One of my most prized possessions growing up was a Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll book that I was given probably for christmas or a birthday I was probably around twelve years old when I got the book. Thumbing through the pages I remember coming across a photo of a guy with very angular features pomping up an already permed hair do, the name Tommy James was already familiar thru Hanky Panky and Crimson and Clover somewhat surprisingly he was placed in the bubblegum section of the book. I still to this day don't consider Tommy James and The Shondells to have been a bubblegum group, I have always thought of them as a pure pop band with some blue eyed soul overtones. The fact that Tommy James wrote a lot of the material with help from other members of the group seemed to indicate to me that he was not part of a manufactured assembly line.
Tommy James was sort of an accidental star he had recorded Hanky Panky in 1964 for a local label in Michigan, the record did well locally but that was it. Somehow two years later it was unearthed by a Pittsburgh DJ who bought it to local recognition on the east coast, within four months the song was U.S#1 hit. Towards the end of the 1960's James was keen to shake the tag of bubblegum artist and was spreading his wings musically taking in elements of psychedelia and soul music. 1969 was a huge year for the band with 3 Top 10 hit singles one of the biggest being Crystal Blue Persuasion. It really is a majestic pop song, with it's sense of optimism and hope at a time when the U.S was mired in Vietnam and experiencing considerable civic unrest at home. That period of time produced a lot of music that resonated with tones of peace and understanding, but soon enough the music would turn darker and be filled with despair and frustration.
The lilting acoustic solo that opens the song establishes that feeling of optimism, the ideal that tomorrow will be a better day, the song builds adding layers after each verse, the organ floats across the song like early morning mist. The Shondells add to that feeling with their doo wop style backing phrases, the bridge provides the opportunity for the song to continue to build, the organ comes through on the second verse and leads into the middle eight where the acoustic guitar brings the intensity down for a moment, Mike Vale on the bass provides some nice flourishes as Tommy finds time to do some accapella vocals. In the final verse a horn section adds to the wall of sound as Tommy sings of peace and good and brotherhood all elements of his Crystal Blue Persuasion. If you want some sort of comparison or context musically think along the lines of what The Young Rascals were doing around the same, People Got To Be Free has that same demand for peace and hope. It seems on the east coast bands took their musical cues from soul music and out on the west coast songs of peace were either framed in folk music or lengthy stretched out psychedelic jams.
There have been some suggestions that the title of the song has drug connotations and lets face it what song of the late 60's didn't come under fire for so called drug references. It's possible that it was part of the fabric of the song, James himself nearly died from an overdose that year on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. James himself contends that the idea for the song came from the bible, and I think it was during this period that his growing interest in Christianity emerged. The B side I'm Alive has a more funky pretext, syncopated drumming and a driving bass line with a fuzz tone guitar accompaniment. It shares some similarity with Crimson and Clover, the group often explored more R&B styles on their b side and album tracks.