Tommy James accidentally invented a whole world of bubblegum pop when he sold over 110 million records. Under contract with a crazy record label, Roulette Records, Tommy escaped the grasps of the Mafia while staying true to music and himself. He started with his hit single “Hanky Panky” and his band of Shondells. Now, Tommy James is an author and there is a major motion picture coming out on his life. Pay attention world.
TEENAGE NEWS: When was your eureka moment, when you knew that music was going to be your life?
Tommy James: Oh God…. I was doing music when I was three or four years old. My grandfather, actually, when I was four years old bought me a ukulele. [Laughs]. I had a record player, my mother bought me a record player when I was like two- a kiddie record player. I had all the pop records of the day but I also had these kiddie records. So, seriously, I had the kiddie records and the hits of today sitting side by side. I didn’t see anything wrong with that when I was a kid. I learned the ukulele, what I could on the radio and needless to say that was a very long time ago. When I was nine years old, I saw Elvis Presley on TV. The ukulele went out the window, the next day I got a guitar. It was a Stella Acoustic Guitar. I basically learned everything on the radio. At this point, the world was transforming into rock ‘n roll. My first generation of rock ‘n rollers were Elvis and Buddy Holly and, you know, all the original rock ‘n roll guys- Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent stuff like that! A year later, when I was ten I got my very first electric guitar. It was almost like a steady progression. I started playing electric riffs and stuff like that and added that to basically my own guitar playing that I learned from playing acoustic guitar. I never took lessons. I don’t tune my guitar like a normal guitar player; I tune it to an Open E. It’s like speaking your own language because you can’t learn anything from anyone and you can’t show anyone anything! I basically learned the guitar to accompany my singing. Singing is what I really wanted to do. When I was twelve I started my first band. I was in 7th Grade, and I started a band for the Junior High School Variety Show in my hometown of Niles, Michigan. We just kinda kept the band together after the show. It was such a great response from the crowd. The band was the Tornadoes, and we played in Niles, Michigan and everywhere we could (The American Allegiance Hall, dance halls, wedding receptions, and any place that would hire us). I got a job when I was fourteen in a record shop in Niles and I really learned a lot of valuable lessons about retail, songwriting, and publishing (how to function as a musician and how to do retail). But when I was in high school we had two, little, regional record deals. The first one was Northway Sound Records and we made a record called “Long Pony Tail” and it was like 1961-2. Then it immediately stiffed, a year later a DJ walks into the record store, his name was Jack Douglas, and he was putting a record company together called Snap Records in Michigan and he asked me if I would sign with him and if I wanted to make records. Naturally I said, “Hell yes!” One of the first sides that I recorded, this is while I was still in high school, turned out to be our first hit record- it was called “Hanky Panky.” We recorded it in 1963 and it was released in early 1964. I was a teen! It was released locally, and it did pretty well locally. We had no distribution but it sold a lot more records than the first record I had done. It was again moving forward. The record had done okay but the record eventually ended up dying because we had no distribution. When I had graduated high school, 1965, I took my band on the road. We changed our name to the Shondells. We played Chicago, Rush Street, and up through the Midwest. Early 1966, I was playing a dumb club in Janesville, Wisconsin and right in the middle of my two weeks there, the club went belly-up, the IRS shut down the club. I came home (we all did) feeling like a real loser and as soon as I came home I got a call that changed my life. It was from Pittsburg, they tracked me down and I just happened to be home… If that guy wouldn’t have gone broke during my two weeks, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I was asked by Fenway Distributer in Pittsburg (they were a big distributer and Pittsburg was a big market). They told me that “Hanky Panky” was Number 1 and I was like, “What do you mean it’s Number 1?” I thought he was yanking my chain, that he was one of my friends or something. I almost hung up on the guy! He told me that “Hanky Panky” was played by a DJ at one of his clubs and that they kept on pressing records and they kept on selling. They sold 80,000 of them in ten days and “Hanky Panky” was Number 1. Pittsburg got lucky when they tracked me down, I could not believe it. They asked me to come to Pittsburg and do some local TV and radio. I could not get the original band back together, but when I got there I picked up the first bar band I could find. We were the new Shondells, and a week later we were in New York selling “Hanky Panky” to a label, which ended up being Roulette Records (and that’s another story). Roulette took “Hanky Panky” international and that became our first, hit record. This was the Summer of 1966, that’s a true story; and now I am out of breath.
TEENAGE NEWS: Can you explain what it means to have 80,000 records of your records bootlegged in about 10 days? How did it feel to have that kind of fan interest and can you put that into perspective in 2015? How does that compare to the new biz where all music is FREE?
Tommy James: I don’t even think that can happen now! What was so interesting about that moment in time, 1966, was that each city basically had their own record business. Philadelphia had their own. Chicago would have hits that were only heard in Chicago. A lot of acts broke out of Pittsburg. What happened with “Hanky Panky,” my first record, was that a DJ named Bob Mack (who was also a club promoter who ran dances with huge sound systems) broke it. When I first worked for him, in Pittsburg, we played three different clubs with him in one night, 20-minute shows. He was well known locally as being a DJ and live entertainer promoter. He was always looking for these obscure records, that no one has ever heard of, so he grabbed “Hanky Panky” out of a record bin… He had a record store in the back of his office and “Hanky Panky” was just sitting there and he picked it up. He liked the title, he liked the song, and he started playing it at these dances and at the dances (where people would be looking for the next hit record) everyone listened. They jumped on stuff. With the local hits, they could bootleg records and sell them and not have to pay the artist or the publisher or the songwriter- they could just grab all the money. With a bootlegging racket going on in Pittsburg and “Hanky Panky” exploding so big they couldn’t control it. It ended up going Number 1, it entered the charts at 1, and it outsold everything else! They tracked me down because they couldn’t contain it. Nobody knew who the Shondells were and it was a good thing on the record we put “Niles, Michigan” because they called the record store I worked at, and the record store knew my number. It is just a miracle. It really was just a miracle. It couldn’t happen today, they invented this really ugly system in the 1980’s called Parallel Radio and it meant that you had to get all the stations across the radio and then you had to get the secondary stations and then the primary stations- it meant you had to market the entire country. What group has got the money to do it? It means you cannot break out of any one market like we did. The longer I am in this business the more I realize what a miracle that was.
TEENAGE NEWS: Being a hit maker in the 1960’s-1970’s, how has music changed throughout the course of your career? Has it always been an evolution, Darwin’s Theory, kinda thing?
Tommy James: Well… yeah. I have been able to see the whole music industry from a historical perception now; I’ve been doing it for so long. When I first started out in New York, of course, we were recording on 4-Track Tape Recorders. That was it, four tracks! We have watched it go from, in the studio, bearskins and cavemen to anything goes with Pro Tools and all the recording gear that we work with today. It has really been a span FIFTY YEARS since my very first recording and so all this technology that has been invented from the early 1960’s until now has been unbelievable; it’s like a science class almost! It’s been incredible. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the concert crowd. I see three generations of people out there today that come to our shows. The basic excitement, and the relationship between the artist and the fans hasn’t changed that much in a live show. In the studio it’s another lifetime.
TEENAGE NEWS: Can you describe the shift in the market from singles to records that you said occurred in about 90 days… Are we back in the daze of single recordings?
