Tommy James and The Shondells
It took them years and a little blind luck, especially at the beginning, but Tommy James and The Shondells made their way from obscurity to head liners and one of the most successful singles bands in rock and roll history in their brief 5 year stint in the lime light.
Tommy Jackson (later changed to Tommy James) was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1947. At the age of three he was given a ukulele by his grandfather and his fascination with music began. By the age of four, James, an comely child, was working as a child model and found himself quite comfortable as a performer. By the time he hit the ripe old age of nine, he picked up the guitar and began to teach himself to play. Within four years his family had moved to Niles, Michigan and James recruited four junior high school friends, formed a band called Tommy James and The Tornadoes and began to play local parties and high school dances. Although they were just kids, the band caught the ear of a local label, Northway Sound who recorded their debut single 'Judy' in 1962.
The single barely caused a ripple beyond the local area and it appeared that the band was going to go the way of literally thousands of local hometown heros before and after.
The boys used to slip across the border from Niles, Michigan to South Bend, Indiana and visit the clubs near Notre Dame University to catch live bands. One of the bands they saw were The Spinners who apparently had heard 'The Hanky Panky' and were pounding out a live version in the clubs. It was a popular song amongst local party bands in the Midwest and James took note.
The original version was written in twenty minutes in the hallway of a recording studio by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwhich (The Raindrops) as a quick B-side for their song 'That Boy John' in 1963, the song barely made anyone take notice. The record was released in late November, 1963 (the same week that saw President John F. Kennedy assassinated in Dallas, Texas) and the record never made a blip on anyone's radar.
Back home in Niles, Tommy James and The Tornadoes (later rechristened The Shondells) were one of a few acts to be asked to record a song for Snap Records. Snap was the project of local radio DJ Jack Douglas. They recorded 'Long Pony Tail' for the fledgling label and when asked for one more for a record, the band recorded 'Hanky Panky'. Given that he had only heard the song once in a club, he didn't know all the lyrics so James made up lyrics on the fly.
The record caught some local Michigan, Indiana and Illinois airplay but towards the end of 1965, the record faded into obscurity. Tommy James and The Shondells had all graduated from high school and that was that.
In December of 1966, Tommy received a call from a disc jockey, 'Mad Mike Metro' in Pittsburgh, PA who informed him that 'Hanky Panky' was a number one hit in the local Pittsburgh market place. Apparently a jock named Bob Livorio had found a copy of 'Hanky Panky' in a bargain bin and began playing it on his show. The song became so popular in Pittsburgh that an unidentified enterprising sort managed to bootleg and sell over 80,000 copies of the record before James and Douglas could get the master to Roulette Records and arrange for a national release.
The rest of the Shondells had no interest in re-grouping to support the record so James went to Pittsburgh, lip synched a few promotional gigs and then hired a local Pittsburgh band called the Raconteurs to become the new Shondells.
The new version of the Shondells took to the road to support the single which was rocketing up the charts and the success of the single caught the attention of some of the nation's largest labels including Columbia and RCA. But it was Roulette Records that landed James and his band.
Over the next three and a half years the band spent nearly as much time on the charts with hit singles as the country's premier singles band 'Creedence Clearwater Revival' charting again and again with singles like 'It's Only Love', 'I Think We're Alone Now" and 'Mirage'. Interestingly, the track 'Mirage' was conceived when James had the engineer play the master to 'I Think We're Alone Now' backwards.
The band struck again in 1968 with the release of their single 'Mony Mony' The title of the song was another moment of pure luck for James. He was writing the song while in the Roulette offices in Manhattan. He happened to glance out the window of their office and spotted the large sign on the top of the Mutual of New York building. The letters spelled out 'MONY'. In an interview, James spelled it out this way "I had the track done before I had a title. I wanted something catchy like 'Sloopy' and 'Bony Maroney' but everything sounded stupid … I went out onto the terrace, looked up and saw The Mutual Of New York building (which had its initials illuminated in red at its top). I said "That's gotta be it! Ritchie (Cordell), come here, you've gotta see this!" It's almost as if God himself said "Here's the title." I've always thought that if I had looked the other way, it might have been called Hotel Taft.'
Again in 1968, lightning struck for the band with the release of the psychedelic tinged 'Crimson And Clover'. It was the biggest hit for the band selling over 5 million copies on its original release. In a somewhat weird ironic twist, the album 'Crimson And Clover' contained liner notes by famously conservative Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover who had gotten to know Tommy James And The Shondells because they had played at various campaign appearances for him.
As popular music had taken a hard left into a more serious, quasi-artistic area James decided to try and move away from his bubble gum persona. In 1969 they released a decidedly Pink Floyd-like, progressive disc titled 'Cellophane Symphony'. Although the disc did not have the sales of their previous efforts or spawn any major singles, the album did sell well amongst Shondell fans and marked a possible new direction for the band.
However the band made two miscalculations in 1969 and 1970 that derailed their career at this crossroads. First, they declined an invitation to perform at Woodstock which would have given the group its needed credibility with the 'hippie' and 'flower child' audience. Secondly, the band decided to 'take a break' as they had been recording and touring constantly since 1966.
James continued in the music business working on various projects including as a sideman, solo work and even a stint as a Christian rocker. The 'Shondells' tried to survive on their own sans James without success eventually withdrawing back to Pittsburgh and out of the music business.
Tommy James and The Shondells have reunited in the past and continue to do so when the mood is right.
It seems almost inconceivable now to consider that when bands like The Beatles, The Stones, The Who and others were making rock and roll history, a little Midwestern party band was making great, fun rock and roll music that still stands the test of time.