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Tommy James and the Shondells
On Sunday afternoons in 1964 when he wasn’t playing with his band, the Shondells, 17-year old Tommy Jackson (later Tommy James), would attend performances by other rock bands in a bar called Shula’s, located near his home in Niles, Michigan. The group playing on this particular Sunday was the Spinners (not the R&B group) and Tommy noticed the excited reaction from the crowd when they played a song he never heard before. “It’s called Hanky Panky,” drummer Hank Randolph told him. “We heard another band do it a few weeks ago and the crowd went nuts. So, we decided to do it.”
The band played the song twice more that afternoon with the same, spirited response. The crowd went wild. Everybody hit the dance floor and sang along. “When I left the bar that afternoon, I knew that Hanky Panky would belong to the Shondells,” Tommy told himself. (1)
Born in 1947 in Dayton, Ohio, the family of one Tommy Jackson moved to Monroe, Wisconsin by way of South Bend, Indiana as his parents managed a hotel. Three years later and weary of the hotel business, the family settled in Niles, Michigan.
In the fall of 1959 as a freshman at Niles Junior High, Tommy was invited to join his first band. By the summer of 1960, the band, now named the Tornadoes, was playing the local American Legion hall. By early 1961, the band expanded their radius and played high school dances and record hops.
Playing only weekends because of school, Tommy took a job at Spin-It, Niles only record shop. “I worked after school all week and all day Saturday. But the best thing was I got to run the band out of the record shop. For me, it was like going to Rock and Roll College.” (2)
Making contacts in the record business through the store, Tommy met one-stop distributor, Bud Ruiter who invited Tommy and band to cut a record at his small studio in Hastings, Michigan. “It was a nifty place with a control booth, a sound room and some decent microphones. We played and sang at the same time.” (2)
The single was Judy with Long Ponytail on the flip side by Tom and the Tornadoes. Placed on the local jukeboxes, the 45 sold locally but there was no regional buzz. At this point, the band was just another local group with a local record.
In the summer of 1963, the band booked gigs at resort beaches up and down Lake Michigan. “We drew huge crowds all summer long. As a result, we bought new outfits, powder blue dinner jackets and sharkskin suits. Our appearances were frantic and high-voltage.” (3)
Life in America changed after November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. With it, the landscape of rock and roll changed as the British Invasion in music was well on its way. The Tornadoes went from believing the music of The Beatles was juvenile and silly to believing they were musical geniuses with their intricate harmonies and chord structures. “We devoted an entire set to the Beatles. The girls went from dancing and chewing gum to gawking and screaming,” said Tommy. (4)
In the summer of 1964, a local DJ named Jack Douglas entered Spin-It. He told Tommy, “We played your last record on my show and had a great response to it. I want to start my own label and I want to know if your band would want to record something.” Tommy recognized a second chance and enthusiastically said yes.
The label was Snap Records and the studio was located at the WNIL studios. The set up and equipment was a definite upgrade from Ruiter’s backroom. Each instrument was miked and each member of the band had his own set of headphones. They believed they hit the big time. But there was a catch.
“I know you guys want to do rock and roll but I’d like the first single to be a song I wrote,” Douglas told the startled band. The song was Pretty Little Red Bird. “We realized instead of rock and roll, we were doing Mother Goose!” Tommy stated. (5)
As expected, the song mercifully stiffed. One positive change about the session was the group renamed themselves, the Shondells. “We liked the way it sounded and how it looked when written. I came up with it in study hall,” remembered Tommy. (5)
It was in September of 1964 when Tommy made that fateful stop in Shula’s. The next day he discovered the song, Hanky Panky was the B-side of a song by The Raindrops titled That Boy John. The song, released in November 1963, was pulled off the market because it was about JFK. The Raindrops consisted of the songwriting team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, who wrote such hits as Be My Baby, Da Doo Ron Ron, Chapel Of Love, River Deep—Mountain High and Leader Of The Pack.
