Tommy Tutone's Got Your Number—if It's 867-5309—as America Dials Up a Musical Party Line
05/31/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
Administrative assistant Jennifer Gray, 24, was shocked early this year when heavy-breathing men started calling her New York office number and asking for Jenny. "Within a few weeks I got hundreds of obscene calls," she says. By that time Gray had learned that her number bore the same digits as the pop rock group Tommy Tutone's hit single 867-5309/ Jenny, whose lyrics immortalize a name and number found on a wall. Now in the Top 5, Jenny has outdistanced such Ma Bell classics as the Marvelettes' 1962 version of Beechwood 4-5789, Wilson Pickett's 634-5789 in 1966 and even Glenn Miller's 1940 rendition of Pennsylvania 6-5000. Even so, the Tutone single's sales (more than 500,000) may not match the number of prank calls it has inspired.
Gray's ended when she quit her job, though she says the callers did not prompt the change. Others with the 867-5309 listing haven't gotten off the line as easily (see box, p. 36). One Chicago woman gladly relinquished her number to WLS radio, which logged 22,000 calls in four days. Now those who reach WLS hear a taped message from Tutone's founder, Tommy Heath: "Hi. Thanks for listening to my new song....By the way, even if your name isn't Jenny, I still love you anyway."
"When I heard we nearly melted a phone wire in Chicago, it made my day," enthuses Heath. "We thought the entire album was a lost cause in December." When the Tommy Tutone-2 LP, which includes Jenny and is now approaching gold, was released last October, the only number in the band's black book was dial-a-prayer. In 1980 the group's first album, Tommy Tutone, had had one Top 30 single (Angel Say No), but still sold under 200,000 copies. After heavy promotion by Columbia Records, Jenny—and the second LP—caught on.
The real Jenny has disconnected her phone, even though the lyrics beg, "Jenny don't change your number!... I need to make you mine." Confides Jim Keller, the band's lead guitarist, who wrote Jenny with Alex Call (formerly of Clover): "Jenny is a regular girl, not a hooker. Friends of mine wrote her name and number on a men's room wall at a bar. I called her on a dare, and we dated for a while. I haven't talked with her since the song became a hit, but I hear she thinks I'm a real jerk for writing it." (In some after-the-fact chivalry, Keller refuses to divulge Jenny's last name.)
Though Heath, 32, and Keller, 28, have been together off and on for five years, Tutone's other current members—drummer Victor Carberry, bassist Gregg Sutton and keyboardist Steve Le Gassick—joined the group only last year. "We're not virtuoso players," says Carberry. "We make mistakes all the time."
"When Tommy and I started, we didn't know what we were doing," admits Keller, former owner of a San Francisco carpentry business and a self-taught guitarist. Heath, born in Philadelphia into an Air Force family, is a 1974 Sonoma (Calif.) State University grad. His first band was called Tommy and the Teen Tones (thus "Tutone"). He admits to squabbling with Keller (who played cello and piano as a boy in Short Hills, N.J.) over material and interpretation. "Jim and I are as different as two people can be," he says. "But our friction makes us a success."
Heath insists, "I go through Jim's trash can and work on songs he's thrown away." Keller contends, "I write 100 songs a year, and Tommy writes 10. But as far as he's concerned, he writes all the songs. Tommy loves the limelight. It doesn't bother me. But it makes my girlfriends furious."
They hope to have their third album out by fall. "I hate to beat a dead horse, but I love phone songs," Heath says by way of preview. Keller has already written Girl by the Phone, about a psychopathic man-watcher.
Heath has an unlisted number in Ukiah, Calif. But James "Killer" Keller, as he's listed in the San Francisco phone book, objected when PEOPLE prepared to publish his number. "That," he snapped, "would really piss me off." Tutone's manager, Paul Cheslaw, is a better sport; for a good time, call 213-456-8867.