A Time of Transition
The brilliance of Cordell and Gentry supplied James with a neverending stream of hits. Even the movement toward album-oriented rock and psychedelia couldn’t stem the tide.
Around 1966, as American acts were feeling their oats and staking their claim to the charts, James and his team saw “ … there was that window of opportunity for garage bands to really make it,” he says.
They took it and busted the glass with the gloriously sloppy, rambunctious party anthem “Mony Mony.” For James, it was a chance to re-create the party records of the early ’60s, such as “Louie, Louie” or Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”
“This was 1968, and there was not a lot of, you know, slop rock ‘n’ roll being created anymore,” says James. “See I always loved party rock.”
With the Vietnam War going on, the mood of the country wasn’t geared toward good-time rock ‘n’ roll. That didn’t stop James from wanting to get people on the dance floor.
“‘Mony Mony’ was this concoction of every party song I had ever heard sort of thrown together like a tossed salad,” says James, “and we glued it together. I mean, we literally … I used to call it sound surgery. We’d take a verse from here, and a chorus from there. We’d just sort of edit them together and see how that sounded. It sounds so simple, but it took a long time to glue that record together.”
Just as difficult as coming up with that confetti-strewn noisemaker — with its wild chorus — of a song was deciding on a title.
“We getting ready to go in to do the vocal, and we still had no title,” explains James. “We knew what all the words were, but we still needed like a two-syllable girl’s name to fit, and everything sounded so stupid that we were coming up with.”
Looking for something like “Hang On Sloopy,” James was getting desperate. “It’s like the night before the session, and Ritchie and I throw our guitars down — we’re at my apartment in New York,” says James. “And we go out on the balcony, and we light up a cigarette and look up into the night sky, and the first thing our eyes fall on was the Mutual Of New York insurance company sign — M-O-N-Y. And it would flash and give you the time and the weather. And Ritchie and I just started laughing, ’cause we both thought the same thing. This is perfect. It’s the perfect name.”
The good times continued for James and The Shondells, with “Mony, Mony” becoming one of the group’s biggest hits — their 13th in two years, and their highest charter since “Hanky Panky.”
But in the late ’60s, the world was on fire, and James and the Shondells found themselves engulfed by the inferno. Politics and music intersected for James in 1968. Three weeks after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign asked James and the band to play a series of rallies after the Democratic Convention.
About the same time, James was looking to change course musically.
“We had just come off of ‘Mony Mony’ and were sort of going in a different direction,” says James. “We were really doing the slop rock, you know. And we actually got involved in doing work for the Democratic Party, and long story short, we were supposed to attend the [Bobby] Kennedy primary out in L.A. the night he was killed. And we couldn’t be there because we were playing — in of all places — Dallas, Texas.”
The news of Kennedy’s assassination devastated James. “I just went into a funk for about a month,” says James. “I mean, I just basically was … I wasn’t consolable, let’s put it that way.”
Watching the violence that erupted during the 1968 Democratic Convention, James wondered if joining forces with Humphrey was a good idea. But he followed through with an obligation to meet up with Humphrey’s campaign in Wheeling, W. Va.
James would remain with the campaign, staying with it to the very end. Humphrey ended up doing the liner notes for the group’s Crimson & Clover LP, a watershed record for James and the Shondells.
With society in turmoil, the music industry was also undergoing a revolution of sorts. And James watched it change quickly.
“When we left to go on tour with Hubert Humphrey, it was a total singles market,” says James. “And the big acts were The Rascals, The Association, The Buckinghams, Gary Puckett [and] several others. And then, 90 days later, when we’re done with the campaign, the whole record industry has turned upside down, because when we get back, it’s all album artists.”
A confluence of events and recording-industry trends seemed to be working against James and the band. But they were determined to keep up with album-oriented acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin and Joe Cocker, and to take advantage of the burgeoning eight-track tape market — which allowed people to take their music with them wherever they went, as opposed to listening to their turntables at home.
While all this was going on, James and the Shondells had been working on “Crimson & Clover,” a radical paradigm shift for a group that was in the beginning stages of producing itself and burning bridges with its old production team.
“It really began the second half of our career,” says James of both the song and the album Crimson & Clover, which was completed after the campaign was over and released in early 1969.
With the DIY approach came a change in sound, as well, as James not only embraced the psychedelia that was in vogue but mastered it with the warped, disorienting guitars and vocals of “Crimson & Clover.”
“We did the whole record, start to finish, in five hours,” says James. “And what was so amazing was that we had actually written three different versions of the song ‘Crimson & Clover.’ I loved the title, and I just couldn’t find the right song to go with it, and finally, Pete Lucia, my drummer, and I hit on this little backwards, three-chord progression and slowed it down. We went into the studio, and we just decided that’s the record we’re going to make or break.”
With FM radio coming into its own, the almost overnight extinction of singles acts and amazing improvements in recording technology taking place — with studio multi-tracks going from four-track to 24-track in a short, three-month span — James recalls feeling the pressure “ … to do something interesting to get people’s attention.”
“Crimson & Clover” was that transfixing record, and as James and the band was striking out on its own in terms of producing themselves, James says, “If that record had failed, I’m not sure our career wouldn’t have ended right there.”
Tricks up their sleeves
Not ready to rest on their laurels, James and the Shondells had more tricks up their sleeves.
After the stunning sophistication of smash hits “Crimson & Clover,” “Do Something To Me” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” the group pushed the envelope with the groundbreaking Cellophane Symphony LP — the first rock record to ever feature a Moog Synthesizer.
Besides its remarkable innovation, Cellophane Symphony also birthed another gold record, “Sweet Cherry Wine.” And Roulette followed that up by releasing the group’s second greatest-hits volume, The Very Best Of Tommy James And The Shondells. It was their biggest album ever.
Finally, perhaps, Tommy James And The Shondells had shed the “bubblegum music” tag. Their next album, the edgy Travelin’, would be further confirmation of the band’s artistic prowess. But it would wind up being the end of the road for James and the second incarnation of the Shondells.
James would go on to a productive solo career that even included Christian Contemporary music. He collaborated with Jeff Barry, the man who’d, inadvertantly, given James his first hit, and James started his own label, Aura Records, in the early ’90s. Now comes 40 Years The Complete Singles Collection (1966-2006) to sum up James’ enduring career.
And hit covers of songs like “Crimson & Clover” and “Mony Mony” by Joan Jett and Billy Idol, respectively, have given him a relevance in the modern age other artists of his era would kill for.
“We’re like crabgrass,” James jokes. “You can’t get rid of us.” Not that anybody would want to.