The topic for Day 2 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song with a number in the title”. There are so many great songs with numbers in their title, such as “One” by U2, “Two Hearts” by Phil Collins, “Eight Days a Week” by the Beatles and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon, to name a few that quickly come to mind. But I’ve chosen a song with a title made up almost entirely of numbers, the great power pop classic “867-5309/Jenny” by California pop-rock band Tommy Tutone. Released in November 1981, the song was a huge hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #1 on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in the Spring of 1982. The song’s incredibly catchy, with an infectious hard-driving groove overlain with fantastic jangly guitar riffs and terrific vocals backed by equally great harmonies.
Tommy Tutone was originally formed in 1978 as Tommy and the Twin Tones in Northern California by Tommy Heath and Jim Keller, along with Terry Nails, with Heath as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Keller on lead guitar and backing vocals, and Nails on bass and backing vocals. Like many bands, they underwent numerous personnel changes, and it was Jon Lyons who actually played bass on “867-5309”. (Lyons was soon replaced by Greg Sutton, later Pete Costello, and more recently Jimmy James.)
The song was co-written by Keller and Alex Call, who’d been a member of the San Francisco Bay Area country rock band Clover, which was active from 1967 to 1978 and best known for its member Huey Lewis and for backing Elvis Costello on his debut album My Aim is True. There have been numerous stories and myths over the years about the song, particularly the phone number and the identity of “Jenny”, some of which were created by Keller and Heath to seemingly add to the song’s lore. But in a 2004 interview with Songfacts, Call explained his version of the song’s real origins:
“Despite all the mythology to the contrary, I actually came up with ‘Jenny,’ and the telephone number and the music and all that just sitting in my backyard. There was no Jenny. I don’t know where the number came from, I was just trying to write a 4-chord rock song and it just kind of came out. I had the guitar lick, I had the name and number, but I didn’t know what the song was about. My buddy Jim Keller, who’s the co-writer and lead guitar player in Tommy Tutone, stopped by that afternoon and he said, ‘Al, it’s a girl’s number on a bathroom wall,’ and we had a good laugh. I said, ‘That’s exactly right, that’s exactly what it is.’
Tommy Tutone’s been using the story for years that there was a Jenny and she ran a recording studio and so forth. It makes a better story but it’s not true. That sounds a lot better than I made it up under a plum tree in my backyard. When Jim showed up, we wrote the verses in 15 or 20 minutes, they were just obvious. It was just a fun thing, we never thought it would get cut. In fact, even after Tommy Tutone made the record and ‘867-5309’ got on the air, it really didn’t have a lot of promotion to begin with, but it was one of those songs that got a lot of requests and stayed on the charts. It was on the charts for 40 weeks.
A lot of women have told me they use the name and number as a brush off, which I think is really great. A guy wakes up with a hangover, he’s been obnoxious to some girl in a bar last night, he opens up a folded piece of paper and it’s ‘Jenny – 867-5309’. I’ve also met a few Jennys who’ve said, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who ruined my high school years’. But for the most part, Jennys are happy to have the song. A guy came up to me at one of my gigs – his family is from Florida and they had the number. They loved it, and as they’ve all grown up, everyone in the extended family has the number 5309 on their cell phones, no matter what the prefix is, so all you need to know is what cousin Bob’s prefix is. There’s a number here in town, it’s a used car lot – he’s got a big sign. It’s funny that that song has such legs and keeps going. But a lot of people who had it were really pissed off about it.”
Numerous homes around the country with the number 867-5309 were besieged with prank phone calls or come-ons from horny men looking for a ‘Jenny’. In 1982, Brewton, Alabama resident Lorene Burns told the press “When we’d first get calls at 2 or 3 in the morning, my husband would answer the phone. He can’t hear too well. They’d ask for Jenny, and he’d say ‘Jimmy doesn’t live here anymore.’ Tommy Tutone was the one who had the record. I’d like to get a hold of his neck and choke him.”