Did famous song phone number belong to the police chief's daughter?
Debunking the long-standing myth of Tommy Tutone's 1982 hit
Even if you weren’t alive in 1981, you probably know the song “867-5309/Jenny" by the band Tommy Tutone, considered among the greatest “One Hit Wonders” in pop music history.
Here’s the video to refresh your memory:
Catchy tune, right?
The song broke big across America in the spring of 1982. In an era before cell phones and caller ID, people all over the country picked up their landline extensions and dialed the seven digits from the song’s title. When someone answered, the caller giggled, “Is Jenny there?”
It made for a silly crank call… unless you actually owned that number. Then it was it little less funny.
From the Wikipedia entry about the song:
“When we’d first get calls at 2 or 3 in the morning, my husband would answer the phone,” Brewton, Alabama, resident Lorene Burns told the press in 1982. “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.”
(Actually, there is no Tommy Tutone. Tommy Heath is the lead singer of the band, originally named Tommy and the Tu-Tones.)
With all the different area codes, many people both dialed and received that crank call.
Stories have bounced around since then: 867-5309 was the phone number of a Midwest high school, who received 50,000 “Jenny” queries each week; a grandmother from Chicago with that number surrendered it to a local radio station, who then used it for promotions.
Tommy Heath will appear at Artpark in Lewiston on August 13 as part of a lineup featuring Rick Springfield and Loverboy. He is certain to have the crowd rocking with his band’s iconic hit.
The Buffalo Connection
Here’s the intriguing rumor that has spread nationwide: back in 1982, that phone number belonged to the daughter of the Buffalo Police Chief. That story has bounced around for years. Many Western New Yorkers have heard it, and Internet sites still repeat the claim.
Problem is, no one can confirm it. Like any respectable journalist — let’s pause while you digest that phrasing — I’ve spent the past two months trying to track down the truth. It’s time to burst some bubbles.
Frontman Tommy Heath himself has made the claim. (Despite several emails back and forth with a representative from the Tommy Tutone website, Heath did not comment for this article.)
"We had people threatening to sue us. It was the Buffalo Chief of Police's daughter's number in New York," Heath said on the website discogs.
Insiders with the Buffalo Police, however, have no memory of this. The commissioner in 1982 was the late James B. Cunningham.
“You sent me scrambling looking into this,” said Dennis Richards, Chief of Detectives for the Buffalo Police, who scoured the Internet for clues. “But no luck tracking that down. A lot of the stuff I found you can read through like it’s a total myth.”
Richards was hired in 1977, where he worked in Central Booking. He was promoted in August 1982, several months after the song reached its peak on the charts. Cunningham swore him in. Richards does not recall stories about the rumor.
“I was a report technician when the song was written,” he said. “The legends became legends. We had enough trouble with prank calls — our home phone ended in -3825.” (Connect letters to those numbers and you arrive at the granddaddy of all swear words.)
In multiple interviews, co-songwriter Alex Call claimed he wrote the chord progression one day while sitting under a plum tree in Northern California. He had already decided on the name “Jenny" and the seven-digit number when Jim Keller, then the guitarist for Tommy Tutone, came by and listened to Call working. He got the number off a bathroom wall, Keller joked, and the song immediately was given shape.
There was no real Jenny, according to Call, although band members later made up stories about her when promoting the single.
Keller no longer plays with Tommy Tutone. (In the song’s video, he is wearing a sport coat while he plays guitar.) For 40 years, he has worked in the music business as a performer, composer, producer, manager and publisher. Although he stopped playing for a while, he currently performs with the Jim Keller Band.
“You have my permission to make up any story you want because it is bound to be more interesting and fun for your readers than the truth,” he said via email.
Or was it the Sheriff?
A website, roosterteeth.com, claimed in a post 13 years ago "716-867-5309 was the number of the daughter of the Erie County, New York County (sic) Sheriff who vigorously investigated prank callers and turned them over for prosecution.“
The Sheriff at the time was the late Kenneth Braun. While he cannot disprove it, a longtime Sheriff’s employee has no memory of this moment in pop culture.
“I’ve worked for all the sheriffs, that’s for sure,” said Kevin Caffery, who was hired on January 14, 1969. He retired briefly, but returned and continues to fly the Sheriff’s Air One helicopter.
“I’ve gone through six sheriffs. In 1982 it was Ken Braun and his undersheriff was Tom Higgins. I’m still on the job after forty-some years and I don’t remember anything like that at all. About the closest I can get is that Sheriff Mike Amico’s wife’s name was Jenny. He was in office from 1970 to 1976, but that was before the song was released, so it wouldn’t have been that. To be honest, nothing rings a bell.”
Cynthia Van Ness, Director of Library and Archives at the Buffalo History Museum, recently researched who may have owned the phone number 716-867-5309 in 1982. While the 867 exchange is assigned to Buffalo today, that was not true when the song was popular.
“Maybe it was added later as the customer base grew,” Van Ness explained. “I got out the 1982 directory, which has pages and pages of instructions for the telephone customer. And I found the list of exchanges in use in 1982. It looks like 867 was not in use in Buffalo in 1982.”
Richards, the Chief of Detectives, went one step further. He researched telephone exchanges, and learned that the 867 exchange was not added to the 716 area code until 1994. Coincidentally, he noted, the phone number for Crime Stoppers is 716-867-6161.
So it’s a whole load of nothing?
Sorry folks. All signs point to this story being a myth.
The current owner of 716-867-5309 is a female with a residence on Potomac Avenue in Buffalo. Please don’t pester her when you finish reading this story. The voice mailbox was always full when I called.
Thanks to extensive research, we can prove this urban legend is not true. But if anyone can cite a different Buffalo connection to the song, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If there is more to the story, you’ll read about it here in a follow-up.
In the meantime, keep listening to 80s rock!
© 2019 by Jeff Schober
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WNY's love affair with John Ford Coley
Capturing images of a musical icon