Tommy James and the Shondells – one of the most successful 1960s pop and rock groups
Tommy James And The Shondells are an Amercian rock and pop group, prominent during the 1960s. Then as Thomas Jackson, he formed the group when he was only 12 and designated himself as the lead singer. First christened as The Tornadoes, Jackson renamed the group as The Shondells. By the time he was involved with Roulette Records, Jackson took Tommy James as his stage name. Their first single, “Hanky Panky,” shot up to #1 on the US charts in 1966. Other hits followed: “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage,” and “Mony Mony.” Hating the label “bubblegum rock-artist” James shifted to psychedelic rock. During this phase Tommy James and the Shondells recorded “Crimson And Clover,” which would become a great masterpiece in classic/psychedelic rock. The group continued to perform until they disbanded in 1970. All of their singles during the height of the band’s career are multimillion best-sellers.
The group’s formation and early struggles
Tommy James and the Shondells are a rock and roll and pop group formed in Niles, Michigan in 1959. Guitarist and singer Tommy James (whose real name was Thomas Jackson, born in 1947 in Dayton, Ohio) first formed the band with its initial moniker The Echoes. Eventually, the band changed their name into Tom and the Tornadoes.
Tommy James was just 12 or 13 years old when he formed his own band. His junior high school mates formed the initial lineup: guitarist Larry Coverdale, bassist Larry Wright, keyboardist Craig Villeneuve, and drummer Jim Payne. In 1964 they became Tommy James and the Shondells.
“Hanky Panky” – a regional smash turned into a nationwide sensation
The band began to play at school parties, and soon they were playing paid gigs around town. They even got to record a handful of singles, including ones on Snap label, all of them vanished without a trace.
One of their singles on Snap, “Hanky Panky,” was written by the famed songwriting couple Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and released under their pen name The Raindrops. “Hanky Panky” became one of the Shondell’s most-sought after songs, at least in their surrounding locale. Other than that, the song didn’t get anywhere else, and so the band members thought of abandoning their musical aspirations while they would take up some part-time jobs. The original Shondells broke up in 1965.
In 1965 Tommy James unexpectedly received an invitation to play in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was surprised, considering that the group had never even played there. James eventually learned all of this when Pittsburgh dance promoter Bob Mack discovered the forgotten single, “Hanky Panky.” He liked it, so Mack began to play it at several dance parties. Later on, local radio stations began to pick it up. All of a sudden, requests for the single started to mount and to respond to the demand, bootleggers printed tens of thousands of copies which were sold in and around Pittsburgh.
The revamped Tommy James and the Shondells; their rise to fame
James had to take advantage of this kind of resurgence, but when he contacted his ex-bandmates they couldn’t be reached. It’s either that they were drafted or totally left their musical ambitions. He had to form a new band. Luckily, he found Pittsburgh musicians to round out the new Shondells. They consisted of guitarist Joe Kessler, keyboardist Ron Rossman, saxophonist George Magura, Mike Vale on bass, and drummer Vinnie Pietropaoli. But Magura left, and then Kessler and Peitrapaoli also quit. New members Eddie Gray (guitars) and Peter Lucia Jr. (drums) became new members.
All of a sudden, there was a national buzz surrounding the once-obscure Tommy James and the Shondells. Soon the band was playing to thousands of audiences, and they were courted by several big players such as RCA-Victor and Columbia. In the end though, Roulette Records won the right to sign Tommy James and the Shondells in 1966.
That same year, Roulette released “Hanky Panky” which climbed all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (It also went to #39 on the US R&B chart and #38 UK singles chart).
More hits for Tommy James and the Shondells
Tommy James and Shondells did all their might to keep themselves above the music business surface. Their next single “Say What I Am (What I Am)” went to #21 on the pop chart, while “It’s Only Love” (not the Beatles song, by the way) reached #31.
“I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Mirage”
In early 1967 Tommy James and the Shondells scored another Top 10 hit with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” composed by songwriter Ritchie Cordell. The song, also the title track of the group’s third LP, peaked as high as #4 on the Hot 100.
Another single off I Think We’re Alone Now called “Mirage” was written by Cordell and Bo Gentry. It gave the group their third top 10 hit on the pop chart. The album’s third single, another Cordell-penned song “I Like the Way” became a Top 40 hit at #25. With these catchy pop singles, Tommy James and the Shondells were slowly getting into the bubblegum pop wave.
Also in 1967 the Shondells relesed their first compilation LP, Something Special! The Best of Tommy James and the Shondells which featured their top 20 hit “Gettin’ Together” (also written by Cordell).
Another hit with “Mony, Mony”
In 1968 Tommy James and the Shondells hit it big again with another single “Mony Mony.” This rock number was written jointly by James, Cordell, Gentry and another songwriter Bobby Bloom. The title was inspired by the illuminated sign (“Mutual of New York”) atop of a Manhattan building that James saw one night. “Mony, Mony” was also the title track of their fifth LP, and became their fourth Top 10 pop hit at #3. It was also in this period where the group began to take writing their own songs. In the midst of their enjoying their popularity, the group was also preoccupied with experimenting in the studio with new sounds. Besides, leader James despised at the thought of his band being lined with bubblegum pop.
Crimson and Clover LP – The band’s greatest achievement yet
“Crimson and Clover” single and title track – a psychedelic rock classic.
Also in 1968 the group released their sixth album Crimson and Clover. It featured the title track written by James and drummer Lucia. Into the mix it featured distorted guitars, vocoders and phasers, which were unusual instruments then. “Crimson and Clover” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969, and most importantly it became an enduring psychedelic rock classic.
Crimson and Clover LP also spawned two other Top 10 hits — “Sweet Cherry Wine” (#7 pop) and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (#2 pop). Crimson and Cloverbecame the best-selling album not only in the band’s history but also Roulette’s as well, considering that the label was mostly a singles-oriented imprint. Crimson and Clover sold extremely well and enjoyed a long run in the charts. It reached #8 on the Billboard 200.
Perhaps to keep their own integrity, the group declined when they were invited to perform at Woodstock concert, whose repertoire at that time included folk and psychedelic rock.
Split and reunion
The band tried to carry on and even got to perform together as “Hog Heaven,” but they broke up soon afterwards in 1970. This seemed to be the right time as James was starting to collaborate with other artists. Among his most successful ventures post-Shondells was Alive N Kickin’s top 10 hit “Tighter, Tighter” which James wrote and produced. In his solo career James garnered two notable hits with “Draggin’ the Line” and “Three Times in Love.” He also began to take part in nostalgic package tours especially in the mid-1980s.
In 2009 Tommy James and the surviving Shondells members reunited to record a soundtrack for the film Me, Mob and the Music, based on James’ life story. The film was released in 2010. The group still occasionally performs most especially on the oldies circuit.