Whatever happened to Jenny?
You remember Jenny. Her name and phone number (it was on the wall) were made famous in Tommy Tutone’s signature song, “867-5309/Jenny.”
Released in 1981, the song peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and, catchy as heck, it’s playing on a classic rock station somewhere at this very moment. Probably, after reading this, the song is stuck in your head all over again. It’s OK. You could do a lot worse than a single VH1 ranked No. 4 among the 100 greatest songs of the ’80s.
Let’s get back to Jenny. We don’t know her area code, so we can’t call her. But a publicist shared Tommy Tutone’s number, so he was called in advance of a Nov. 10 performance at The Venue Shrine. “Whatever happened to Jenny?” seemed like a question worth asking and it was couched this way: Marty Robbins once wrote a sequel to “El Paso” called “El Paso City.” Maybe Tommy Tutone can give us a sequel song so we can learn what became of Jenny.
Been there, done that.
Tommy Heath (he is Tommy Tutone) said a sequel song appeared on his 1998 album Tutone.rtf and, if this is the first time you are hearing about it, he said it wasn’t promoted at all. Anyhow, Tommy and Jenny got married and they had a daughter named Jenny. The sequel is about Jenny Jr., who, according to lyrics, is all grown up and nobody knows what to do with her. Look out, world. Jenny is calling you.
“Jenny is running wild and, on her way out of town, is making a last phone call to her dad,” Heath said. “I think it’s a good song. I may have to put that out again.”
Providing background, Heath said folks at record companies would say “I don’t hear anything about Jenny in there” after he introduced new material to them. And then, when he finally name-dropped Jenny in a song, he was subjected to “wow, he had to imitate himself” barbs.
“It was kind of an I-got-you,” he said. “I threw it in there for laughs. But it is a good song.”
Heath is perhaps bringing the original Jenny to Tulsa for the first time. He said he has played in other Oklahoma towns but somehow has never performed in Tulsa. Hmmm. Concert-goers here remember him playing at the Brady Theater with Quarterflash back in the day. Regardless, he said this about Tulsa: "I’ve always wanted to go there. I’ve never seen the Cain’s Ballroom or anything.”
Maybe take a side trip while in Tulsa?
“Oh yeah. I have cultural hours every day we are on tour. We get the whole band together and we will get to see some local natural bridge or museum.”
For instance, Heath said he visited a mafia museum in Nevada. Getting out and about beats the alternative of seeing only the venue where you are playing and the hotel where you are staying.
“I try to see everything,” he said.
Meanwhile, you’ll see more than one person if you see a Tommy Tutone show. Asked about a new album (Beautiful Ending), he said he has become a storyteller and, going one step more, a story actor.
“Each song, to me, is like a movie and I become the character in there,” he said.
He said he always done that a little, even dating to “867-5309/Jenny.”
“The character I am there is this guy we call Dumb But Concerned,” Heath said. “He means well and he has got a big heart and everything, but he never quite gets it, you know? It’s kind of a stalker song when you think about it. You can just tell the guy has got a heart of gold, so he gets away with it, I guess.”
The new album features a fast-paced version of Jim Croce’s “Operator.” Heath described it as something like the Clash doing Don McLean. Heath said he recorded the song because his sister always wanted him to do it. She heard the song when it first came out and phoned her brother: “Is that you?”
Heath is a musician with varied interests. Tommy Tutone was pegged as new wave band back in the day, but he said he and collaborator Jim Keller “were just so un-new wave.” Heath has released albums rooted in country and soul. He says he can play Texas swing pretty good.
The interview ended with a few questions about the original Jenny. Asked for a theory on why the song hit a sweet spot, Heath said, “Gee, I don’t know. There is some kind of magic numerology in there. The numbers are unforgettable, the sound of it, I guess.”
It helped that the song and MTV were born the same year. The video was played in heavy rotation. Spoiler alert: The video for the song ends with 867-5309 being an inmate’s ID number.
Want to know how many people with the phone number 867-5309 got random calls after the song came out? Pretty much all of them. Heath was asked if he felt bad for those people.
“I learned my lesson because People magazine put my number in their article about me,” he said.
Heath said that was “kind of bad,” but he turned it into a positive by making that number a dedicated “fan line.”
Heath indicated he and his band mates had no way of knowing that people would be inspired to call 867-5309. He said the band couldn’t have made vocalized 555-5555 instead because that doesn’t flow.
Heath said he has never called 867-5309.
“People find that hard to believe,” he said. “I have never even attempted it. But there used to be a web site where a guy would call it in every area code about once a year and report on it.”
Heath said the number once belonged to a chief of police’s daughter in Buffalo (ouch) and a junior high school in West Virginia. “We went through there and played a free show when we were passing through,” he said.
Jenny would be proud.