TOMMY JAMES doesn't like the title, but in the Kingdom of Rock he'll always be the Prince of Bubble Gum.
That's not to say he's a lightweight. Sales of more than 100 million records since 1966 demand a little respect.
Three of his biggest hits--"I Think We're Alone Now," "Mony, Mony" and "Crimson and Clover"--recently reemerged in popular cover versions that helped launch the respective careers of current pop stars Lene Lovich, Billy Idol and Joan Jett.
Still, the sticky-sweet mantle of a '60s teenybopper cult hero remains glued to James' back.
A decade of failed comebacks and relative obscurity "has had its dark moments," says the singer from his home in New Jersey. "I had to confront my ego and decide what I really am, versus what I thought I was."
James says he "became a real Christian" in the mid-'70s and "got things in line with my family": wife Lynda and son Brian, 18.
This month he's putting the finishing touches on a new double-album release and planning a reunion tour with the original members of his group, The Shondells.
"It's exciting to look ahead; I'm optimistic," says James at age 36. "But I'm proud of everything I've done musically. I've been lucky."
Thomas Gregory Jackson was born in Dayton, Ohio, and at 13 recorded a song by the Raindrops with his high school dance band, The Shondells. "Hanky Panky" got some regional play, but it wasn't until five years later that a Pittsburgh deejay discovered the tune, purchased the master recording for a few hundred dollars and promoted it into a hit.
Sales of the single approached 100,000 by the summer of 1966. Roulette Records signed the singer and auditioned musicians for the new Tommy James and The Shondells.
Performing and recording James' compositions, the group flourished as a sometimes sappy alternative to the anti-establishment, drug-oriented, hard rock stars of the late '60s.
"This was based more on marketing value than politics," says James. "Everyone was smoking dope and writing prophetic poetry. There was a lot of anti-government feeling in the music. We refused to do this. We wanted to do fun music, and it sold."
While others called for revolution, Tommy James campaigned for Hubert Humphrey, performing at several major rallies.
"We got to be real good friends," says James.
"At one point (Humphrey) was even talking about appointing me presidential adviser on youth affairs . . . We would sit around and talk about how things looked through the younger generation's eyes. I guess with everyone wearing their hair down to their a----, he thought he could talk to me, with my hair only half-way down to my a--."
Humphrey's 1968 loss to Richard Nixon may have cut short James' political career, but musically he soared.
At a 1969 rock festival in Atlanta, The Shondells had to take the stage "by helicopter and armored truck," says James. "They told me there were 500,000 people out there, and there was no other way to get in . . . We knew we had made it."
A year later, sitting in James' Manhattan apartment, the five musicians "realized we couldn't do anything more as a group," their leader recalls. "We didn't want it to go sour."
James immediately launched a solo career that he admits suffered from bad management and lack of innovation. "Nothing was clicking . . . An incredible life style of stardom suddenly and abruptly came to an end. In some ways I really felt like the survivor of a plane crash."
By the mid-'70s, after several failed records and unnoticed tours, James looked around and "saw that so many of the people who made it big when I did, some bigger than I did, were dead or burned out--just not in the race, couldn't compete. I felt like I could but began having doubts."
The break, which he says "came strictly out of left-field," was a 1977 greatest hits collection advertised heavily on television and available only through direct mail-order.
Two million copies were sold.
The vagaries of oldies fads are hard to track. But James may have a point when he argues that a subtle trend in contemporary pop music tastes contributed to his renewed popularity.
Recall "I Think We're Alone Now." Edit out the chirping crickets and hokey heart beats, and fix in your mind the muted, minimalist guitar riff typical of so many Shondells songs. Now hum the Cars' first big hit, "My Best Friend's Girl."
"Essentially, my basic style came back in," says James, the pride evident in his voice.
The smooth American version of post-punk new wave that propelled the Cars and their imitators to prominence "was really nothing new," he says.
James admits that he "wasn't thrilled" with Joan Jett's raunchy interpretation of the gentle "Crimson and Clover" but adds that more than $250,000 in residuals and other profits from the song's second life have eased his discomfort.
"It's flattering to have people use my stuff, to be on the radio," says James. "It's like I'm part of the furniture, the basics."