Nobody knows that Tommy Heath is a rock star in the town that he lives and works.
“I never play at home,” the singer for Tommy Tutone wryly says over the phone from Portland, Oregon, where he spends his days as a software engineer. “I just put on my nerd glasses and go to work, and then I get to go somewhere else where I can walk into my own myth.”
That myth (which is a fact) includes a natural hit single in 867-5309/Jenny and a couple of self-titled power-pop records that still glisten with hooks decades after the fact. Heath and company never quite reclaimed the sparkle of the band’s single top five entry, splitting up in 1984 before retooling in 1996 with the record Nervous Love, but Heath has kept busy. He’s tried his hand as a country songwriter, was a substitute teacher for a few years, and by-and-large treats music as a hobby that can pay for itself.
That being said, the 72-year-old Heath doesn’t carry the nostalgia tag very well. He’s got a new Tommy Tutone album in the can called Beautiful Ending, and looks forward to the next few years introducing fans to his new songs. We spoke with Heath in advance of his show at Hawrelak Park on Saturday night.
Q: It feels a little as though you’ve got a secret identity; during the day you’re mild-mannered software engineer Tommy Heath, and at night you’re rock star Tommy Tutone, even if you were never actually Tommy Tutone.
A: Oh, man, I could never stand the way that rock stars walk around. It’s so corny. I have musician friends that can’t go out in public, and I don’t know how they can stand it. Plus, from a writer’s point of view I want to write about regular people, not rock stars.
Q: After the band broke up in ’84 was it hard to make the adjustment to a life in the real world?
A: It was hard because we blew it in a way. You have a big hit and instead of following it up with another we decided to do our big concept album (National Emotion), which eight people in the world ended up hearing.
Q: That’s a comedown.
A: It could be frustrating, especially because nobody in the ’90s wanted to hear my new music. Unfortunately I’ve never been good at promoting myself. Things are changing, though; I’ve sold whole shows where nobody has heard of any of the songs. I’m looking forward to (the Rock Music Festival) because I have a single, Beautiful Ending, and we’re pushing it old school with interviews and in-store appearances. I feel like if I can get people to listen to the songs they’ll like them.
Q: I hear a connection between your singing and the singing of Craig Finn from the Hold Steady, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you could grab that audience.
A: I don’t know those guys but I admire people who channel earlier music. Like Martha and the Motels, who were thoroughly modern but you could still hear the echoes of Roy Orbison in their music. My early history was in rockabilly, soul, and country; I didn’t play rock until the ’70s.
Q: Tommy Tutone guitarist Jim Keller and Alex Call of Clover wrote 867-5309; what do you think you would have done with the money if you’d had a slice of that chart scorcher?
A: Well, I’m a cheap date. I don’t think I would have gone crazy with money, though I’m generous in some ways. I mean, I would never have spent it all on dope or anything.
Q: People don’t remember the song Cheap Date, but that was your first notable success.
A: It got bootlegged off my record and became an AOR phenomenon. That song helped K-ROQ in Pasadena establish the modern sound.
Q: Are you enjoying this latter-day Tommy Tutone resurgence, with accompanying festival dates? Do you think you’ve improved over the years?
A: I’ve become a much better storyteller, yes, and I’m enjoying the times when I play acoustic. Sometimes it’s just me and my guitar with a washboard player. It feels good; I just put my dad in the ground at 99, so I figure that maybe I have legs.
Tommy Tutone at the Edmonton Rock Music Festival
When: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park
Tickets: $140 weekend pass, available in advance from the Rock Fest website; single day tickets also available