Interview: Jim Keller, cowriter of ‘867-5309 / Jenny,’ on his path and his new LP

Jim Keller, Tommy Tutone

Jim Keller, courtesy: Jimmy Fontaine.


Just by reading those seven digits, the tune is in your head. The 1981 song by San Francisco band Tommy Tutone is legendarily catchy, making its title arguably the most well-known phone number in the United States. The song remains well-loved enough to have been a joke on “Family Guy” 40 years after its release, and not for the first time.

By All Means
Jim Keller
Out now

The story of a young musician having to pull over because of the excitement of hearing their song on the radio for the first time is so common it’s become a cliche, but what about still hearing your song four decades later on TV or in the grocery store?

“I barely even notice because I’ve heard it so many times,” said Jim Keller, former Tommy Tutone guitarist and co-writer of “867-5309 / Jenny.” “But there are still times periodically when it just puts a big smile on my face. One of them is that I happened to be walking by a bar, and there’s a bar band playing that song. I poke my head in the door and there’s four or five guys up on the stage playing the crap out of it. That’s something really cool about that to me.”

Keller and Tommy Heath founded the band in 1978. With a rotating cast of musicians backing them up, they recorded a self-titled 1980 album with a lead single that just barely cracked the Top 40. Then their 1981 follow-up rocketed them to stardom. After their third album flopped, however, the band broke up in 1984.

Heath became a computer analyst in Portland, but he eventually reformed the band with new musicians to play occasional gigs. Keller went his own way. He moved to Brooklyn and tried to make a living in music, and guided and helped out other musicians with music publishing based on his experience with Tommy Tutone.

“After the band crashed and burned, I had a period of unsightly lifestyle,” he said. “I was not making a living playing music. I didn’t have it together to be successful at that point. Then after about seven years, I got a job, basically. I got married and had a kid. And I stopped playing. I had to focus on feeding myself and my family.”

That help he gave with publishing turned out to be key. In 1992, he crossed paths with renowned composer Philip Glass, which led to Keller running his publishing company. He’s still working for Glass today as director of his publishing company, Dunvagen Music Publishers, as well as the management company he cofounded with Glass, St. Rose Music.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. In 2005, he began writing songs again.

“For the last 15 years or so, I felt like I was in a place where I could play again,” he said. “It’s not my main job now. I don’t tour anymore, but for years I have [had] a Tuesday night jam session. I just text some people and say, ‘Who wants to play?’ Other than that, I gig every other month.”

These days, he’s able to juggle his day job and his music. In addition to his job managing Glass and other artists, he writes and records his own solo music, and he plays bars and clubs in New York. He had a residency at the Lakeside Lounge for a while. It’s not an easy balancing act by any means, but he’s learned some tricks to make it work.

“To me, you have to start with an irrational enthusiasm. You have to want to do it so bad you’re an idiot. So you have to start with that,” he said. “But then you have to show up. One thing I learned from Philip; people ask him how he’s so successful, and he says, ‘Well, I get up and I work hard.’

“You have to carve time out. I hate to use the word ‘discipline’ because I’m still a musician, so there’s only so much discipline I can have,” he said. “I get up every morning, and I write because I love it, but also because it’s necessary.”

Keller’s first three solo albums, while somewhat more mellow and bluesier than his work with Tommy Tutone, were still in the neighborhood of pop and rock. With his latest album, By No Means, his friend and producer Mitchell Froom talked him into another direction.

“In many ways, this record is very simple. It’s me, with an acoustic guitar, singing into a microphone. Then behind that is a simple group of musicians playing very simple melodies,” he said. “But doing something simple is not simple. Fortunately, this process worked really well because I had some really talented people that I was surrounded by.”

The simplicity, while new to him, led to changes not just in his songwriting but even in his voice itself.

“When I sing and I’m writing, everything is done in my speaking voice or lower. Then when I go into a room with a rhythm section and have fun, literally I bump it up an octave to cut through the band,” Keller says. “So from the very beginning, Mitchell and I talked about an approach that was based on that process of me singing with my acoustic guitar, then finding arrangements around that.”

His next album will continue this theme, and he’s already working on writing. He hopes, as we all do, that when it comes out he’ll be able to play the songs at one of his usual venues. And hopefully, he’ll hear a certain old song of his in bars again, as well.

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