Ah Crimson and Clover, that melancholic, sultry, strangely hypnotic lover’s wail.
When it comes to the delightfully kitschy ballads that came out of the early sixties doo-wop movement, few surpass Crimson and Clover in sheer cultural and creative prowess.
The song pulls on heartstrings and fosters a sensation of reverie, nostalgia, and sweet-edged pain.
A lofty task for any song – but Tommy James and the gang pull it off with an endearing earnestness that hasn’t lost any of its lusters in the ensuing decades.
Crimson and Clover are one of the best-loved hits of psychedelic sixties legends Tommy James and The Shondells.
Released to fanfare in December 1968, it has endured ever since for its blistering sincerity and sweet sentiments.
But – what exactly do the lyrics in “Crimson and Clover” mean?
Lyrics Bout a Lovin Feeling?
We know what Crimson is (its color), and we know what Clover is (it’s a plant!) but what in the poetic license is Crimson and Clover? A red herb, a poisonous shade of rouge? Calm your imaginations, readers.
We’re going to examine the symbolic intent and thematic message behind the lyrics on this fine day!
The song seems to explore the giddy first impressions between the singer and a mystery gal. He muses that he hardly knows her, but he thinks he could love her.
It suggests the rare excitement and nervous bliss one feels when one catches someone’s eye and wonders if anything further could develop from the encounter.
What’s the Real Story Behind the Lyrics?
But the meaning behind “Crimson and Clover’s” lyrics is elusive, largely down to the two songwriters diverging interpretations. Tommy James stated that red was his favorite color and “clover” just struck him like a bolt from the blue one day.
Cowriter and band drummer Peter Lucia Jr. stated that “crimson” was based on his Morristown, New Jersey high school football team. Curious, isn’t it?
Here is what James had to say about the fortuitous moment, “[A]ctually, it was one morning as I was getting up out of bed, and it just came to me, those two words, and it sounded so poetic. I had no idea what it meant, or if it meant anything.”
So that would suggest this dreamy track did in fact appear to James in a dream. If that’s not psychedelic as heck, I don’t know what is.
There were whispers at the time that Bo Gentry had actually ghostwritten the song but Shondells keyboardist Kenny Laguna refuted that rumor.
Making the Magic Happen
“Crimson and Clover” was recorded in less than six hours. They heaped praise on their producer at the time Roulette for giving them total creative freedom and the parameters to explore this new departure for their musical careers.
The song was trimmed to a pithy and addictive two and a half minutes to better reach a radio fanbase. The song announced their arrival as poetic rockers to be reckoned with.
It was featured on the Billboard Top 100 list for 16 weeks – a first for the band. The single also sold over five million copies.
James gushed about the track: “[it] was so very important to us because it allowed us to make that move from AM Top 40 to album rock.
I don’t think there’s any other song that we’ve ever worked on, any other record that we made that would have done that for us quite that way.”
Whether you believe the yarn about the song coming to James in a dream, whether you think it originated with a football team’s green jerseys, or whether you think the song is about that hallucinatory first impression between lovers – you’ve gotta admit: the song is a ballad with heart.
Quirky, peppy, and surreal in turn, it proves that ambiguous lyrics only serve to magnify a song’s intangible magic.