Tommy James and the Shondells: Hanky Panky, 1964, and selections from 1967 to 1969
Excerpts from the article For Tommy James, the Past is the Future by Rick Campbell, published at chron.com (Houston Chronicle blog) on 5 July 2010:
James, who was born Tommy Jackson in Dayton, Ohio, grew up in small town of Niles, Mich., near the Indiana state line. He played in his first band when he was 12. While in high school, he and his band, the Shondells, recorded a song they had learned from a rival band called [the song, not the band] Hanky Panky, which was [an] obscure song written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. The song was a favorite of the kids in the Niles area and it always had a great response when the bands played it at dances. Nobody really knew all the lyrics, so the singers just kind of filled in the gaps. Hanky Panky was recorded at a Niles radio station in early 1964 and released locally on a little label called Snap Records. It was a local hit and it made the Shondells “big fish in a little pond,” James said. “But we really couldn’t break out of Michigan. We were right in the middle between Chicago and Detroit and sort of too far from either. The record came out and died shortly thereafter.”
The Shondells went their separate ways and James put together another group. In 1965, they hit the road, playing up through Chicago and the Midwest. “We were playing a little club in Janesville, Wis., in March of ’66. Right in the middle of my two weeks, the guy goes belly up. The IRS shuts him down,” James said. “We slumped back to Niles feeling very defeated and depressed. But that’s how the good Lord works: Because if that club hadn’t gone belly up, we wouldn’t be talking today.” When James returned to Niles, he got a call from Pittsburgh that the given-up-for-dead Hanky Panky had been bootlegged and 80,000 copies had been sold in 10 days. “We were sitting at No. 1,” he said.
A local disk jockey found a copy of Hanky Panky in a used record rack and started playing it at dances. The kids in Pittsburgh were crazy about it. “There was one copy of the record,” James said. “They made a tape of the record — pops and all. And made more disks from the tape and put it on this little in-house label.” James couldn’t put the original Shondells back together, so he went there by himself. “It was like Cinderella going to the ball,” he said. “Outside the city limits I’m nobody. As soon as I cross the city limits, I’m a rock star. It was really schizophrenic.” James said he grabbed the first bar band he could find — the Raconteurs — and they became the Shondells. A week later Tommy James and the Shondells are headed to New York with the deejay/record promoter Bob Mack, who became their first manager. They took Hanky Panky around to all the major record companies looking for a deal. “We got a ‘yes’ from all the labels — Atlantic, Kama Sutra, Columbia, Epic, RCA. It was really fantastic. The last place we took the record to was Roulette.
“That night, I’m going to bed feeling great because we got a yes from everybody. I wake up the next day and the phone starts ringing. One by one, all the record companies called up to say, “Listen, we’ve got to pass.” James said he was thinking: “What do you mean you’ve got to pass. I thought we had a deal. Finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic levels with us and told us that Morris Levy from Roulette Records had called all the record companies one by one and said: ‘This is my record. Back off.’ It scared everybody because they all knew his reputation as a mob guy.
Tommy James and the Shondells selections:
Hanky Panky (Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich)
Barry and Greenwich authored the song in 1963. They were in the middle of a recording session for their group The Raindrops, and realized they needed a B-side to a single, “That Boy John.” The duo then went into the hall and penned the song in 20 minutes. Barry and Greenwich weren’t particularly pleased with the song, and deemed it inferior to the rest of their work. “I was surprised when [the Tommy James version] was released,” Barry commented to Billboard‘s Fred Bronson, “As far as I was concerned it was a terrible song. In my mind it wasn’t written to be a song, just a B-side.
- The Summits — Harmon 1017, b/w “He’s an Angel,” issued in October 1963
- The Raindrops — flip side of “That Boy John” (Barry, Greenwich) Jubilee 45-5466, issued in November 1963
- The Shondells — Snap 102, b/w “Thunderbolt” (Larry Coverdale), issued in January 1964; bootlegged in 1965 (or 1966?) by Red Fox Records as RF-110; acquired by Roulette in 1966 and reissued that year as R-4686
There are numerous comments regarding the early versions by The Summits, and The Raindrops at 45cat.com’s page on the May 1966 Roulette single (R-4686), largely focused on which was the first recorded and which was released first, without fully resolving the matter. However, I found it odd that no one mentioned the fact that the two earlier recordings have a substantially weaker lyric, drably delivered, than that found in the version by the Shondells. The sole verse section which in the Shondells version goes
I saw her walkin’ on down the line (yeah)
You know I saw her for the very first time
A pretty little girl standin’ all alone
Hey, pretty baby, can I take you home?
I never saw her, never, ever saw her
is absent in the two earlier versions, both of which contain instead a much less interesting verse section featuring feeble nods to a selection of popular vocal harmony groups:
The Tokens do the hanky panky
The Drifters do the hanky panky
The Coasters do the hanky panky
But I go out of my mind,
He’s smooth as wine
Whether the majority of the credit belongs among members of various teen bands in the Niles area, or to Tommy Jackson (James) is unclear, but in any case the amended lyric used by
Tommy James and the Shondells on their 1964 recording breathed life into the song, helping to transform a throwaway into a memorable number one hit.
More Wikipedia excerpts:
Although only a B-side, “Hanky Panky” became popular with garage rock bands. James heard it being performed by one such group in a club in South Bend, Indiana. “I really only remembered a few lines from the song, so when we went to record it, I had to make up the rest of the song,” he told Bronson, “I just pieced it back together from what I remembered.”
James’ version was recorded at a local radio station, WNIL in Niles, Michigan, and released on local Snap Records, selling well in the tri-state area of Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. However, lacking national distribution, the single quickly disappeared. James moved on, breaking up The Shondells, and finishing high school.
Meanwhile in 1965 Pittsburgh dance promoter Bob Mack unearthed the forgotten single, playing it at various dance parties, and radio stations there touted it as an “exclusive”. Listener response encouraged regular play, and demand soared. Bootleggers responded by printing up 80,000 black market copies of the recording, which were sold in Pennsylvania stores.
James first learned of all this activity in April 1966 after getting a telephone call from Pittsburgh disc jockey “Mad Mike” Metro to come and perform the song. James attempted to contact his fellow Shondells. But they had all moved away, joined the service or gotten married and left the music business altogether.
In April 1966 James went by himself to make promotional appearances for the Pittsburgh radio station in nightclubs and on local television. “I had no group, and I had to put one together really fast,” recalled James. James recruited a Pittsburgh quintet called The Raconteurs – composed of Joe Kessler (guitar), Ron Rosman (keyboards), George Magura (saxophone), Mike Vale (bass), and Vinnie Pietropaoli (drums) – to become the new Shondells.
Tommy James and the Shondells — Roulette 7″ single R-4686, b/w Thunderbolt (Coverdale), issued in May 1966; chart success: #1 Hot 100 pop single in July 1966 (2 weeks)
audio file from mp3skull.com (site evidently defunct as of December 2016):
The group followed up their #1 debut for Roulette with two more 1966 top forty singles:
- “Say I Am (What I Am)” (George Tomsco, Barbara Tomsco) — (#21) B-side to the single Roulette R-4695, “Lots of Pretty Girls” (Larry Rush, Paul Leka)
- “It’s Only Love” (Ritchie Cordell, Sal Trimachi, Morris Levy) — issued in October 1966 on Roulette R-4710, b/w “Don’t Let My Love Pass You By” (Tommy James) — peaked at #31 on the Hot 100; B-side replaced with “Ya! Ya!” on later pressings
I Think We’re Alone Now (Ritchie Cordell) — Roulette Records single R-4720, b/w Gone, Gone, Gone (Ritchie Cordell, Sal Trimachi), produced by Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell, and arranged by Jimmy “The Whiz” Wisner. It was issued in January 1967 and peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Stereo version, from the LP I Think We’re Alone Now, Roulette Records SR 25353, released in 1967 (“Dan’s” 2013 remaster)
(below) Lip-synch performance for the music TV show The Village Square
The Village Square originated on local TV in Charleston, South Carolina, and after moving to Florence, SC for the fall 1965 season then relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1966 where it remained for two seasons. The Village Square grew in popularity until it was eventually broadcast in syndication in over 50 television markets across the country.
(Baby) Baby I Can’t Take It No More (Ritchie Cordell, Tommy James) — issued in June 1967 on the single Roulette R-4756, as the B-side of “I Like the Way” (Ritchie Cordell)
Mony, Mony (Bobby Bloom, Ritchie Cordell, Bo Gentry, Tommy James) — Roulette R-7008, b/w One Two Three And I Fell, issued in March 1968
Crimson and Clover (Tommy James, Peter Lucia) — Roulette R-7028 was issued in December 1968. Promotional copies had I’m Taken on the flip side while the commercial B-side was Some Kind Of Love (T. James, P. Lucia).
From a SongFacts.com songwriter interview with Tommy James:
SF: Let’s start with “Crimson and Clover.” I heard that was based on your favorite color and your favorite flower.
TJ: I wish it was more profound, but you know, they were just two of my favorite words that came together. Actually, it was one morning as I was getting up – this is a true story – I was getting up out of bed, and it just came to me, those two words. And it sounded so poetic. I had no idea what it meant, or if it meant anything. They were just two of my favorite words. And Mike Vale and I – bass player – actually wrote another song called “Crimson and Clover,” and it just wasn’t quite there. I ended up writing “Crimson and Clover” with my drummer, Pete Lucia, who has since passed away. Just a little bit about the record – “Crimson and Clover” was so very important to us because it allowed us to make that move from AM Top 40 to album rock. I don’t think there’s any other song that we’ve ever worked on, any other record that we made, that would have done that for us quite that way. And it came out at such a perfect moment, because we had been out with Hubert Humphrey on the presidential campaign for several months in 1968, and we met up with him right after the convention. The convention where all the kids got beat up. We met up with him the following week in Wheeling, West Virginia, and of course we didn’t know where all the rallies were gonna be, like at the convention. What have we gotten ourselves into? We had been asked to join him. And this really was the first time, I think, a rock act and a politician ever teamed up. But it was an incredible experience.
But when we left in August, all the big acts were singles acts. It was the Association, it was Gary Puckett, it was the Buckinghams, the Rascals, us, I’m leaving several people out. But the point was that it was almost all singles. In 90 days, when we got back, it was all albums. It was Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Joe Cocker, Neil Young. And there was this mass extinction of all of these other acts. It was just incredible.
long version, from the 1969 album Crimson & Clover, Roulette Records SR 42023
from the Ed Sullivan Show, Season 22, Episode 16 — airdate: 26 January 1969
Crystal Blue Persuasion (Tommy James, Ed Gray, Mike Vale) — released in November 1968 on the album Crimson & Clover. A slightly shorter version was issued in May 1969 as Roulette single R-7050, b/w I’m Alive (Peter Lucia, Tommy James). It climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Sugar on Sunday (Tommy James, Mike Vale) — non-single track on the 1968 LP Crimson & Clover
Sweet Cherry Wine (Tommy James, Richie Grasso) — Roulette R-7039, b/w Breakaway (James, Vale), issued in March 1969
Expressing his Christian beliefs in this song, James told us that the “sweet cherry wine” is “a metaphor for the blood of Jesus.” Talking about his faith, James said: “I don’t worship every Sunday; I worship every day. Every hour of every day. It’s just me, it’s part of me. I became a Christian in 1967.
Oh yeah, yesterday my friends were marching out to war
Oh yeah, listen now we aren’t a-marching anymore
No, we ain’t gonna fight
Only God has the right
To decide who’s to live and die
Ball Of Fire (Tommy James, Mike Vale, Bruce Sudano, Woody Wilson) — Roulette R-7060, b/w Makin’ Good Time (Tommy James, Ritchie Cordell), released September 1969 [songwriter credits: Some Roulette R-7060 labels include Paul Naumann as co-songwriter (as “P. Naumann”)]
(below) Ed Sullivan Show, Season 22, Episode 36 — airdate: 14 June 1970
Tommy James and the Shondells, selected bios and articles:
- For Tommy James, the Past is the Future (part 1), by Rick Campbell, Houston Chronicle online, 5 July 2010
- For Tommy James, the Past is the Future — Part 2, by Rick Campbell, Houston Chronicle online, 13 July 2010
- TommyJames.com (official website bio)
Selected interviews, articles:
- Tommy James interview: “Me, the Mob, and the Music”— part 1, Artie Wayne on the Web, posted on 9 February 2010
- Tommy James interview with Artie Wayne — part 2, 12 February 2010 post
- Tommy James interview with Artie Wayne — part 3, 18 February 2010 post
- I Think We’re Alone Now…for an Interview With Tommy James (part 1) — interview by Bill Kopp, musoscribe.com, posted on 1 July 2010
I Think We’re Alone Now…for an Interview With Tommy James (part 2) — posted on 2 July 2010
- Tommy James interview with Adam Sankin of AVShowrooms, published on 25 May 2012
- Tommy James interview with Adam Sankin of AVShowrooms, part 2, published on 26 May 2012
Book promotion (video):
- Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick: Me, the Mob, and the Music, Barnes and Noble, Lincoln Triangle NYC — 22 February 2010
(above) Tommy James and the Shondells in Central Park — I believe the twin towers in the background are those of The Majestic.