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.” (6)
Not knowing the lyrics, the Shondells made them up as they went along at the rehearsal that Monday night. “All I could remember was ‘My baby does the Hanky Panky,’” recalled Tommy. (7)
After playing the song at a few of their next gigs, they knew they had something big. “We got more requests for Hanky Panky than any song we had ever done, and we knew this was probably the first time any of these kids were hearing it.” (8)
In late October, the Shondells (Larry Wright (bass), Craig Villaneuva (piano), Jim Pyne (drums) with Larry Coverdale and Tommy on guitars, went into the WNIL studios to record Hanky Panky. The session proceeded without a hitch. “We did three takes and picked the second one for the A side. Jack Douglas produced the session and kept the song straightforward and simple adding just a touch of reverb,” Tommy recalled. (8)
The original Shondells from 1964. L-R: Larry Coverdale, Larry Wright, Tommy James, Craig Villanueve and Jim Payne.
Photo courtesy of Tommy James.
Several thousand copies of the record sold in Niles, Michigan and South Bend, Indiana area. It remained the most-requested song at their concerts. Still, the song couldn’t penetrate the major markets in Detroit and Chicago. By February of 1965, the song lost its steam and eventually the band broke up. As is the case with many bands, the Spinners broke up. Hank Rudolph called and asked Tommy if he wanted to tour with a new band and play six nights a week. Tommy, newly married with a baby, needed the paycheck. Just graduating from high school in the summer of 1965, he was on board.
After nearly a yearlong tour in the upper Midwest, Tommy was working at the Indiana Café in South Bend and got a phone call in April of 1966. It was Jack Douglas on the other end of the line. “Tommy, we got a hit. Our record is number one in Pittsburgh,” the excited voice stated over the line. “Hanky Panky is number one!” Tommy couldn’t understand what Jack was talking about. “I’ll have the people in Pittsburgh call you.”
A promotion man from Fenway Distributors called and told Tommy that a dance promoter by the name of Bob Mack found the Snap recording of Hanky Panky in a used record bin. He listened to it, liked it and played it for the kids at his club. They loved it and requests were coming in.
Mack took the record to Fenway, who pressed up some bootleg copies and sold them in stores around the Pittsburgh area. Kids from the dance clubs bought them, the radio stations picked up on the excitement and within ten days, the song had sold 80,000 copies and became the number one song in the city. The man from Fenway told Tommy, “You’ve got to come here. This thing could break nationally.” (9)
Jack Douglas and Tommy drove to Pittsburgh the next week to meet with Bob Mack. Interviews were set up and the following week, concerts with an ad hoc group of new “Shondells” were played. With the song listed as a regional breakout on Billboard, Record World and Cashbox, the time was right to look for a deal with a major label. That meant a trip to the Big Apple.
Mack had the New York contacts and Douglas turned the deal over to him. So, Tommy and Mack flew to New York on May 4, 1966…just after Tommy celebrated his nineteenth birthday.
Once in the city, they met with Chuck Rubin, a promoter who booked most of the acts with Mack in Pittsburgh. It was Rubin and Mack that took Tommy on a tour of the New York offices of the major record labels. “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,” Tommy stated in a 2010 article from the Houston Chronicle. “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.” (10)
With the deal cut, it was time to put the wheels of the hit-making machine in motion. First up, Rubin told Tommy, “You’ve got to meet Morris in a few hours to sign contracts. They want your name up front, so how do you want your name to read?” Tommy had toyed with the idea of changing his last name to one syllable. It made it easier to remember. “I told him the first name that popped in my head. Tommy James,” James recalled. “So, it’s now Tommy James and the Shondells,” Rubin stated. (11)
The next order of business was to recruit a new group of Shondells. The original group had scattered like the wind as they got on with their lives. Bob Mack found a group in Pittsburgh that he believed would be a good fit. But when James jammed with them, he didn’t feel the magic. That night, James visited a club outside of Pittsburgh called the Thunderbird Lounge where a local, five-piece house band, the Raconteurs, was playing. “These guys looked and played great, sang like birds and the crowd loved them. We hit it off immediately,” said James. Mack met with the band the next day and closed the deal. The Raconteurs were now the Shondells. (12)
Hanky Panky was released in late spring of 1966. It debuted on the Billboard chart on June 4, 1966 and stayed for a total of 12 weeks. The song reached #1 on July 16 where it perched through July 23. (13) (14)
Tommy James hit the Billboard Pop chart a total of 33 times from 1966-1981, reaching the Top Ten 7 times with two #1 hits (Crimson And Clover in 1969 in addition to Hanky Panky) with the Shondells and as a solo artist. (13)
Tommy and the Shondells being awarded their first gold record for Hanky Panky in 1966.
