This week, BGEA’s long-running Hour of Decision radio program features an interview with 1960s music star Tommy James. We sat in on the interview and learned more about his unusual story.
Tommy James was so close to the television set that night in his apartment, he almost burned the retinas in his eyes.
The rock star, famous for hits like “Mony, Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” was watching the Billy Graham Crusade at Shea Stadium from his Midtown Manhattan apartment for the third consecutive night.
The Holy Spirit had been knocking on James’ heart and when that invitation came on that summer night over 40 years ago, he felt this overwhelming urge to get as close as possible to the TV set.
“I’ll never forget it,” James recalls. “I was putting my nose up to the screen and my hand on the screen. I received Jesus that night and was born again.”
For James, it was a night that’s forever seared into his brain. He was starting to make it big with his band “Tommy James and the Shondells” and would eventually sell more than 100 million records.
But at that moment, James knew he was a changed man and he’s never forgotten it.
“That was the night I was born again,” he said, “and thank God He never let go of me.”
It wouldn’t be so easy for James to shake the drugs and alcohol he was hooked on. Even though his entire band found the Lord around the same time he was saved, James split off from the Shondells to pursue a solo career. (He remains “best friends” with the band members to this day).
And while the substances changed throughout the years, it wasn’t until 1986 when James was at the Betty Ford Cliic that he finally broke clean of his addictions.
“I had a real revelation at the Betty Ford Clinic,” he said. “I opened my Bible and asked God to speak to me wherever the page ended up. I knew God would talk to me.”
So like he had done many times before, James took the Bible, randomly opened to a page — Psalm 32 — and, sure enough, God started speaking to him.
“It’s a conversation between David and God, and essentially it says don’t make me treat you like a wild donkey,” James said. “It really went right to my heart. I knew God was speaking to me through that. It changed my life in a very real way.”
James credits being clean for a quarter of a century to the Lord, and he has been intentional about sharing his faith, using the musical platform to tell others about his hope in Christ.
He tells his fans after performing “Sweet Cherry Wine” to keep looking up because Jesus is coming. After the show, during autograph sessions, he’ll sometimes share how “Sweet Cherry Wine” is about the blood of Jesus and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” is about his own conversion to Christianity, with the imagery coming from the Book of Revelation.
“I don’t get preachy,” James said. “I just say that little thing (during the concert) and you wouldn’t believe how many people after the show come up and talk about Jesus.”
In 2010, James released the book “Me, The Music and The Mob,” which delved into the never-before-told story about Roulette Records.
“It was a very scary experience,” James said. “I’m so blessed to have the longevity and to be able to do this for all these years.”
James continues to tour and tell whoever will listen that Jesus’ return is soon and, frankly, you’d better be ready.
“You’d have to be living in a fantasyland not to connect Bible prophecy with the news and what’s on TV and in the papers every day,” he said. “I am just so excited at this point. It’s clear Jesus is coming back soon.”
And in the meantime, while he’s flipping through channels at his home in New York, James will occasionally come across classic Billy Graham Crusade footage.
His hand will freeze, if only for a moment. He zeroes in on Mr. Graham’s sermon and listens for the invitation, which takes him all the way back to his “Crystal Blue” conversion.
“They’ll have Crusades on from 1962, 1958, 1975,” he said. “And you know, it’s so amazing, as Billy Graham ages, the message is always the same and it hits you exactly the same way. It’s the consistency of Jesus.”
And that song?
He can’t help but think of laying hands on his TV. His eyes red, nearly burning.
And giving his life to the Lord — just as he was.
“It’s like a time machine,” James said. “Every time I hear that song, “Just as I am,” I feel like I’m home again. I love that song.”