Tommy James & The Shondells - Biography
Thomas Gregory Jackson was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1947. He was a child model and began playing music before he was in his teens. His first band, formed when he was only 12 years old, was originally called Tom and the Tornados. Jackson later renamed his act as a tribute to one of his musical heroes, Troy Shondell. Shondell was a one-hit wonder, and the song—a rather syrupy concoction with an out-of-tune piano titled “This Time”—was a teen ballad in the Gene Pitney mode that charted on both sides of the Atlantic in 1961. Around this time, Jackson also took on the stage name of Tommy James.
James made several recordings in the studio of radio station WNIL in Niles, Michigan, where his family had moved to from Ohio. One of these recordings was “Hanky Panky,” an Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry song. James was still only 16 when the song released on a local label, Snap Records. The record was only a minor regional success, however, and the Shondells disbanded.
Two years later, a Pittsburgh-area DJ found a copy of the Snap 45 and began playing it regularly on his show. Other stations in Pittsburgh followed suit, and James learned that it had suddenly become a major regional hit in Pennsylvania. James followed the song to Pittsburgh. The original Shondells were uninterested in regrouping, so he hired a local club band that went by The Raconteurs—not to be confused with Jack White’s band of the same name—and re-christened them the Shondells.
Tommy James and the Shondells began to tour in support of the 45, and very soon were playing in front of huge crowds. The 45 was re-released nationally on Morris Levy’s Roulette Records, and eventually rose to #1 in the United States. Although courted by several major labels, James ultimately signed an album deal with Roulette.
The first album on Roulette, entitled Hanky Panky (1966 Roulette), was rushed out to take advantage of the single’s massive success. The record was a collection of mostly soul covers, and first single “It’s Only Love” became a top 40 hit. Hanky Panky’s follow-up, the Ritchie Cordell-penned “I Think We’re Alone Now,” made it to #4 in 1967, and it was the beginning of the band’s four-year-long string of hits. Released amidst some of the most experimental and mature work by contemporaries like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and the psychedelic groups from the West Coast, Hanky Panky also had the effect of pegging James and band as bubblegum pop. With the message on the title track and the later hit “Mony Mony” being to get up and dance, it made for a misconception—but James and The Shondells were much more than that.
With James’ great pop voice and the Shondells’ wide range of musical tastes and ability, the band evoked favorable comparison with soft soul (presaging the Philly Soul Sound of the early to mid-’70s) as well as the complex harmonies of The Beach Boys and the summery grooves of the Young Rascals. No matter what comparison might have been put upon the band, the immense popularity they achieved in the late 1960s was unrivaled. In the years 1968 and 1969, Tommy James and the Shondells sold more 45s than anyone else in the world.
The band would score only one more #1 hit in the US, occurring in 1968—the pop-psychedelic masterpiece “Crimson & Clover.” The song was written by James and the Shondells’ drummer Peter Lucia. Lucia played drums on the track while all other parts—including pedal steel, wah wah and fuzztone guitars—were played by Tommy James himself. The record’s hook was a heavy tremolo effect applied to both instruments and James’ vocals.
The band did have several other top five hits outside of “Crimson & Clover.” One of them, the “Hanky Panky” clone “Mony Mony,” climbed to #3 in the US, while the Young Rascals-influenced “Crystal Blue Persuasion” rose to #2. The album Crimson & Clover (1968 Roulette) also had the unique distinction of containing liner notes written by then Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who had taken the band with him as entertainment during his bid for the Presidency in 1968.
Tommy James & the Shondells followed up the success of Crimson and Clover with the experimental prog-rock album, Cellophane Symphony (1969 Roulette). It was a major departure from their soulful pop sounds, and some of the better material on it was smothered under heavy synthesizers. The title track—a ponderous, 10-minute, two-chord psychedelic jam—missed its mark of being like Pink Floyd (nearing instead the future terrain of Spinal Tap).
The group returned to their pop sound for their final album, Travelin’ (1970 Roulette). The two singles from the record both charted, although neither came anywhere near the monstrous success of their previous releases. As their popularity continued on the decline and James battled problems with drug use, the band called it quits in 1970.
Tommy James returned almost immediately to pursue a solo career, and he had some notable success, including the top ten hit “Draggin’ the Line.” The 45 was taken off the album Christian of the World, (1971 Roulette), which is regarded today as one of the very first Christian Rock albums. He also wrote and produced the hit song “Tighter and Tighter” for the band Alive N Kickin’ in 1970.
James continued to record and release new material throughout the remainder of the 1970s. His last album of original material—discounting 1996’s A Night in Big City (1996 Aura), which was a strange concept album including spoken dialogue, sound effects and remakes of “ Tighter and Tighter” and “I Think We’re Alone Now”)—was Three Times in Love (1980 Millennium). The record featured a “Quiet Storm” feel, with guest appearances by Luther Vandross and Michael Brecker. The title track, a musical and lyrical throwback to the teen-ballad style of his one-time idol Troy Shondell, reached #1 on the Adult Contemporary Charts.
James’ music found a new audience in the ’80s. In 1987, two of his songs were simultaneously in the top ten—Billy Idol’s cover of “Mony Mony” and mall-rat teen-sensation Tiffany’s version of “I think We’re Alone Now.” Joan Jett also had a hit around this time with a cover of “Crimson & Clover” from her I Love Rock N’ Roll album. His music with the Shondells, as well as his solo work, has been re-released on various compilations in the ’90s. It’s a New Vibration (1997 Westside Records) contained unreleased material as well as his numerous hits, and signaled a critical reassessment of James and the Shondells. It was rumored that James had entered the studio with the “original” Shondells in 2007—however, no new music from these sessions has been released. Now entering his sixth decade in the music business, James continues to perform to the present day, delivering his truly remarkable string of hits with a voice utterly undiminished by the years, and with a commitment to their high quality that belies any dismissal of him as an oldies act. in 2010 james released his definitive story of life in the music biz, called Me, The Mob and The Music: One Helluva A Ride With Tommy James & The Shondells.