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Tommy Tutone leader finds there's life well after 'Jenny'

1980s' hitmakers to perform at reopening celebration of The Tillicum club


by: COURTESY OF TOMMY HEATH - No doubt that Tommy Tutone has been known for '867-5309/Jenny,' but lead singer Tommy Heath says the new edition of the band could be the best.In the late 1970s, Tommy Tutone was a band playing an engaging stew of soul, rhythm and blues, country and straight up rock ‘n’ roll to a growing following in clubs and theaters around San Francisco.

Lead singer Tommy Heath says the band was doing little, if anything, to kowtow to then-prevailing post-punk music and fashion trends when the record company folks came calling.

“I wasn’t driven to make it big. We just played,” Heath recalls. “Some guy came in one day and said, ‘You’re New Wave.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’

“We had to narrow our scope.”

Whatever concessions Heath and his bandmates made to commerciality soon paid off. The band scored both AM and FM radio play in 1980 with its self-titled debut LP. With Heath’s powerful, distinctively garbled vocal delivery leading the charge on its lead-off single, “Angel Say No,” the roots-inflected power pop tune jumped out of car speakers that summer.

Two years later, that relatively minor hit was overshadowed by a smash based on a resounding chorus hook that repeated the seven-digit phone number of an elusive “Jenny.” The song, the number and the mysterious gal’s name would soon emit from the lips of pop fans the world over.

Heath, now working with a revamped, Portland-based lineup of Tommy Tutone, will belt out the infamous “867-5309/Jenny” among the wide-ranging song styles he’s perfected through the years at the grand reopening of The Tillicum nightclub at 8585 S.W. Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway.

Dani and Steve Rosendahl, who bought The Tillicum this fall after it closed in August, invited Heath, a Southeast Portland resident, to rechristen the vintage Beaverton nightspot. The couple, who also own the Pit Stop Sports Bar and BBQ Grill at 10245 S.W. Canyon Road and the On Deck bar in Northwest Portland’s Pearl District, got to know Heath from his visits to the latter spot.

“He used to live in the Pearl, so we asked him to play in summer 2012,” Dani said of Heath. “We wanted some name recognition when we opened The Tillicum. Everybody knows that song, so we emailed him, and he said he’d do it.”

Now a software programmer, Heath, 66, is clearly pleased with his current band, comprising Portland and Vancouver, Wash.-based musicians.

“I think this is the best band I’ve ever had,” he says, explaining how his move back to the Northwest after spending time in Nashville led to an inspiring collaboration. “I came back and started jamming with these guys. There’s nobody from the old days.”

While “867-5309” and “Angel Say No” are certainly part of the setlist, today’s Tommy Tutone tends to concentrate on the eclectic mix of soul- and country-tinged styles that got the original band noticed back in the day.

“There’s not a whole lot of stuff from the old days,” he says. “We’re not an oldies band. It’s mostly stuff I like to play from the last two or three albums.”

Tommy Tutone’s more recent albums, including “Soul Twang” and the newly released “Soul Twang 2,” came to life, of course, without the flavor-of-the-month fanfare that greeted the band back in those heady days of 1982, when “867” hit No. 4 on the Billboard singles charts.

“This is not the ’80s,” Heath says. “We really are just playing and singing the kind of stuff I’ve always been drawn to. To me, it’s a cross between country and soul.”

Of the band’s signature song, which former Tommy Tutone guitarist Jim Keller co-wrote with Alex Call, Heath admits being a bit blindsided by the way the listening public latched on to the catchy concoction, which highlights Heath’s insistent, pleading voice amid a swirl of arpeggiated guitar jangle, call-and-response vocals and the crisp, New Wave-ish production that was all the rage at the time.

“We’d been working on the second album,” he recalls of “Tommy Tutone 2.” “I thought (the song) was catchy. I didn’t know it would be that catchy.”

In some circles, “867” was perhaps a little too catchy for its own good. Threats of legal action ensued when the daughter of Buffalo, New York’s police chief, who coincidentally had the same phone number, got a few too many unsolicited calls from would-be suitors calling for “Jenny.”

“Of course, ‘People’ magazine put my real phone number in an article,” Heath notes with a chuckle, “to teach me a lesson.”

While large-scale stardom ultimately eluded Tommy Tutone, its singer, songwriter and guitarist — a married father of two daughters — sounds pleased with his ability to live in Portland and alternate between his music and computer-oriented careers.

“Every musician needs a career to fall back on,” says Heath, admitting he’s a “pretty private guy.” “It works better for me. I can keep quiet here at home and get on the phone and be Tommy Tutone.”

Despite decades of performances and the still-ubiquitous airplay of “867,” Heath, who grew up in South Philadelphia, admits he doesn’t mind mixing the song — along with “Angel Say No” — into his stew of song styles.

“I do enjoy it — provided we only play it once a day,” he says. “I’m still learning things about it. It’s a wild hair. In the ’90s, I was bored with it. Nowadays, I can sing other stuff. It is a gift, I guess.”




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