Tommy James: Sure! I think it’s because of downloading. Very few people download albums, compared to the single song downloads. Occasionally, you get someone who will download the whole album if they really like the artist but it’s definitely gone back to single song downloads. Singles are definitely the calling card and that’s the way it was originally in the 1960’s. During the 1960’s it was almost exclusively almost Top 40 singles. When FM Radio came on the scene it expanded a little bit but it was still basically singles. I tell the story about how in 1968 we went on the road with Hubert Humphrey, the Vice President. It was the first time that a rock act and a presidential candidate had hooked up. When we left in August of 1968 to go on the road with him, right after the convention, on the radio it was all singles (The Rascals, The Associations, you know what I’m talking about all the single acts in the 1960’s). When we got back 90 days later it was all albums. Only album artists like Joe Crocker, Crosby Stills & Nash, Blood Sweat & Tears were on the radio! The entire industry had changed from singles to albums in this 90-day period. It was incredible. It led to a mass extinction of single acts. We knew at that moment that if we didn’t sell albums, which is something Roulette really didn’t do (they sold their share but it wasn’t like Atlantic Records), we would be done. We were very fortunate because we were working on a song called “Crimson and Clover” at that very moment. “Crimson and Clover” right after we released it, after the presidential campaign, turned out to be the biggest single we ever had and allowed us to sell albums. I can’t think of another record that we ever worked on that woulda, in one shot like that, allowed us to make that move from Top 40 Singles to progressive album rock- in one record! “Crimson and Clover” allowed us to make that pivot and allowed us to have more years on our career. It was very interesting how the industry changed from singles to albums, in that moment, and then how albums became the thing in the 1970’s and most of the 1980’s. Albums were most of the main thrust of the industry, singles were kinda like an appendage of the album. You would record an album and then release two or three singles. I also thought that was ass backwards because the whole purpose was originally to create a market with your singles and then release your album. It was a marketing approach. That all went to Hell in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was about doing an album and hoping the single sold because if the single didn’t sell the album probably wasn’t gonna sell. That more than anything caused the industry to go broke! And then when the Internet really started becoming a factor in the early 1990’s suddenly it all reversed and went to singles, with single song downloads (iTunes). The record companies basically had destroyed themselves by trying to sell albums with singles that weren’t hits. That was all a self-inflicted wound by the record companies.
TEENAGE NEWS: Can we talk about DJ Mad Mike? Can you describe his efforts to break obscure-ish music to the mainstream and how he directly affected your career?
Tommy James: Sure! DJ Mad Mike was one of the first guys to play our record in Pittsburg. Pittsburg was where it sorta all started for us, and Mad Mike worked with a little radio station called WAMO, an R&B station. He played a lot of records for the first time and ours was one of them.
TEENAGE NEWS: Back in the day “I Think We’re Alone Now,” one of your biggest hits, was considered often to risqué for mainstream radio. How many times do you think you would have to say the “N-Word” or ratchet up the lyrics to get the same vibe across today?
Tommy James: [Laughs]. That’s an interesting question! That’s funny because “I Think We’re Alone Now” was about as innocent of a record you get. They thought it was risqué… I also thought that was interesting because the Number 1 record at the time was “Let’s Spend the Night Together” by the Rolling Stones. [Laughs]! A little hypocrisy going on there… And then they banned the album cover, the original cover was two footprints a guy and a girl going up the album cover, and the girl turns to the guy and their feet are wrapped together; it looks like they are bumping and grinding or something I guess because they banned the album cover too! That’s how uptight things were back then.
TEENAGE NEWS: In the 1960’s you sold more singles than any other pop group, what does that mean?
Tommy James: Well we sold more singles (for a period there) than anyone else. The thing was, it was such an amazing time of record sales because there were suddenly 60 million Baby Boom kids out in the streets with money in their pocket! That is what fueled the industry. It was really an amazing moment, when you look back at it in retrospect, because there was just an explosion of music and creativity and technology (that allowed the creativity). All the technology that was in the space stations was ending up in the recording studios. It all worked together to make this explosion happen. I guess that answers your question.
TEENAGE NEWS: You recorded one of the first music videos for your song “Mony Mony.” Why didn’t an MTV-like-concept get going in the 1960’s?
Tommy James: MTV wasn’t invented until 1981. To me it just made a lot of sense to make a video for your hit record. Television back in the 1960’s and 1970’s wouldn’t let music people tell them what to do. Music people at that point to them were an inferior breed. The only place we could get music videos played was in European movie theatres between the double features- true story! It was me and Daffy Duck for a long time because American Television would not play music videos! If you went on TV you were expected to preform live or do a lip sync. We actually recorded three videos. The first one, of course, was “Mony Mony” and that wasn’t played on American Television. Finally when MTV came along they started playing our old video of “Mony Mony” on Classic Classics. It was impossible to get anything played on American Television.
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Post by August Bernadicou