How Tommy Tutone Dialed Up a Hit with ‘867-5309/Jenny’
From the moment it became a hit, Tommy Tutone’s "867-5309/Jenny" has been the source of a few legends and rumors, some of which were perpetuated by the band itself. Is the song based on a true story? Was there a real Jenny? And, if so, how did this woman get her phone number on a bathroom wall?
First, a little history. Tommy Tutone was a band, not a person, formed in 1978 in Northern California by guitarist/singers Jim Keller and Tommy Heath. The group’s original name was Tommy and the Twin Tones (or Tu-tones), which evolved into Tommy Tutone by the time the band scored a recording contract with CBS Records, releasing its debut album in 1980.
Keller was buddies with another musician from the area, Alex Call, who had been a member of the recently broken-up Clover – known for featuring Huey Lewis and backing Elvis Costello on My Aim is True. In 1981, Call had written the music to a rock song that he played for Keller.
Call recorded a demo with the opening lick and the chord progression, but hadn’t gotten to the lyrics. It was Keller who crystallized the story of the song, and the two filled in the verses to the song that would become “867-5309/Jenny.”
Once completed, Tommy Tutone recorded the track for its second album (Tommy Tutone 2), which was released to little fanfare in September of ’81. The band’s future looked grim, but everything changed after the label issued “867-5309/Jenny” as a single on Nov. 16, 1981.
The bouncy bit of pop/rock first became a radio hit on the West Coast, eventually turning into a national smash that went all the way to No. 4 on the Billboard charts in early ’82. As the press became curious about the song’s subject matter, which appeared to be about a guy calling a number he found written down… somewhere, questions about Jenny’s story were directed at the members of Tommy Tutone.
“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,” Keller told People in 1982. “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.”
As the song remained popular in the ensuing decades, other stories began to materialize, including one that suggested the song was about Heath’s ex-girlfriend and “867-5309/Jenny” sought revenge by making her digits public knowledge. But, eventually, Call cleared the air about the single’s origin.
“Tommy and Jim, together, needed a better story, so they’ve made up a number of stories over the years about it was Tommy’s girlfriend or Jim’s girlfriend or whatever. And they’re still telling those stories,” Call told the Rock Book Show in 2011, claiming that he created the chorus and that Keller thought of a girl’s phone number on a bathroom wall. “I’m here to personally debunk [the rumors], because I made the name and number up. The only thing that makes it a better story is this is kind of songwriter’s magic. You’re just playing and things come out.”
There may have never been a real “Jenny,” but that didn’t stop hordes of Americans from trying to locate her by dialing the famous number with a host of different area codes. Various homes with the number 867-5309 became innocent – and greatly annoyed – bystanders, receiving prank calls or come-ons from lusty men.
“When we’d first get calls at 2 or 3 in the morning, my husband would answer the phone,” Brewton, Ala., resident Lorene Burns told the press in 1982. “He can’t hear too well. They’d ask for Jenny, and he’d say ‘Jimmy doesn’t live here anymore’… Tommy Tutone was the one who had the record. I’d like to get a hold of his neck and choke him.”
Other private citizens with the phone number, including a Chicago woman who yielded the number to a radio station and some college students, felt similarly about the constant calls, often from drunk people desperately looking “for a good time” with a fictional woman. Because of the song’s catchy melody, the digits tended to stick in listeners’ heads, much like the Marvelettes’ “Beachwood 4-5789” had, decades earlier.
In recent years, some businesses, plumbers and DJs have made a play to secure the number, creating advertisements to tie into the hit song. Others have attempted to auction the famous digits on eBay, with some success, depending on the situation.
As for Tommy Tutone, the band made a few more records, but failed to score a hit anywhere close. Heath continues to tour with a new lineup of the group, which gained a little attention in 2007, when Bruce Springsteen’s new single, “Radio Nowhere,” bore some similarities to the ’80s pop hit. Heath joked about suing the Boss for plagiarism, although as someone who made up stories about “Jenny,” he wouldn’t exactly have the moral high ground in this case.
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