Tommy James was born Thomas Jackson in Dayton, Ohio on April 29th, 1947 and moved to Niles, Michigan when he was eleven years old. In 1959 he formed his first band, The Echos, with drummer Mike Booth and three other school mates on sax, trumpet and piano, first took the stage at his school's annual variety show. Wanting to sound more like a Rock 'n' Roll band, Tommy and Mike eventually let the others go in favor of guitarist Larry Coverdale, and the trio, now calling themselves The Tornadoes, soon found work at the Niles Legion Hall through the Summer of 1960. Two guitars and a set of drums sounded pretty hollow and guitarist Larry Wright was enlisted to play bass. By 1961, The Tornadoes were playing a variety of sock hops and dances in and around Niles, Michigan. In early 1962, Mike Booth, who was a few years older than Tommy, took a full-time job and was replaced by an experienced local drummer named Nelson Shepard. They also added saxophonist Mike Finch to fill out the sound. Tommy also found after school work at a local record store called Spin-It, which led to meeting record distributor Bud Ruiter, who ran a small record label called Northway Sound in Hastings, Michigan. A recording date was set up and The Tornadoes laid down a couple of tracks on tape, "Long Pony-tail" by The Fireballs and one of Tommy's own tunes called "Judy". At Ruiter's suggestion, the record label read 'Judy / Long Pony-tail by Tom and The Tornadoes.' When the platters were ready, one hundred copies were delivered to the Spin-It record store quickly sold out, and Ruiter pressed another 3,000 copies for sale across his distribution area. Frank Fabiano, the son of a businessman who ran the local jukebox and pinball concessions, offered to put Tommy's record in his machines and suddenly, The Tornadoes were one of the area's hottest acts. The band basked in local success, but with no concrete plans for a follow-up record, the excitement eventually died down.
1963 found Tom And The Tornadoes still playing covers of the day's top hits at resorts in Michigan, but in the Spring of 1964, a chance meeting with a man named Jack Deafenbaugh gave them new hope. Deafenbaugh was a local DJ who was interested in starting his own label and offered Tommy and the band another shot at recording. About this time sax man Mike Finch left to join the Navy and drummer Nelson Shepard got married and had to quit. Keyboard player Craig Villeneuve and drummer Jim Payne became their replacements. With new members and another record deal, a name change was also in order, and one that Tommy had thought up the previous year, The Shondells, was chosen as their new moniker. The band's recording session took place at a studio at WNIL radio station in Niles, Michigan, but much to their surprise, Jack Deafenbaugh insisted that they record one of his own compositions called "Pretty Little Red Bird". More of a nursery rhyme than a Rock 'n' Roll song, they begrudging recorded the track, backed by Tommy's "Wishing Well". Released on the tiny Snap label, the record gained little attention and quickly faded into oblivion.
That Fall, Tommy heard a local band named The Spinners play a song called "Hanky Panky", which got an enthusiastic crowd reception. The song had originally been released a year earlier on Jubilee Records as the flip side of an obscure single by a band called The Raindrops, who were in reality songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwhich. Not able to get a copy of the 45 and guessing at the words The Spinners had sung, Tommy and the band made up their own lyrics and started playing the song at their own shows. That October, back in the Snap studio, they did three takes of the song, choosing the second one to press onto vinyl. Once again, Tommy James enjoyed a local hit record, gaining a strong following and playing to packed houses. Unfortunately, without strong distribution, sales fell flat and by the first part of 1965 "Hanky Panky" had seemingly run its course. As The Shondells splintered, Tommy and Larry Coverdale joined forces with two members of the now defunct Spinners and went on the road as Kathy And The Koachmen. When Kathy quit, sax player Del Slade came onboard and shortly after, Tommy's longtime friend and band mate Larry Coverdale also packed it in. Bassist Bob King and sax man Jimmy Havens signed on, allowing The Koachmen to play a variety of Jazz and R&B tunes.
After a few months of living out of a suitcase, playing in tough little bars, the band had had their fill of road life and returned to Niles, Michigan.
In early April, 1966, Tommy got a call from a friend who told him that Jack Deafenbaugh was trying to reach him. When he contacted Jack, he was told "Tommy, we got a hit!" It seems that a dance promoter in Pittsburgh named Bob Mack had started playing a copy of "Hanky Panky" that he'd found in a used record bin. The song got a tremendous reaction, and Mack, not being able to find out who was behind it, had copies of the 45 pressed by Fenway Distributors. When local radio stations started playing the song, Fenway stamped out another 80,000 copies and "Hanky Panky" shot to the top of the Pittsburgh charts. Tommy moved to Pennsylvania where he met Mack and Chuck Rubin, who handled the talent bookings for Mack's dance clubs. It wasn't long until all three major music trade papers, Billboard, Cashbox and Record World, were listing "Hanky Panky" as a regional breakout hit. Rubin, who had music industry connections, advised Tommy that it was a good time to go to New York City in search of a record deal. After being politely turned down by several labels, Morris Levy of Roulette Records offered Tommy James a contract. Now he faced another problem. Since his band had broken up, Tommy needed to form another one. After a few mis-steps, he found a group playing at the Thunderbird Lounge in Greensburg, Pennsylvania called The Raconteurs that included Ronnie Rosman, Mike Vale, Joseph Kessler, Vince Pietropaoli and George Magura. After learning about the situation, The Raconteurs agreed to become the new Shondells. Kessler, Pietropaoli and Magura were soon replaced by Eddie Gray on guitar and Peter Lucia on drums. In the meantime, Hanky Panky gained more and more momentum until it finally topped both the Cashbox Best Sellers chart and the Billboard Hot 100.
