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Tommy James & the Shondells

Tommy James & the Shondells

Few acts had a better run on the pop charts in the '60s than Tommy James & the Shondells. James has a strong, expressive voice and a way with upbeat pop tunes that have a solid rock & roll punch. The band crafted superior AM pop/rock tunes like "Hanky Panky," "I Think We're Alone Now," "It's Only Love," and "Mony Mony." As psychedelia worked its way into mainstream acceptance later in the decade, they kept up with the times on the hits "Crimson and Clover" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion." Tommy James & the Shondells weren't considered very hip in their heyday, but they remain one of the best-remembered acts of the era. 1967's I Think We're Alone Now and 1969's trippy Cellophane Symphony were two of the strongest albums from the group's original run and the 2021 box set Celebration: The Complete Roulette Recordings 1966-1973 includes everything they cut during their hitmaking days on the label that made them famous.

Tommy James was born Thomas Gregory Jackson in Dayton, Ohio, on April 29, 1947. When Tommy was 11 years old, his family moved to Niles, Michigan and a year later, he formed his first band with three friends from school, the Echoes. Three years later, the Echoes had evolved into a group called the Tornadoes, which featured Tommy on vocals and guitar, Larry Coverdale on guitar, Larry Wright on bass, Mike Finch on saxophone, and Nelson Shepard on drums. Tommy worked after school at a record shop, and through his job he met Bud Ruiter, who worked in record distribution and operated a small label, Northway Sounds. Ruiter offered to record a single of Tommy's band, and "Judy" b/w "Long Pony Tail," credited to Tom and the Tornadoes, was released in 1962 and became a regional hit. There was no immediate follow-up, and by 1964 Mike Finch and Nelson Shepard had dropped out of the band, while keyboardist Craig Villeneuve and drummer Jim Payne came on board. A disc jockey in Niles, Jack Deafenbaugh, was starting a record label, and he asked James and the band if they were interested in working with him. Adopting a new name, the Shondells, the group cut "Pretty Little Redbird" b/w "Penny Wishing Well" for the newly minted Snap Records. The single attracted little notice, but after hearing a rock & roll band from the area called the Spinners (no relation to the popular R&B vocal group) play a tune called "Hanky Panky" (which the Spinners had learned from another local band, who in turn had found the tune of the B-side of a rare single by the Raindrops), Tommy thought it would be a good fit for the Shondells. "Hanky Panky" became the A-side of their second Snap single, and it sold well in Michigan, but Deafenbaugh wasn't able to break the record outside of the Mitten State and by the end of 1965, the Shondells had broken up.

In April 1966, much to his surprise, James discovered that "Hanky Panky" had belatedly become a hit in Pittsburgh, where a disc jockey had found a copy of the Shondells' single in a used record shop, spun it at some dances, and found that the kids went crazy for it. After 80,000 bootleg copies were sold in the Pittsburgh area, James struck a deal with Roulette Records, run by veteran music business figure Morris Levy, and the "Hanky Panky" single was reissued nationally, becoming a number one hit. Tommy, now using the stage name Tommy James, suddenly needed a band, and he recruited a Pittsburgh-based combo called the Raconteurs to be the Shondells. This edition of the Shondells included Joe Kessler on guitar, Ron Rosman on keyboards, Mike Vale on bass, George Magura on saxophone, and Vinnie Pietropaoli on drums. James soon swapped out Kessler for guitarist Eddie Gray, Peter Lucia replaced Vinnie Pietropaoli behind the drums, and after George Magura moved on, they opted not to recruit a new sax player. The first two singles for the group now called Tommy James & the Shondells were modestly successful -- "Say What I Am" rose to number 21 on the singles charts, while "It's Only Love" peaked at number 31 -- but in March 1967, they scored another blockbuster hit with "I Think We're Alone Now," which rose to number four and spent twelve weeks on the charts. Another chart success, "Mony Mony," followed in May 1968. While producers and songwriters Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry had a hand in most of the Shondells' post-"Hanky Panky" hits, James became more eager to write and produce his own material, and in December 1968, "Crimson and Clover," which James produced and co-wrote, became one of their biggest hits, spending 15 weeks on the singles charts, two of them at number one.

James and his bandmates were enjoying major chart success and were given plenty of freedom to experiment in the studio, but they weren't getting much in the way of royalties; while Roulette Records had the marketing muscle to get James' music heard, the label and Morris Levy were connected to the Genovese crime family, and like many Roulette artists, James discovered that demanding too much from Levy could be a dangerous business. (In 2011, James published a memoir about his career and his dealings with Levy entitled Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & the Shondells.) Despite this, their fame was at its peak and in 1968 they did a tour stumping with presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey to support his campaign and encourage young people to vote. Tommy James & the Shondells would score four Top 40 singles in 1969 (two of them, "Sweet Cherry Wine" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion," rose to the Top Ten) and toured extensively, though they passed on an invite to play the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (James' booking agent supposedly described the offer as "a stupid gig on a pig farm in upstate New York.")

In 1970, after several years of constant recording and live work, James and his band decided to take a break. This led to Tommy James & the Shondells amicably parting ways; several of the musicians would form a band called Hog Heaven who released an album on Roulette in 1971. Meanwhile, James dabbled in producing other artists, and was at the controls for "Tighter, Tighter," a Top Ten hit for the band Alive 'N Kickin'. James released a self-titled debut album in 1970, and scored a hit with his second LP, 1971's Christian of the World, a spiritually oriented effort that included the song "Draggin' the Line," which rose to number four on the singles charts. 1971 also saw the release of My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar, a country-accented project that was recorded in Nashville.

In 1988, Morris Levy was found guilty of extortion and his music empire went up for sale. The well-respected reissue label Rhino Records purchased the Roulette library of masters, which led to a series of reissues of the Tommy James & the Shondells catalog, as well as James' solo material. Unlike Levy, the management at Rhino were happy to pay their artists, and James began regularly receiving royalty checks for the first time in his career. The success of Rhino's reissues of the Shondells' music along with continued radio play of their hits and covers by major artists (including Billy Idol's version of "Mony Mony," Joan Jett's take on "Crimson and Clover," and Tiffany's teen pop reworking of "I Think We're Alone Now") insured that their legacy would live on. In January 2021, the British reissue label Cherry Red Records released Celebration: The Complete Roulette Recordings 1966-1973, which included every album and non-LP single side the group cut for Roulette, as well as James' solo material for the label. ~ Mark Deming

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