By Peter Lindblad
All the major labels wanted a piece of Tommy James and The Shondells.
Their insidiously catchy version of “Hanky Panky” had, out of nowhere, charged up the charts straight to #1 in Pittsburgh, and there was little doubt it would do the same nationally.
“I go to New York, and we get a ‘yes’ from all the big labels, because they saw a regional breakout,” recalls James. “We get a ‘yes’ from Columbia, from Epic, from Atlantic, Kama Sutra, Laurie back then, Red Bird Records, and the last place we took the record to was Roulette.”
The mob-connected Roulette Records, run by notorious record-company mogul Morris Levy, was hardly on the same level as the heavy hitters fawning over James and his band, but what it lacked in size and status, it made up for in intimidation.
“We were really looking to go with one of the majors, and so the following morning, we start getting calls while we’re in New York that one by one all the record companies called up and passed,” exclaims James.
Incredulous at this turn of events, James’ couldn’t believe what was happening. He didn’t know about all the arm-twisting going on behind the scenes.
“I said, ‘What do you mean you pass?’” remembers James. “We just had a ‘yes’ from everybody. And then, finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us that Morris Levy from Roulette Records had called all the record companies and backed them down. He said (imitating Levy’s gruff voice), ‘This is my record.’ Well, you know, Morris is right out of the movies. And so, apparently, we were going to be on Roulette Records.”
As it turned out, Roulette was the best fit for James and The Shondells.
Without the hit-making machinery of Roulette, however shady its operation was (Levy was convicted of extortion in the ’80s but died before serving time), James and company might not have cranked as many hook-happy hit singles as they did.
Many — such as “Say I Am,” “It’s Only Love,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage” and “I Like The Way” — are included in a new compilation titled Tommy James And The Shondells 40 Years (1966-2006) from Aura/Collectors’ Choice/Rhino.
For his part, James knows they caught a break in landing with Roulette.
“It was very fortunate we ended up with Roulette,” says James. “And one of the reasons was, if we’d have ended up with one of the big corporate labels, we would have had ‘Hanky Panky,’ maybe one or two other chart records, and then that would have been the end of us.”
What set Roulette apart, according to James, was that “… they were very good at selling singles. And nobody could market singles faster and better than Roulette Records. They really gave us the money, the time and the budgets to do the kind of records we needed to do to keep the career happening.”
It was a far cry from the days when 13-year-old James and the original Shondells — Larry Coverdale (guitar), Larry Wright (bass), Craig Villeneuve (piano) and Jim Payne (drums) — were banging around Niles, Mich., picking up gigs and spare change wherever they could.
“You know, we were playing VFW halls and American Legions and weddings and anyplace we could play,” says James, “and I got a job after school at a record shop so I could sort of promote my band out of the record store.”
Word spread about the little garage band that could, and Northway Sound Records recorded the group doing “Judy” in 1962. It didn’t gain any traction, but the following year, a local DJ started up a new label called Snap Records, and he wanted James.
“We had two little label deals, Michigan label deals, before I was out of high school,” says James, “and the second one was for a DJ named Jack Douglas, who was morning man at WNIL in Niles. And [he] flat-out asked me if we would sign with his little label to do some records on consignment around the Michigan/Indiana area.”
One of the four songs James and company recorded in early 1964 was “Hanky Panky.” James had heard a local band play it live, and he immediately pegged it for a hit record.
The story of how “Hanky Panky” brought James and The Shondells fame is one of the most remarkable in the history of pop music.
“‘Hanky Panky’ was a song nobody had ever heard of,” says James. “It was a B-side of a record by The Raindrops, who was Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, on the flip side of a record called ‘That Boy John,’ which was about John Kennedy. And when John Kennedy was killed, they took the record off the market, and the B-side went with it.”
Breathing new life into “Hanky Panky,” James and The Shondells had a local hit on their hands. The song breached at #1 locally, but that’s where it stalled.
“We were on all the jukeboxes, but this is ’64 — I was a junior in high school,” says James. “But we had no distribution, so, you know, the record just died.”
Once out of high school, having graduated in 1965, James took his band on the road, slogging it out through Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan before heading home with his tail between his legs.
“[I] came home out of work and very depressed in March of ’66, back to Niles, and feeling very defeated,” says James.
A call from a Pittsburgh distributor — Fenway Distributors — changed everything. Tommy James and The Shondells’ version of “Hanky Panky” had been bootlegged, and 80,000 of them were sold in a 10-day period.
“I almost hung up on the guy,” says James. “I thought it was a crank call, but you know, that’s how the good Lord works. If I hadn’t been home at that exact moment, we wouldn’t be talking here today.”
Rescued from a used record bin by a Pittsburgh DJ/promoter, “Hanky Panky” had a second life, and this time, it wasn’t going to go out quietly.
“Well, his name actually was Bob Mack, and he was a local sort of DJ/promoter, and you know, Pittsburgh had a big underground record market, even back then — an undergound oldies market that really was not true anywhere else in the country,” says James. “It was really they had a little market unto themselves. So they would get these old, obscure records and play them at dance clubs. And so ‘Hanky Panky,’ I had no idea how a copy ended up all the way in Pittsburgh, but that’s another little miracle.”
And so James headed to Pittsburgh — sans his original band. Once there, he discovered that he was the belle of the ball.
“It was funny,” James says. “I was outside of the city limits, and I’m nobody. And as soon as I go into town, I’m a rock star. So, that was really strange. It was like Cinderella going to the ball. And then I’d leave and go back through the tunnel, the other direction, and I’m nobody again.”
Unable to put the original Shondells back together, James needed to find a new backing band … and fast, as “Hanky Panky” was a #1 hit nationwide.
“I basically put together the first bar band I could find to be the new Shondells, ’cause that was the name on the record,” says James.
That lucky bar band was an outfit called The Raconteurs, which included bassist Mike Vale, keyboardist Ron Rosman, guitarist Joe Kessler, drummer Vincent Pietropaoli, and saxophonist George Magura.
“This was not the act I was gonna take,” says James. “Actually, I was ready to go with another band. And I walked into a nightclub in Greensburg, Pa., one of the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And I started listening to this band, and they sang like birds. When they played, they were very soulful, but they knew how to play rock ‘n’ roll. They were just a real great tight act.”