The Shondells needed a follow-up and selected a song called "Say I Am (What I Am)". Although not as successful as "Hanky Panky", it still managed to reach #21 on the Billboard chart in the Summer of 1966. Roulette Records knew that it had a hot commodity on its hands and assigned songwriters Richie Cordell and Bo Gentry the task of writing songs for Tommy James And The Shondells. The combination resulted in some great finger-snapping tunes which were regarded in the late '60s as bubblegun music, some good Rock songs, and even one that was in tune with the psychedelia that was prevalent in Pop music at the time. From 1967 to 1969, the group turned out hit after hit, including six that made it to the Top Ten: "I Think We're Alone Now", "Mirage", "Mony Mony", "Crimson and Clover", "Sweet Cherry Wine", and "Crystal Blue Persuasion".
Tommy James career produced some interesting Rock 'n' Roll trivia over the years. The structure of his 1967, #10 hit, "Mirage" were actually the chords to "I Think We're Alone Now" in reverse, created when it was accidentally played backwards during a writing session. Tommy James And The Shondells' "It's Only Love" album cover was the first professional photo shoot by Linda Eastman McCartney in 1966. 1968's #3 smash, "Mony Mony" was co-written by Tommy James, Bo Gentry, Richie Cordell and Bobby Bloom, who had a top ten record of his own with "Montego Bay". The hook in the song is said to have been inspired by Tommy's view of a Mutual Of New York sign on the New York City skyline. Mony Mony was the only song by the group to reach the Top 20 in the United Kingdom. It was #1 there, and #3 in the USA.
In 1968, Tommy decided to change his musical direction and started to not only write his own material, but to produce his own records as well. His first project was "Crimson and Clover", which he wrote with his drummer, Peter Lucia. Tommy played all the instruments on the recording except drums and also sang all the vocals. The song took only five hours to record, start to finish and sold five and a half million copies. In 1969, Tommy and the group regrettably turned down an offer to perform at the original Woodstock Festival when his booking agent described the event as "...a stupid gig on a pig farm in upstate New York."
Tommy James experienced some minor health problems in 1970 and he and The Shondells went their separate ways. The group renamed themselves Hog Heaven, but met with little success. Tommy reached the charts by himself in 1971 with the #4 hit "Draggin' The Line", but spent most of the seventies struggling with personal problems and groping for a new musical direction. He did however place several songs on the upper end of the Top 100. He finally found his grove again in 1980 and triumphantly returned to the record charts with "Three Times In Love", which climbed to #18.
As the years went on, other performers would cover some of the great records that had been recorded by Tommy James And The Shondells. Joan Jett had a Top Ten song with "Crimson And Clover" in 1982, and in November of 1987 Tiffany and Billy Idol had back-to-back number one hits with "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Mony Mony", respectively. During 1968-69, Tommy James And The Shondells sold more single records than any artist in the world, moving over 100 million records worldwide. Tommy James' songs have been covered by over three hundred artists. His music is in twenty-five films and numerous television shows and commercials.
Into the new millennium, Tommy remained very active in the music business and continued to record and tour. In 2004, he wrote and released his first ever Christmas single, "I Love Christmas". While in the studio, Tommy laid down tracks for a new album called "Hold The Fire" and in 2005, released the single "Isn't That The Guy". A second single, "Love Words" was issued later that same year and went to #1 on the Friday Morning Quarterback charts. The new CD finally hit the stores in early 2006 and the title track promptly rose to #2 on the same chart. During all of this activity, the initial response to the first Christmas single generated interest for another, but Tommy wanted it to be very special. He reunited with the original Shondells after some thirty years and he and Mike Vale wrote "It's Christmas Again", which was released in 2007. This second holiday tune inspired Tommy to work on a Christmas album, which took him a year to produce and contained three original songs. During his busy schedule, Tommy took the time to work on his autobiography, Me, The Mob And The Music, which told of his relationship with Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records. The book hit store shelves in February, 2010 and revealed that Roulette owed Tommy between 30 and 40 million dollars in royalties that were never paid. It was only after the company and the publishing rights were sold that James began to receive royalty checks from sales of his records. Tommy's music returned to the spot light in 2013 when "Crystal Blue Persuasion" was featured on the season finale of the HBO TV series Breaking Bad and The Simpsons Breaking Bad parody episode.
Tommy's touring schedule had him heavily booked at fairs, colleges and casinos across the United States and Canada in 2013, 2014 and 2015. At the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Awards on April 18th, 2015, Tommy joined Joan Jett And The Blackhearts, Dave Grohl and Miley Cyrus in a live performance of "Crimson And Clover", which Jett had taken to #7 in America in 1982. A major Hollywood movie was reportedly in development based on Tommy's bestselling autobiography Me, The Mob And The Music. For 2016, 2017 and 2018, Tommy James still maintained a busy schedule of live appearances across the United States. In 2018 he could also be heard on the SIRIUS XM 60s ON 6 channel on Sunday nights from 5 to 8 PM, where he played the hits of the 1960s and shared his personal memories of the stars and the music of the era.
For more, be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Tommy James