Tommy James & the Shondells





Tommy James was born Thomas Jackson in Dayton, Ohio on April 29th, 1947 and moved to Niles, Michigan when he was 11 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 and first took the stage at his school's annual variety show. Wanting to sound more like a Rock 'n' Roll band, Tommy and Mike 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, and 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, the 100 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 monkier. 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 his own compositions called "Pretty Little Red Bird". More of a nursary 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. Unfortunetely, without strong distribution, sales fell flat and by the first part of 1965 "Hanky Panky" had seemingly run its course. As 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 bandmate 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 nameed 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.

Two years went by before another DJ found a copy of the song in a stack of oldies. Not knowing that it hadn't been a real hit, he played it by mistake. To his amazement, delighted listeners wanted to know where they could get a copy of "that hot new single".

Sensing a hit, a local bootlegger taped the song off the radio and began pressing copies of it. Within ten days, more than eighty thousand copies had been sold. The Pittsburgh DJ finally tracked down Tommy James and informed him that his record was number one in the city. Tommy almost hung up on the guy, but a week later, he was in New York, selling the original master of "Hanky Panky" to 'Roulette Records'. By the late summer of 1966, it was the number one selling single in the nation.

Tommy moved to Pittsburgh and formed another band called Tommy James and the Shondells. This group included members of a group that had been known in Pittsburgh as the "Raconteurs" and included Ronnie Rosman on keyboards, Mike Vale, Joseph Kessler, Vince Pietropaoli and George Magura. The last three were soon replaced by Eddie Gray on guitar and Peter Lucia on drums.

The group needed a follow-up and selected a song called "Say I Am [What I Am]". Although not as successful as Hanky Panky, it reached number 21 on the charts later in the same year.

Roulette 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 on the Roulette label, including six that made it to the top ten: "I Think We're Alone Now", "Mirage", "Mony Mony", "Crimson and Clover" (the group's second and final number one hit in the USA), "Sweet Cherry Wine", and "Crystal Blue Persuasion".

The chords and structure of Tommy's smash single "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.

"Mony Mony" is a classic song of the 60s. It 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 twenty 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 the 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 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".

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.

The Hits of Tommy James and the Shondells:

1966 - Hanky Panky - charted at # 1
1966 - Say I Am (What I Am) - charted at # 21
1966 - It's Only Love - charted at # 31
1967 - I Think We're Alone Now - charted at # 4
1967 - Mirage - charted at # 10
1967 - I Like The Way - charted at # 25
1967 - Gettin' Together - charted at # 18
1968 - Mony Mony - charted at # 3
1968 - Do Something - charted at #To Me 38
1968 - Crimson And Clover - charted at # 1
1969 - Sweet Cherry Wine - charted at # 7
1969 - Crystal Blue Persuasion - charted at # 2
1969 - Ball Of Fire - charted at # 19
1969 - She - charted at # 23
1970 - Gotta Get Back To You - charted at # 45
1971 - Draggin' The Line - charted at # 4

During 1968-69, Tommy James and The Shondells sold more single records than any artist in the world, and has sold over 100 million records worldwide. Tommy James songs have been covered by over 300 artists. His music is in 25 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 30 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 contains 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 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 2013 touring schedule had him heavily booked at fairs, colleges and casinos across the United States.

For more, be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Tommy James