During MTV’s infancy in early 1982, it was hard to escape Tommy Tutone’s infectious, million-selling “867-5309/Jenny.” Even 16 years later, that phone number is more recognizable than 10-10-321.
Lead singer Tommy Heath, who started the San Francisco rock group with guitarist Jim Keller in 1978, acknowledges the song’s impact, but he’s just as happy with his recently released Secret Disc debut album “Rich Text Files.”
“I thought I was very lucky,” Heath said recently of the group’s brief ’80s success. “We came out of San Francisco, where we were not popular at all. We were considered kind of corny there, and we didn’t have the proper haircut or the right fashion. We emphasized songs. Then the videos started to happen, so we were kind of in the right place at the right time for that. I have no regrets about it at all.
” ‘Jenny’ is more popular, I think, now than it was four or five years ago. It probably would’ve been in several movies, but I guess it’s a publishing thing. A lot of people can tell me where they were when they heard the song, what they were doing. It nails a time and place for people.”
Rather than avoid the specter of “Jenny,” Heath, now living in Portland, Ore., embraces it, providing a sequel in the track “Jenny’s Calling.” The updated Jenny has a daughter who is running wild.
“We’ve come full circle with it,” Heath said. “This is after years of going into publishers and having them listen to all my songs and none of them sounding like ‘Jenny,’ and they’re thinking, ‘I don’t know if there’s anything that sounds like that on here, and I don’t know if there’s any hits here.’ Finally, one day we were fooling around and played that, and it ended up on the record. We’re now doing a follow-up called ‘The Son of the Monster That Returned to Eat Jenny.’ “
“867-5309” reached No. 4 on Billboard’s pop chart and the group’s second Columbia album, “Tommy Tutone-2,” cracked the Top 20, but the dial tone quickly went dead. Heath said they spent too much time working on the follow-up LP, “National Emotion.”
“It was going to be our ‘concept’ album,” he said. “We worked on it when we should’ve been playing all over America. We played a lot after ‘Jenny’ came out and we actually had two or three other really good songs from that album I figured could be singles, but you know how it goes. So they had us in there making another one, and by the time we finished it, all the people who had made us famous weren’t at CBS anymore.
“Then we started bickering amongst ourselves at that point. That third album, which I like very much, is for collectors only at this point. It’s not on CD anywhere. We went on, and my partner, Jim Keller (who wrote ‘Jenny’), and I broke up. We drifted around, I wrote a lot of songs. I always liked different kinds of music, so I had a country band on the side and I had a soul band, and I recorded a solo album in Muscle Shoals.”
Heath is touring again as Tommy Tutone and the response has been beyond his wildest dreams.
“I’ve been playing for 10 years locally and now all of a sudden we’re cool again,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know why, but I guess it all comes around.
“I’m not into going out and being an oldies act. Those were good times and we like the songs from then, but this is now, so here we are.”
BWF (before we forget): Dial up Tommy Tutone on the Web @ www.secretdisc.com.
More updates: Avalon, Tami Neilson, Beach Slang, BRKN Love, Mary J. Blige, Bing Crosby, Change, etc
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc