Tommy James: No time for ‘Hanky Panky’

The Roulette Years

Pittsburgh was just the beginning for Tommy James and his new Shondells.

Many suitors from New York City lined up to woo them, but Roulette badly wanted the band and wasn’t going to going to take “no” for an answer.

James remembers that Roulette “ … truly needed us, and I’m very grateful for that.”

As it turned out, the relationship was beneficial for both camps. For James, it meant being able to work with the cream of the city’s crop of musicians. He learned how to be a producer, and he was able to collaborate with writers from other labels outside of Roulette.

In the warm, loving embrace of Roulette, James and his gang were able to focus on doing what they did best — manufacturing hit singles, like the million-sellers “Say I Am” — “ … basically a cover of The Fireballs’ record,” according to James — and “It’s Only Love.” And the Hanky Panky album showed their ability to tackle soul covers by such heavyweights as The Impressions, Junior Walker & The All-Stars and James Brown.

But it wasn’t until “I Think We’re Alone Now” that the band’s pop-oriented rock formula was perfected.

“‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ really changed directions for us, as far as sounds in the studio,” says James.

And it came at a time of great uncertainty for James, who was burdened with the weight of expectations.

“I knew that I had to do this myself, basically,” says James. “I felt that I was really in over my head, because I didn’t know where we were going to go from here. And Roulette couldn’t really help me with that stuff.”

Actually, Roulette wanted to know what James had planned for an encore after his early successes. Along came Ritchie Cordell to help keep James from falling. Meeting through James’ girlfriend’s roomate, James and Cordell, who was working at Kama Sutra at the time, immediately hit it off.

Cordell brought in friends like Bo Gentry to help James. Later, arranger extraordinaire Jimmy Wisner would be added, and the four would form an unbeatable production nucleus.

“You know, when you listen to the records, it seems very seamless,” says James. “But the truth was, there was a lot of chaos going on behind the scenes. Finally, Bo and Ritchie brought me ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’”
Set to a bouyant beat, “I Think We’re Alone Now” had an infectious melody that spread through the charts like a wonderful, feel-good virus. Few were immune to its charms as it rose all the way to #4. In its original form, however, “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a much different animal.

“When they played it for me, it was a ballad. It was very slow,” says James. “[I’m going] that’s a smash, but it’s too slow.”

A demo version was cooked up, and on Christmas Eve in 1966, the final mix was done and the last vocal was added. It was released in March, 1967, and became a Top Five smash.

“There was this incredible sense of anticipation and inevitability,” says James. “We knew we were working on a hit record with ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’”

More than that, it established the team of James, Cordell, Gentry and Wisner as a production juggernaut. They spent the next year and a half cranking out hits, including the “I Think We’re Alone Now” makeover in reverse” “Mirage,” “I Like The Way,” “Gettin’ Together,” “Out Of The Blue” and “Get Out Now.”

“‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ became a big record for us because we created this new production team, and this team was with me… we had eight or 10 hits, and three or four albums, with that nucleus,” says James.
Eventually, however, James would have to leave the nest, so to speak.

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