Prince Finds a Kindred Spirit With Tommy James’ ‘Crimson and Clover’
Though it seemed a bit out of left field back then, Prince must have felt a connection – perhaps on many levels – with Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover."
Also famously covered by Joan Jett, the 1968 song represented one of James' first attempts at composing a song on his own – after a lengthy period of collaborating with songwriting ace Bo Gentry. James ended up recording most of "Crimson and Clover" himself, Prince style, even as Gentry departed in the midst of – see if this sounds familiar, too – a contract feud with his label.
"Bo wasn't getting paid from Roulette Records, so he went on strike and refused to make any more Tommy James records," Kenny Laguna, a former member of James' band and later a collaborator with Jett, told Songfacts. "In those days, [music industry] legend Morris Levy said he was not going to be pushed around, and said: 'Fine, you want to quit, quit. It will be the end of your career.'"
James later said that the song's title (a combination of his favorite color and favorite flower) came to him as he was waking up. But it also has strong religious undertones, with the clover a possible representation of the trinity and crimson the blood of Jesus. This, too, would have synced up with Prince's joining the Jehovah's Witnesses in the period leading up to 2009's Lotusflow3r.
He sought a similar kind of artistic freedom, away from label and market expectations. James became convinced that "Crimson and Clover" could be used as a fulcrum to transform himself into an album-rock artist. Prior to these sessions, which later included Peter Lucia Jr. on drums and Mike Vale on bass, James and his band the Shondells were best known for bubble-gum hits like "Mirage" and "I Think We're Alone Now."
"Until 'Crimson and Clover,' Roulette really wasn’t selling albums," James told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "They were selling singles and we had to have one after another. We were always on the make for a title, for a pattern of words to get started. It was very tiring. We'd release four, sometimes five singles a year. Morris was cracking the whip."
Thinking himself as misunderstood as Prince one day would, James ended up taking an all-encompassing, absolutely Prince-ish interest in "Crimson and Clover." "We wrote the song; we produced the record; we did all the things we had to do," James told Songfacts, in a separate interview. "We designed the album cover. We got to the point where we almost took the creative process right into the retail store. It was amazing."
Hubert Humphreys, who served as a U.S. Senator from Prince's home state of Minnesota before becoming the 38th vice president, also brought Tommy James and the Shondells along on campaign stops as the Democratic Party's nominee to replace Richard Nixon in 1968. Forty years later, these latent connections between James and Prince were finally made real.
"I'm always flattered when someone covers one of my songs," James says in Who Did It First?: Great Rock and Roll Cover Songs and Their Original Artists, "but probably my favorite is the Prince rendition of 'Crimson and Clover' on his Lotusflow3r album."
Of course, Prince was still Prince. He completed "Crimson and Clover" with a quote from the Troggs' hit "Wild Thing," which has nothing at all to do with any of this.
Watch Prince Perform "Crimson & Clover"
Prince's Bandmates: Where Are They Now?