Tommy James and the Shondells

  • Garage rock band formed in 1964 from Niles Michigan. The group was founded and headlined by Tommy James (born Tommy Jackson), with numerous artists part of the Shondells over the years – there have been over 30 members in the nearly 60 years that the band existed.
  • At 12 years old, James formed a band called The Echoes, which soon changed its name to Tom and the Tornadoes. In 1962, the group recorded a single, Long Pony Tail. In 1964, he changed the name of the band to The Shondells, because he liked the name, and in honor of local vocalist Troy Shondell. They recorded a cover of Hanky Panky with a local record label – the single sold in neighboring states, but without a national record deal, it was soon forgotten.
  • The next year, a Pittsburgh dance promoter found a copy of Hanky Panky in a used record bin, and he started to play it at clubs. A bootlegger made a copy and started selling it locally, and it became a regional hit. James traveled to Pittsburgh to meet with the promoter and his talent agent. He needed a band, since the original members of the Shondells had broken up. James tried to work with some of the bands that performed at the clubs in Pittsburgh, but nothing worked until he sang with the house band at the Thunderbird Lounge in Greensburg Pennsylvania – The Raconteurs. They agreed to work together – Tommy Jackson became Tommy James, and The Raconteurs became The Shondells.
  • James, the promoter and a talent scout went to New York to meet with national record labels. Many showed interest, but soon after meeting with the labels, James received rejection letters. One of the labels eventually confided that they all had been told by Roulette Records to stay away because Roulette wanted James – Roulette was owned by a gangster, so they other labels backed-off. James subsequently signed with Roulette, and Hanky Panky was released nationally. By July 1966, it was #1 on the Hot 100 chart. The group’s debut album, also called Hanky Panky, was released that summer. A second single from the album, Say I Am (What I Am) reached #21 on the chart.
  • With this newfound success, Tommy James and the Shondells released four albums over the next two years. Top 20 hits from these records were I Think We’re Alone Now (#4), Mirage (#10) and Gettin’ Together (#18). In 1968, they began to record songs that they wrote themselves, and they came up with four big hits – the garage rock classic Mony Mony reached #3, and the psychedelic rock classics Crimson and Clover, Sweet Cherry Wine and Crystal Blue Persuasion peaked at #1, #7 and #2 respectively. Their move to psychedelic rock was a direct response to getting labeled as “Bubblegum” rockers, which James hated.
  • The backstory on Mony Mony – James and his co-writer had come up with the melody for a new song, but couldn’t figure out lyrics. Ready to give it up, James stared out of the window of his Manhattan apartment, and saw the flashing neon sign for the Mutual of New York Building – MONY. The rest is garage rock history!
  • The group’s psychedelic rock phase got them an invitation to perform at Woodstock, but they declined. By 1970, they were exhausted. In March that year, James collapsed at a concert and was actually pronounced dead. To recuperate, he moved to the country and left the band. The remaining band members continued with two albums, using the band name Hog Heaven. They failed, and the band split up.
  • James went on to a solo career, releasing 12 albums between 1970 and 2019. He had 13 solo songs chart in the Hot 100. His two biggest solo hits were Draggin’ the Line (#4 in 1971) and Three Times In Love (#19 in the Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary Chart in 1979). During the 80s, three of the band’s songs were huge hits when covered by other artists. Joan Jett & the Blackhawks took Crimson and Clover to #7 in 1982. And in November 1987, Tiffany’s cover of I Think We’re Alone Now and Billy Idol’s cover of Mony Mony were back-to-back #1 hits.
  • Over the years, James performed in nostalgia tours, with various musicians hired to be part of the Shondells. In 2008, James and three of the surviving members of the 1966 Shondells recorded a Christmas album – it was released as a Tommy James solo album. In 2010, James’ autobiography was published. Titled Me, The Mob, and the Music, it documented what it was like to work for a mobster. James estimated that his record label owed him over $30 million in royalties, and he didn’t begin receiving payments until the label was purchased by another label in 1989.
  • Tommy James and the Shondells are interesting in that they had hits in some very distinctively different genres – garage rock, psychedelic rock and bubblegum (sorry Tommy, but I have to put I Think We’re Alone Now in that category). In 1969, they performed Crimson and Clover on The Ed Sullivan Show. And…here it is! Check out how the Sullivan show was trying to appeal to the hipsters!

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