BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / AUG 20, 2008
The presidential campaign shifts into super-high gear Monday, when the Democratic National Convention begins in Denver.
And if presumptive nominee Barack Obama emerges from Denver as the party’s standard-bearer, he will be able to count on active support from many Rock and Pop stars. Already, according to Wikipedia, such names as 50 Cent, Arcade Fire, Sheryl Crow, The Decemberists, Wyclef Jean, John Mellencamp, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye West — even Bob Dylan — have endorsed Obama.
While Obama is bringing it to a new level, support for Democratic presidential candidates by Rock stars (as well as other performers of youth-oriented or -originated music) is hardly new. But one man who could make a strong case for pioneering it, were he alive today, would be Hubert Horatio Humphrey.
In 1968, while serving as Vice President and running for President, Humphrey campaigned with Tommy James & the Shondells, whose Garage-Rock-tinged dance tunes like “Hanky Panky” and “Mony Mony” had brought them Top 40 fame at the time. The band played at numerous Humphrey campaign stops. (Humphrey also received an endorsement from James Brown that year.)
The year 1968 was when Boomer-generation young people made their voices heard in politics — usually in protest, sometimes violently. Though a Democrat and mainstream liberal, then-57-year-old Humphrey was the target for a lot of that protest.
Humphrey had trouble breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and was nominated amid the police riot against youthful demonstrators during the infamous Chicago Democratic convention. As a result, he couldn’t quite unite his party and just barely lost to Richard Nixon.
As The Charlotte Observer reported when the Shondells opened for Humphrey in October, “For the first time, presidential candidates are catering to the growing bloc of young people just under 21, or over the 18-year-old voting age in some states.” (This was before the 1971 federal law giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.)
Today, James — a Dayton native — is a youthful-looking 61 and on the oldies circuit. A few months ago, he played a sweaty, vigorous set at Grand Victoria Casino in Rising Sun, Ind., working loudly with a younger band — to an older crowd — through his late-1960s hits, which also included “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage” and “Sweet Cherry Wine.”
Backstage before the show, dressed in a “Censorship Off/Free Speech On” T-shirt, James eagerly recalled his work for Humphrey in 1968. With him was an original Shondell, bassist Mike Vale, who had come to visit.
“We had been asked to play (in May) for the Democratic Party at a generic rally,” he says. “We weren’t endorsing any candidate. We played in the afternoon and there war protesters calling us sellouts.” (James says he believes the Lovin’ Spoonful also played.)
After Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on the night of the June California Democratic primary, James says he went into a funk for several weeks. That was broken when Humphrey’s secretary called his record label to see if he might be able to appear with the Vice President after the convention, assuming Humphrey won the nomination. James agreed, thinking anyone would be better than Nixon.
The Shondells first opened for Humphrey at a rally in Wheeling, W. Va., and met the candidate and his wife, Muriel. “We became his opening act,” James says.
For Humphrey, James figured, his band was a way to attract young people and increase crowds. But, he now surmises, there was more to it than that.
“He wanted very much to be taken seriously by young people,” James says. “He wanted to know how he was viewed, and I was 21 years old.”
As a result, James says, a friendship developed that included late-night, post-rally talks on a variety of topics. At one point, he says, Humphrey asked his take on calling for a national referendum on ending the war. Another time, James says, he was asked to become Humphrey’s advisor on youth affairs if he won the election.
“He wanted everything from Rock festivals to an open dialogue with young people,” James says. “It really bothered him he was thought of in such a terrible way, as a warmonger.”
After the election, the Shondells made a splash with a new sound, the neo-psychedelic Pop Rock of “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Humphrey wrote the liner notes to the resulting album, Crimson & Clover.
Hubert Horatio “Skip” Humphrey III, 66, the vice president’s son and a former Minnesota elected official himself, was eager to talk about James’ relationship with his father.
“I know that Tommy James and his group were helpful in the 1968 campaign,” he says in a phone interview from his Minnesota home. “My wife and I had an opportunity to be with them a couple of times. I don’t recall the specifics, but I can assure you that Tommy James and his group were supportive of Dad and helpful.”
Also eager to speak about the relationship was the late vice president himself — courtesy of a tape of a post-election radio interview sent by James in a package of newspaper clips and other corroborative materials.
“We used to sit up late at night and discuss politics after they’d entertain for us,” Humphrey says on the tape. “Gee, they’re fine young men. At midnight, we’d sit around and have a visit and talk about what had happened during the day. These are bright young men that want to know a lot about their country.”
Incidentally, James now favors Obama.
“What we need is a breath of fresh air,” he says. “I really believe what we need most is somebody to make us feel good about ourselves.”