommy.
Realizing he couldn’t keep going in the direction he was headed, he checked into the Betty Ford Center to conquer his drug and alcohol dependencies.
While in the Betty Ford Center, he opened up a Bible. And as the influence of drugs and alcohol wore away, he began to feel his soul come to life as never before, while reading the Bible. This new spiritual awakening made him thirstier and thirstier for God’s Word.
“My walk with Him has been just incredible ever since,” says Tommy.
With 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums to his credit, Tommy is so grateful that God continued to love him throughout the highs and lows of his life.
“The really important thing is to know the Lord is with you. When you know He is taking care of you, it’s the greatest thing in the world. He saved my life so many times.”
And now, Tommy shares his faith with others while continuing to make music and tour.
“I view my occupation as a ministry. I get to share my faith a lot on the road. When I’m on stage, and we do Sweet Cherry Wine, at the end of the song I say, ‘Keep lookin’ up, Jesus is coming’.”
“From that little nugget you would not believe the number of people opening up to me when we’re signing autographs after the show.”
And he still takes great comfort in finding a Gideon Bible in his hotel room.
“When I’m in hotel rooms, I still go get the Gideon Bible out of the drawer. It’s sort of like that song I heard that night on the Billy Graham broadcast, ‘Just as I Am.’ It feels good knowing it’s there and I pick it up and I read it all the time,” says Tommy.
And what if Tommy could meet the Gideon who took the time that day back in the 1960’s to place that Bible in that drawer in a motel room?
“I would just like to hug him and say, ‘Thank you. You probably saved my life.’”
“That Bible being there was crucial. It was an appointment with destiny. That Bible being there, and me being there at that moment, and the Holy Spirit workin’ on my heart, it was like the perfect storm.”
The life of Tommy James will be portrayed on screen and on Broadway as a movie and play based on his biography.
You may learn more about Tommy and his music at his website: