Tommy James and the Shondells earned 23 gold singles along with 9 gold and platinum albums on their way to selling over 100 million records worldwide. During 1968-69 Tommy James and The Shondells sold more singles than any other artist in the world, including The Beatles. Their smash hits include Hanky Panky, Mony Mony, and I Think We're Alone Now. Their biggest single ‘Crimson and Clover” was a number one hit that sold five million copies. During most of its existence the band members were Dayton, Ohio native Tommy James, Pittsburghers Mike Vale on bass and Ronnie Roman on keyboards, along with guitarist Eddie Grey and drummer Peter Lucia. Mike Vale co-wrote the band’s rock classic song "Crystal Blue Persuasion" along with the hit songs "Sugar On Sunday", "She", "Come With Me", "Loved Me" and others. The Shondells sudden rise to fame started in a dusty cut out record bin in downtown Pittsburgh.
Tommy James was born as Tommy Gregory Jackson on April 29, 1947 in Dayton Ohio. He grew up in the midwest living in South Bend Indiana, Monroe, Wisconsin and Niles Michigan. Tommy began playing professionally in Niles area bars at age 12 with his band the Tornadoes in the summer of 1960. By 1963 the Tornadoes were a popular band in the Niles area playing sock hops, dances, and outdoor pavilions. After a change in personnel they changed their name to the Shondells. In 1964 a local radio DJ, Jack Douglas, approached Tommy saying he was starting his own record label Snap Records and wanted to record the Shondells. To get the deal they had to record a nursery rhyme type song that Douglas had written.
After the first Snap Records single flopped Tommy discovered the song "Hanky Panky". On a Sunday afternoon sitting in a bar he heard the Niles area band the Spinners drive their crowd nuts with the song "Hanky Panky". After the show the Spinners told Tommy that they learned it from another band. Researching the song at the local Spin-It record store Tommy learned that Hanky Panky was a throw away side B song written by the Brill Building song writers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich for a side A single 'The Boy John". It was released by the Raindrops in Novemberof 1963. The single flopped but a least two bands were playing Hanky Panky. Tommy called Jack Douglas and said he wanted to record it. Tommy taught the band the song from his memory and made up some of the choruses. They recorded at a local radio station in three takes and released it in the Fall of 1964. The song received airplay in the Niles area hitting the top 10 on several stations and number 1 in South Bend. The first pressing of the song sold out. But momentum died out in February of 1965 when it not break out to the larger nearby Chicago market. The Shondells broke up. Tommy gaduated from high school, got married, and had a son in the summer of 1965. He joined another band, the Coachman, to earn his living playing dive bars in Indiana.
Hanky Panky in Pittsburgh
Bob Mack, a WZUM DJ who owned a Pittsburgh record store and promoted dances at the White Elephant and Bethel Roller Rink, bought a collection of used records from a South Bend Notre Dame student in 1966. The collection included the forgotten “Hanky Panky” recorded “The Shondells” in 1964. Liking the song Mack played it at his dances and the crowds went crazy. Other Pittsburgh area dance DJs started playing the song. In response to requests for the song radio DJs Mad Mike of WZUM, Bob Livorio, Clark Race of KDKA and Chuck Brinkman of KQV played it own their shows. Record stores who were swamped with requests for the song called record distributor Nick Cenci of Fenway Distribution looking for copies. The Snap Records label that had released the single had gone out of business. There were no copies to be had anywhere. Seeing an opportunity Bob Mack and Nick Cenci distributed the record under the Red Fox label of Fenway Distributors. Within ten days it sold 80,000 copies in Pittsburgh. In May of 1966 “Hanky Panky” was the number 1 song in Pittsburgh.
Nick Cenci tracked down the owner of Snap Records, Jack Douglas, in Niles, Michigan and called him saying “You have to bring Tommy James to Pittsburgh. Hanky Panky is going to be a number one hit here.” But the Shondells had broken up two years earlier after some of the members joined the Army. After a gig in South Bend Jack Douglas and Tommy Jackson drove all night arriving in Pittsburgh early on a Saturday morning. Every radio station they turned on was playing "Hanky Panky". They went straight to the Fenway Distributors office on Grant Street where they encountered a wild frenzy. The local press was there snapping pictures of their arrival. Bob Mack and the Fenway staff welcomed them like old friends. Tommy was whisked to the KQV radio studio where did a live one hour long interview with DJ Chuck Brinkman. He did another interview across town at KDKA Radio followed by an appearence lip synching Hanky Panky on Clark Race's TV show. He interviewed with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and a dozen other media organizations. He was a Pittsburgh superstar. On Sunday he rode back to Niles Michagan with Jack Douglas.
The following weekend Tommy James came back to Pittsburgh with a band from the Niles area that he quickly hired as a back-up band. The Coachmen did not want to tour. On Saturday night Tommey James performed for thousands of screaming fans at three of Bob Mack's dances at Bethal Park, the White Elephant, and the Blue Fox.
Tommy Joins the Mob Controlled Roulette Records
On the third weekend Bob Mack and Tommy James flew to New York in search of a major label record contract and national distribution. Hanky Panky was hot as it was listed as a regional breakout in the top three music trades. Nick Cenci of Fenway in an interview said he called Morris Levy to tell him about Hanky Panky. Accompanied by his New York booking agent Bob Mack and Tommy made the rounds visiting 11 labels. They did not visit Roulette Records as the owner was out of town. All of the labels said they wanted to sign Tommy. The next day, Morris Levy, the owner of Roultte records and a mob boss in the Genovese crime family declared that Tommy James was his artist. All of the other labels backed off. Tommy without the guidance of an attorney signed with Roulette. On signing the contract he changed his stage name to Tommy James.
Pittsburgh's Racontuors become the Shondells
Upon returning to Pittsburgh after the New York signing, Bob Mack took Tommy to a bar to play a set with band that he wanted to hire as the Shondells. Tommy played with the band but was not sold. The band's guitar player took Tommy to the Thunderbird Lounge to hear another band called the Racontuers. Recognizing Tommy from his appearance on the Clark Race TV show the Racontuers asked him to sing Hanky Panky with them. Tommy obliged singing his hit and a few more songs. He liked the band. The Racontuers met with Tommy and Bob Mack the next day agreeing to go on the road as the Shondells. Tommy hired the entire five piece band of bassist Mike Vale. keyboard player Ronnie Rosman, drummer Vinnie Pietropaoli, guitarist Joe Kessler, and sax player George Magura. Tommy called Morris Levy that day telling him he had a good band. Levy told him to fly the New York the next day to record an album. Within three days of meeting Tommy James the Racontuers where in the studio recording the "Hanky Panky" album for Roulette. Bob Mack found another cut out bin song 'Say I Am" that became their second hit single. They also recorded two of the Racontuers original songs. The album was completed in two weeks.
Bob Mack Attack
Bob Mack made a business call on Morris Levy while the band was in the studio. Levy picked Bob Mack up, slammed him against the wall and held him by the neck telling him you are messing with my artist. He phyiscally tossed Bob Mack out the door. Levy then told Tommy James that he found him a new manager. Tommy never saw Bob Mack again. Mack never paid Tommy any royalties on the 80,000 records sold in Pittsburgh.
The new Tommy James and the Shondells quickly went from playing small bars in Western, Pa and Indiana to playing for thousands at concert halls. Roulette released the original recording of “Hanky Panky” making it a number one hit in July of 1966. It knocked the Beatles "Paperback Writer" out of first place. The single went gold selling 3 million copies and the album sold one million copies.
During a tour in 1967 supporting their second album the Shondells got into a dispute over money. Morris Levy was not paying the band its contracted salary. Several members of the band went directly to a concert promoter to get their pay for a show. Angered that they went behind his back, Tommy fired most of the Shondells keeping only bassist Mike Vale and keyboard player Ronnie Roman. He hired guitarist Eddie Grey and drummer Peter Lucia as replacements. Tommy James and the Shondells went on to release six hit albums on Roulette between 1966 and 1969. They appeared on numerous major television shows and toured the U.S. They may have missed their opportunity to become part of the 60’s counter culture history when they declined an invitation to perform at Woodstock. Morris Levy only paid Tommy James a tiny fraction the millions that he had earned in royallties.. Levy eventually was convicted of racketering..
The Shondells took a break in 1970 while James became involved in solo project and produced other bands. They never got back together. Mike Vales formed a new band called Hog Heaven that released one album on Roulette. Tommy James continued to record as a solo artist releasing 11 more albums and scoring several top for hits. His biggest was “Draggin’ The Line” which was a number four hit in 1971.