Tommy James and The Shondells managed to weather the many changes in the pop music scene during the mid to late ’60s and come out on top with a string of fourteen Top 40 hits. They were truly a pop band for all seasons.
Whether the people wanted bubblegum, soul or psychedelia, this was a group that could do it all.
Tommy James (born Thomas Jackson in Dayton, Ohio) was given his first record player at two years old. At three he had mastered the ukulele and by nine he had conquered the guitar.
He formed the first version of The Shondells in 1960 when he was only 12 years old. In 1963 they recorded a version of the Barry/Greenwich song Hanky Panky for a small Michigan label.
Two years later, a Pittsburgh DJ picked up on the song and made it into a regional hit. James and the original Shondells parted ways because the band members didn’t want to relocate from Indiana and James formed a new Shondells by taking on a group called The Raconteurs.
In 1966 they signed to the Roulette label who reissued Hanky Panky which became a #1 million-seller. Aren’t you glad you stayed in Indiana now, fellas?
James teamed up with the writer/producer team of Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell to settle into the business of making hit records in late 1966.
They produced one hit after another in 1967, starting with I Think We’re Alone Now and continuing with Mirage (created by playing I Think We’re Alone Now, backwards) and Getting Together. They were all snappy, fast-paced bubblegum tunes that overflowed with cool organ riffs and propulsive drumming.
Tommy James and the Shondells developed a tougher sound in 1968 with the release of Mony Mony. This soul-infused tune forsook the poppy gloss of past hits for an in-your-face sound with a focus on big, pounding drum licks that made listeners want to dance. It zipped to #3 on the charts.
The Shondells turned their attention to psychedelia in 1969 with Crimson and Clover. The moody-yet-catchy tune, full of inventive touches like wah-wah guitar and phased vocals, shot to #1 and became the group’s biggest US hit.
The Shondells continued to mine the psychedelic vein with the complex Sweet Cherry Wine, which went to #7. The laid-back follow-up, Crystal Blue Persuasion, featured some memorable flamenco-style guitar and was a #2 hit.
In 1969, Tommy James and The Shondells turned down an offer to perform at the original Woodstock Festival. Their agent described the event as “a stupid gig on a pig farm in upstate New York”.
Tommy James split up with The Shondells in 1970 to pursue a moderately successful solo career, and the group changed its name to Hog Heaven for continued recordings and tours.
James had a #4 hit that year with the soulful Draggin’ The Line and continued to record throughout the 70s, sometimes with former members of The Shondells.
Tommy James is still touring and recording today. Other artists have helped him keep his legacy of success alive by covering his past hits. Joan Jett recorded a #7 hit cover of Crimson and Clover in 1982. Tiffany went to #1 in 1987 with her version of I Think We’re Alone Now. Ironically, her replacement in the #1 slot came when Billy Idol did his own cover of a Shondells classic, Mony Mony.
Successes like these assure that the magical music of Tommy James and the Shondells will never be forgotten.