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
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
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
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
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.