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Tommy James: No time for 'Hanky Panky'

In the shark-infested waters of the recording industry, James and his band, the Shondells, kept up with changing times to create some of the most enduring music of the '60s
Photo by Bobby Bank

Photo by Bobby Bank

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.”

Fortunate son

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.”

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.

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.