Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Niles, 45s boast Tommy James

Rocker Tommy James formed the original Shondells
and recorded the No. 1 hit "Hanky Panky" in the small
lower peninsula community of Niles.


Rocker Tommy James, pride of the small lower peninsula town of Niles, made an impression on millions of youngsters during his reign in the 1960s.

As leader of Tommy James and the Shondells, the singer hit the top of the charts in 1966 with "Hanky Panky" and three years later did the same thing with the psychedelic "Crimson and Clover."

Both those songs, as well as "Crystal Blue Persuasion," "Mony Mony" and "I Think We're Alone Now" are contained on the "Best of Tommy James and the Shondells," the first long playing (LP) record I ever owned.

My memory of that old album was jogged recently by my friend Ken Raisanen. A teacher by vocation and a drummer by avocation, Raisanen is head honcho at public radio station WOAS- FM 88.5 and writes a music column for the Ontonagon Herald called "From the Vaults."

The topic of one of his recent columns was "firsts." Raisanen told readers about his first 45 rpm single, first concert, first CD, first LP and other sundry firsts.

An LP was a major purchase when I was a teenager at about $5. I preferred the 45 rpm singles, which sold for about 69 cents each.

My Tommy James and the Shondells' album, however, was a good value since it contained ten songs, all of them hits.

Tommy James and the Shondells reached international stardom-- with the help of a lucky break-- from a modest start in Niles, a southwestern Michigan community of 12,000.

Born Thomas Gregory Jackson in Dayton, Ohio, on April 29, 1947, the future rock 'n' roll star moved to Niles with his family in 1958.

He formed the Tornados, later to become the Shondells. This "original" group of Shondells included Larry Coverdale (guitar), Larry Wright (bass), Craig Villeneuve (piano) and Jim Payne (drums).

The high school friends played parties and dances.

James even got himself a job at a local store, Spin-It Records, where he learned about the music business.

The group drew the attention of J. D. Deafenbaugh, who worked as a disc jockey under the name Jack Douglas on local AM radio station WNIL. Deafenbaugh brought the teenage group into the station's studio in early 1964 to record four songs, including "Hanky Panky."

James had heard another band perform "Hanky Panky" in a club in South Bend, Indiana, and noted the tremendous response from the crowd.

"Hanky Panky" and "Thunderbolt" were paired on a 45 record released on Deafenbaugh's new label, Snap Records.

Written as the flip side to a single by the Raindrops in 1963, "Hanky Panky" was composed by the famous Brill Building team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.

The single was a hit in the tri-state area of Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, but didn't go further because Snap lacked national distribution.

Several years passed and "Hanky Panky" faded from memory.

Somehow, a few copies of "Hanky Panky" found their way into the stock of a used record store in Pittsburgh owned by Ernie Kashauer.

The disc got played at a teen club run by Bob Mack who told local disc jockeys about the wild reaction kids gave "Hanky Panky."

Thinking it was a new single, youngsters began calling Pittsburgh radio stations requesting "Hanky Panky."

Since the single was out of print, an estimated 80,000 gray market 45 rpm singles were pressed in Pittsburgh to meet local demand for "Hanky Panky."

As "Hanky Panky" was taking Pittsburgh by storm, DJ "Mad Mike" Metrovich called James, telling him about the single's surprise success and looking for the Shondells to appear in Pennsylvania.

James, who was working as a solo act, told the caller the Shondells had broken up.

Still, the singer agreed to play. In Pittsburgh, he auditioned a group called the Raconteurs to serve as the new Shondells.

Not long after, James traveled to New York where he sold his recording of "Hanky Panky" to Roulette Records for $10,000. With Roulette's marketing muscle and distribution, "Hanky Panky" became the nation's No. 1 single on July 16, 1966.

Their first LP, also titled "Hanky Panky," was issued soon after. The Shondells at that point included Joe Kessler (guitar), Ron Rosman (piano), Mike Vale (bass), George Magura (sax) and Vinnie Pietropaoli (drums).

During their stay with Roulette, Tommy James was given creative control of his music. Consequently, with producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell, Tommy James and the Shondells hit the Top 100 with 19 songs.

Many of the group's songs also included Ed Gray (guitar) and Peter Lucia (drums), when Kessler, Magura and Pietropaoli left the band.

The collaboration resulted in such hits as "Mirage," "Sweet Cherry Wine" and "Sugar on Sunday."

The propulsive "Mony Mony" was one of the group's most successful singles.

While growing up in Marquette, my music columnist buddy Ken Raisanen remembered practicing the drums to the tune in his basement.

"I used to open my basement window and crank the song and my drums to '11' for the benefit of the girls sunbathing outside of Spalding Hall," Raisanen recalled. The girls "used to yell and wave at me when I was out in the yard: 'Hey, play your drums.' Ah, the benefits of living across the street from a girls' dorm in your formative years, in 6th and 7th grade."

Although Woodstock promoters asked Tommy James and the Shondells to perform at the historic music festival in the summer of 1969, the group declined after being told the event was a "stupid gig on a pig farm in upstate New York," by their booking agent.

After Tommy James collapsed on stage in 1970 and was hospitalized for several weeks, the Shondells broke up.

James managed to hit the charts a dozen more times as a solo artist, most notably with "Draggin' the Line" in 1971.

The group's songs have returned to the charts in versions by other artists.

Joan Jett had a hit with her take on "Crimson and Clover" in 1982, while in late 1987, Tiffany and Billy Idol, respectively, had consecutive No. 1 hits with their renditions of "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Mony Mony."
Even today, hits by Tommy James and the Shondells are fondly recalled by fans and continue to be heard on oldies radio.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to spin a Tommy James and the Shondells' record for old times' sake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review Steve! Do you know how the group acquired the name they did? Do you recall a song entitled "This Time" performed by an Indiana boy? That guy produced several of my songs which included "There's a Pill for Everything", "Big Pipeline" and a few others.
Keep up the great work in keeping music generated from your geographical area alive.
Charli Frederick

"There's a Pill for Everything"
"Big Pipeline"
"Twenty-Nine More Men"