`867-5309' still rings Tutone singer

Now computer aide, Heath's fame endures as `one-hit wonder'

September 03, 2002|By Mike Lacy | Mike Lacy,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Tommy Heath identifies himself as he answers the phone. He sounds as if he expects the call, but the conversation is hushed.

"Let me see if I can get this put to the conference room," he says under his breath.

He comes back a minute later with another number to call. It doesn't work. A second try finally gets through.

Tommy Heath is shy. Very shy. He says at least half of the people in the Oregon Electric Co. office where he works as a computer "geek" consultant don't know him as the rest of the world does. It's not that he's embarrassed. But unless someone needs to know he's also the leader of Tommy Tutone, the band with one of the biggest hits in the 1980s, he simply doesn't mention it.

"I discourage people from talking about it," Heath says. "I don't look like a singer until I get on stage."

He cherishes his relative obscurity. "I don't think I could be somebody who walked around and had no privacy," he says. "It's fun to put it on and then go home and take it off."

In 1982, the song "867-5309/Jenny" off his second album went to No. 4 on the charts. But it had No. 1 effects. It pretty much changed the telephone industry when it caused cities all over the country to discontinue the number because of repeated calls looking for "Jenny."

Heath and Jim Keller made up the band Tommy Tutone, a name adopted from Heath's nickname. Keller wrote "Jenny."

Keller and Heath no longer work together, but Heath continues to perform the song at all his concerts. "He [Keller] makes plenty of money off it. I don't see how he could complain," he says.

Heath and his band have occasionally gone on the road either solo or with other acts, most recently fellow 1980s acts Missing Persons and The Knack, which he says is a good fit.

Heath has made his peace with "Jenny." "It has enduring popularity because it hooks up to something in the brain. ... It's become more of a song; it's an icon. I observe it as an icon."

However, Heath says the song "Cheap Date" by Heath and Keller off their first album actually got the band its initial recognition. "It was what we call a `turntable hit,' " he says. "They started playing it on [radio] in Pasadena. It got bootlegged, but it broke us out."

In addition, the song "Angel Say No," was rated in the Top 40. But because the popularity of "Jenny" so overshadowed the previous songs' successes, Tommy Tutone earned the title "one-hit wonder."

No problem, says Heath, the 55-year-old father of three.

"I'm proud to be a one-hit wonder. I'd rather be a three-hit wonder, but it's better than being a no-hit wonder."

It's a label that continues to this day, although Heath doesn't worry about shaking it off. He admits he is not a prolific songwriter (about 10 songs a year). But he continues to build up a cache of songs and is about to produce his second CD since the 1998 release of Tutone.RTF.

"I'm very proud of a lot of the stuff on the last record," he says. "I had been trying to make that for years."

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