Tommy Tutone’s Jim Keller plays The Monkey House
By Luke Baynes
An archetypal slice of ’80s power pop met a prototypical Vermont hippie bar when Jim Keller of Tommy Tutone fame played at The Monkey House in Winooski on May 2.
Along with Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)” and The Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789,” Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” is the most famous seven-digit phone number in pop music history.
It’s the song that made Tommy Tutone a household name in the spring of 1982 and inspired thousands of late night callers to dial the number in the hope that a sultry female voice would pick up on the other end.
Yet Tommy Tutone was not, as many people at the time assumed, the name of a man. Nor was it the one-hit wonder that most people think of it as today.
Tommy Tutone is instead the name of the Bay Area bar band—led by Tommy Heath on lead vocals and Keller on lead guitar—that scored a Top 40 hit with “Angel Say No” prior to achieving pop immortality with the song that forced prank victims in area codes across the country to change their phone numbers.
Unable to repeat the runaway success of “Jenny,” Tommy Tutone broke up two years and one album after making its national splash.
Heath moved to Portland, Ore. and became a computer analyst, sporadically getting the band back together (sans Keller) over the following two decades.
Keller disappeared from the rock scene altogether, landing a job as the director of preeminent classical composer Philip Glass’ publishing company, Dunvagen Music Publishers.
“I got married and I got a job because I wasn’t making any money as a musician,” Keller said after the May 2 show. “So I had to try to do something else to make a living, which is what I did.”
In 2008, Keller returned to the studio to record his first solo album, “Sunshine in My Pocket,” a mostly acoustic-based collection of heartland rock songs. Last fall’s sophomore album, “Soul Candy,” suggests a more conscious return to the soul influences hinted at in Keller’s best Tommy Tutone compositions.
“About seven years ago—and my daughter always hates it when I say this—I began playing again, because I was not happy, and I had to force myself, because I was so far away from it,” Keller said. “Over the course of about three years I started writing again, and then pulling players in, and slowly over the course of the years found guys that I adore and we have a mutual admiration and then went in the studio.”
Keller’s Wednesday night gig at The Monkey House was part of a three-day Northeast swing for the New Jersey native that also included a flood benefit concert in Londonderry, Vt. and a show at Valentines Music Hall and Beer Joint in Albany, N.Y.
Flanked by a quintessential six-piece bar band (rhythm guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, trumpet, saxophone), Keller steamrolled through a set of originals, punctuated by an impromptu rockabilly version of the blues standard “Mystery Train” for the mixed crowd of middle-aged fans and college students who weren’t born when “Jenny” ruled the airwaves.
“I really like his voice,” said Katie Barton, a freshman at the University of Vermont. “It’s like a combination of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and John Mayer.”
Keller laughed when asked about the vocal comparisons after the show.
“Maybe the Springsteen part,” he said.
In fact, there were several Springsteen allusions during the set, from Keller quoting the opening of The Boss’ “Jungleland” (“The rangers had a homecoming…”) when noticing a New York Rangers game playing on the bar television, to the Keller song “Giving It Up to Love,” which references Springsteen’s 1978 masterpiece in the line “Darkness on the edge of town, where the sky’s black as coal.”
The Springsteen links don’t end there.
Consciously or not, “Julianne,” Keller’s finest composition of his solo career, contains musical echoes of the Springsteen/Steven Van Zandt song “Little Girl So Fine,” from the second Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes album (the most durable of the Jersey Shore bar bands), while ironically, a minor controversy ensued when the opening riff of Springsteen’s 2007 hit “Radio Nowhere” was noted for bearing an uncanny similarity to “Jenny” (“The kids do need braces, so maybe I will (sue),” Tommy Heath joked at the time).
Keller, for his part, suggested that “Jenny” has become part of the public domain.
“‘Jenny’ … I don’t own it anymore. Playing ‘Jenny’ is like playing ‘Louie Louie’ or something,” Keller said. “It’s a great bar band song. I dare anyone to screw that song up; you can’t. Everybody sounds good with that song.”
Following the performance of “Mystery Train,” which momentarily transformed the dimly lit Winooski watering hole into a rollicking Memphis juke joint, Keller stepped down from the stage. He was quickly back.
“I promised I’d do it, so I will,” he said, before launching into the instantly recognizable guitar riff that took “Jenny” to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1982.
But far from treating the song as a faded relic or an obligatory chore, Keller and his bandmates stretched it out past its tight pop single format into an extended jam which suggested that like all great songs, its appeal is timeless and its permutations endless.
After the show, the 58-year-old Keller, dressed in jeans and a sports coat with horn-rimmed glasses and a fedora, went to the bar for a drink and mingled with patrons with the casual ease of a day laborer stopping by the local saloon for a quick belt after work.
Then he and several band members packed into a mid-size sedan parked outside the bar and headed off into the Winooski night.