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The Story of Crimson and Clover

The Story of Crimson and Clover

Crimson and Clover is a 60s psychedelic song that has regained popularity since its original recording.

Recent films such as The Sun Is Also A Star and several TV shows have featured the hit.

But what does Crimson and Clover mean? Is it codeword for something only 60s hippies would know?

Let’s find out!

Who Originally Wrote Crimson and Clover?

Tommy James and Peter Lucia co-wrote Crimson and Clover in 1968. Lucia was the drummer of Tommy’s band, Tommy and The Shondells. Crimson and Clover was the first song featuring James, a principal songwriter for The Shondells.

James grew up in Michigan. By age four, he was a model and started his first band in 1959 at twelve. First called The Echoes, then Tom and The Echoes, James and his high school bandmates were local celebrities. He changed his band name again in 1964 to Tommy and The Shondells. 

Tommy sang and performed with The Shondells until March of 1970. But the rock n roll life was taking its toll. He collapsed at a concert that month and almost died of a drug-induced heart attack. After surviving this near-death experience, James took a break from the music industry and retreated to his home in the country.

James returned to writing and recording music as both a solo artist and songwriter for other artists. He released eleven albums as a solo artist. Musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, R.E.M, and The Killers have recorded his songs. In addition, James has received five Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI) “Million Air” awards, with over 22 million broadcast spins of his songs.

In 2010, he released an autobiography called Me, The Mob, and The Music. The book dives into his history with Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records. Levy was connected to the mob and inspired a mob character in The Sopranos TV series.

How Did James and Lucia Create the Hit Song?

There’s a bit of a debate on how James and Lucia came up with the title Crimson and Clover. James said he thought of the two words as he woke from a dream. There was no deep meaning behind them. While Lucia said he thought of the phrase while watching his high school football team. Either way, the title came before the composition of the song.

James’ desire to take his band in a different direction inspired the hit’s musicality. Desire. If you’re already familiar with Crimson and Clover, you might agree that’s a good verb to describe the tune. 

Before Crimson and Clover, Tommy James and The Shondells were considered bubblegum pop. This number was considerably more psychedelic and seductive than anything they had created before.

Who First Recorded Crimson and Clover?

Tommy James and the Shondells recorded Crimson and Clover in the late fall of 1968. Although they only spent about five hours recording, they utilized some unique techniques. 

Crimson and Clover is one of the earliest songs recorded on a 16-track instead of the more common 8-track. James sang the lyrics using a tremolo at the song’s end, creating a weird, wavy vocal sound. 

With a rough mix of the song completed, James grabbed the tape and threw it in his bag. He intended to bring it to his record label Roullette for approval to mix it down further.

But they had a gig in Chicago the next day, and Tommy decided to bring the tape to radio station WLS and play it for them – off the air. The station quietly recorded Crimson and Clover and quickly aired it as a world exclusive.

At first, James and Producer Morris Levy were pissed. But the song got such a massively positive response that they just ran with it. 

Tommy James and The Shondells remixed the hit for the album, released one month later. The single spent 16 weeks in the U.S charts and was Tommy James and the Shondells’ best-selling song.

The record Crimson and Clover was one of five studio albums released by Tommy James and The Shondells. They hit mainstream popularity with the 1966 single Hanky Panky and Mony Mony in the summer of 1968. 

But the song Crimson and Clover made them 60s superstars. It became an anthem of the times. Vice President Hubert Humphreys championed the tune and took the band on tour for his 1968 Presidential Campaign.

The most popular version of Crimson and Clover was by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in 1981. In fact, their cover reached top ten status on the U.S., Canadian, and Australian music charts. 

Jett’s version is much more rockin’, with her signature hard-hitting guitar sound. But it’s hard to say which one is steamier. Jett didn’t change the lyrics, which leave plenty to the imagination. That said, her vocal range is undoubtedly more powerful. She took Crimson and Clover’s soft velvet vibe and painted black, skin-tight leather pants all over it.

Joan Jett is indeed a force to be reckoned with. She had rock n roll on the mind from a young age, playing guitar at age thirteen. Three years later, in 1975, she co-founded the all-girl rock band The Runaways. 

When Jett embarked on a solo career in 1979, she began working with musician Kenny Laguna, who played keyboards for a stint with The Shondells. He knew Crimson and Clover was an excellent song for Jett to cover.

Often referred to as the Queen of Rock n Roll, Joan Jett wasn’t the only rock royalty member to cover the popular tune. Prince released a remake on his 33rd studio album Lotusflow3r. Some consider Price’s remake of Crimson and Clover a mash-up, as he adds lyrics and a guitar riff from Wild Thing by The Troggs.

Epic 60s Psychedelia

If we had to pick one signature song of the late 1960s psychedelic era, Crimson and Clover might be it. The title was created from a dream-like state. The fuzzy guitars and textured vocals give you just enough to know the song is about lust but leave out enough to keep you wondering about the details.

Here’s a fun fact. Many radio listeners thought the lyrics were “Christmas is Over.” Are the words to Crimson and Clover easy for you to understand? How would you describe the song? Let us know in the comments!

Doug Hornick

Thursday 3rd of March 2022

I liked this song when I heard it in 1975 but didn’t understand the meaning of the title. When I got older I thought maybe it was code for the act of virgin love making, the crimson and then clover, when the pain subsides and it becomes enjoyable. 🤷

Great Oldies

Friday 4th of March 2022

And to find out there's no real meaning at all! A good guess though.

Doug Hornick

Thursday 3rd of March 2022

Never mind. I miss read your comment

Doug Hornick

Thursday 3rd of March 2022

Jimmie, it’s much older than 1978. I was working summer jobs in 1975 and a friend of mine was playing it on his 8-track player along with Love Will Keep Us Together and others.


Thursday 3rd of March 2022

Tommy James and the Shondells recorded Crimson and Clover in the late fall of 1978....This should read 1968????

Great Oldies

Thursday 3rd of March 2022

Good catch! Thank you!

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