L-R: Ron Rosman, Geirge Magura, Tommy James, Vinnie Pietropali, Mike Vale, Joe Kessler and Morris Levy.
Photo courtesy of Tommy James.
By no means was the relationship between Tommy James and Morris Levy without its problems, especially if label was nothing more than a front for the mob. For one, Levy never paid James any royalties. “It took us a while to realize that we weren’t going to get mechanical royalties. We weren’t gonna get paid for any of this. Of course, we made money from all kinds of other sources, like touring and commercials. We had to constantly ask ourselves if we wanted to take our life in our hands and try to get outta this thing. Or, because we were having such great success there, if we could just keep our mouth shut and have the hits. I think we made the right decision to stay because it worked out for us. Plus, I get to tell the story now. But we ended up doing about $110 million in record sales with Roulette,” James recalled in an interview with Kevin Renick for Zachary Mule in 2014. (15)
So, how much in royalties did Levy retain from Tommy James? In 1971, a gang war with mob broke out and Levy left New York and went into hiding. Tommy, not knowing if Levy would return, had his accountant, Aaron Schecter, check into the royalties owed him by Levy and Roulette Records. Instead of asking the label accountant or the pressing plant people, all of who were loyal to Levy (perhaps out of fear), Schecter went to the printers who made labels for the records and asked for a honest count of Roulette’s numbers. “The numbers were astonishing. Morris owed me upwards of $40 million dollars. Even with my miserable royalty rate he owed me that much,” James recounted. (16)
“I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing,” James believes. “Because the truth is, every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy and Roulette, I have to stop myself. The truth is, if it hadn’t been for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. That is true. However, having said that, there were a lot of bitter feelings. And there was a lot of danger up there. It was a dangerous place to be.” (15)
But if we had gone with anybody else, I can tell you right now, we probably would have been lucky to be a one-hit wonder, especially with a record like Hanky Panky. At Roulette, they actually needed us. So, I got everything they had. I got to put my own production crew together, I got to find the center of my artistry, I got to learn my craft, everything from writing and producing to designing album covers and learning retail and distribution. That never would have happened at any of the other labels. (17)
Levy was convicted of two counts to extort in a New Jersey court in December of 1988 and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He died of cancer on May 20, 1990. Because of appeals, he never spent a day in jail.
After Levy sold his publishing company and Roulette Records in 1989, Tommy James began receiving royalties for his music. James has recently announced plans for a film and Broadway play based on his 2010 autobiography. In February of 2018, he became the host of Getting’ Together with Tommy James on Sirius XM Radio channel 60s on 6.
This is the original version of Hanky Panky by The Raindrops.
Hanky Panky by Tommy James and the Shondells.
Inside Tracks with Tommy James tells the story of Hanky Panky and much more.
1) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Me, the Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells, 2010, Page 41.
2) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 23.
3) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 29.
4) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 33.
5) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 36-37.
6) Greenwich and Berry, Do-Wah-Diddy: Words and Music by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, CD, Ace Records Ltd., London, 2008, liner notes.
7) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 42.
8) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 42-43.
9) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 50-51.
10) Campbell, Rick, For Tommy James, The Past is the Future, chron.com, (Houston Chronicle blog), July 5, 2010. Link.
11) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 59.
12) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Pages 64-65.
13) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 349.
14) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties, 1990.
15) Renick, Kevin, Zachary Mule, Tommy James: A Talk With The ‘60s Icon about His Surprising Career, December 22, 2014. Link.
16) James, Tommy with Martin Fitzpatrick, Page 200.
17) Sullivan, Jim, Best Classic Bands, Alone Now With Tommy James: A Revealing Interview, July 26, 2018. Link.
January 27, 2018 Morristown NJ.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Bobby Bank.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss