Spotlighted Artist - Tommy James and The Shondells
The band initially formed in 1959 as Tom and the Tornadoes, with the then only 12-year-old Tommy
James as lead singer. In 1963, he re-named the band The Shondells after one of James' idols, guitarist Troy
Shondell. The same year, they recorded the Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich song, "Hanky Panky" (originally a B-side
by The Raindrops). James' version sold respectably in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, but the record label,
Snap Records, had no national distribution. The single failed to chart, and the Shondells disbanded.
Two years later, a Pittsburgh radio station unearthed the forgotten single and touted it as an
"exclusive." Listener response encouraged the station to play it regularly. Another Pittsburgh disc jockey played
his copy of the single at various dance parties, 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 after getting a telephone call in December 1965 from
Pittsburgh disc jockey "Mad Mike" Metro, to come and perform the song. James contacted his fellow Shondells, but
they had moved past their musical ambitions and did not want to travel to Pittsburgh.
In 1966, James went by himself and made promotional appearances at 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.
"I was in a Pittsburgh club one night, and I walked up to a group that was playing that I thought was pretty good,
and asked them if they wanted to be the Shondells. They said yes, and off we went."
With Vale, Rosman, Kessler, Pietropaoli, and Magura as his new Shondells, James now had a
touring group to promote the single. James went to New York, and sold the master of "Hanky Panky" to Roulette
Records. With national promotion behind it, the single became a national number one hit in June, 1966. Before long,
Kessler, Pietropaoli, and Magura were replaced by Gray and Lucia.
At first, Tommy James and his Shondells played straightforward shambolic rock and roll, but soon
became involved in the budding bubblegum music movement. Songwriter Ritchie Cordell gave them the #4 hit "I Think
We're Alone Now." They also had a #10 hit with "Mirage" in 1967. In 1968, James had a hit with "Mony Mony", written
by James (Together with Vale) and allegedly inspired by the sign for """M""utual"""O"""f"""N"""Y"""ork that hung
outside his apartment window. He followed it with the song "Do Something to Me".
However, James was labeled as a Bubble Gum Rock artist, which he completely hated. Therefore, he
changed his style to Psychedelic Rock.
From 1968, the group members tried themselves as songwriters, with James and Lucia penning the
psychedelic classic "Crimson and Clover". The song was also completely recorded and mixed by Bruce Staple, with
James taking over vocal duties and playing all instruments, and featured the then unusual use of electronic
gadgetry such as vocoders and phasers. Later in 1968, the group toured with Vice President Hubert Humphrey during
his presidential campaign. Humphrey graciously expressed his appreciation by writing the liner notes for the
Crimson and Clover album.
Further hits included "Crystal Blue Persuasion", "Sweet Cherry Wine", and "Ball of Fire". all
from 1969. They also produced "Sugar on Sunday", later covered by The Clique. As the band embraced the sounds of
psychedelia, they were invited to perform at the Woodstock concert, but declined.
The group continued until early 1970. At a concert, James collapsed onstage from a reaction to
drugs, and was actually pronounced "dead." However, he recovered, hated the recording studio, and decided to move
to the country to recuperate. His four bandmates carried on for a short while under the name of Hog Heaven, but
disbanded soon afterwards.
In a 1970 side project, James wrote and produced the #7 hit single "Tighter, Tighter" for the
group Alive N Kickin'. James launched a solo career in 1971, which yielded two notable hits over a 10-year span;
"Draggin' the Line" (1971) and "Three Times In Love" (1980).
During the 1980s, the group's songbook resulted in major hits for three other artists: Joan Jett
& The Blackhearts' version of "Crimson And Clover" (a #7 single in 1982), Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now,"
and Billy Idol's "Mony Mony" (both #1 hits in 1987). Idol's version of "Mony Mony" replaced Tiffany's "I Think
We're Alone Now" at the #1 position on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart toward the end of 1987. Other Shondells
covers have been performed by acts as disparate as psychobilly ravers The Cramps, new wave singer Lene Lovich,
country music veteran Dolly Parton and the Boston Pops orchestra.