Early Life and Career
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Tommy and his family moved to Niles, Michigan; a child model at age four, he was no stranger to the stage. In 1959, at the age of twelve, James formed what would be recognized as his first official band "The Tornadoes". A year later the band changed its name to The Shondells. By 1964, Jack Douglas, a local DJ at WNIL radio station in Niles, formed his own record label, Snap Records. The Shondells were one of the local bands he recorded at WNIL studios. One of the songs was the Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich ditty "Hanky Panky", which the pair recorded using the name The Raindrops. The song was a hit locally, but the label had no resources for national promotion, and it was soon forgotten.
In 1965, a local dance promoter, Bob Mack, started playing the song at his Pittsburgh dance clubs, having found a copy of it in a used record bin. Soon after, a Pittsburgh area bootlegger made a copy of the song and began pressing copies of it, speeding it up slightly in the process. Sales of the bootleg were estimated at 80,000 in ten days. It became number one on Pittsburgh radio stations in early 1966. Douglas was the first to hear about the record's sudden popularity in Pittsburgh; his Snap Records labels always included his name and location. Further calls from Pittsburgh convinced James to come to Pennsylvania, where he met with Mack and Chuck Rubin, who handled the talent bookings for Mack's dance clubs. Before long, all three major music trade papers, Billboard, Cashbox and Record World, were listing "Hanky Panky" as a regional breakout hit. Rubin, who had music industry connections, said it was a good time for the trio to travel to New York in search of a record deal.
The men made the rounds of the major recording labels, getting initial potential offers from most companies they visited. One label, Roulette Records, gave no initial response because its head, Morris Levy, was out of town until evening; Roulette was one of the last stops on their visit. By the next morning, Mack, Rubin and James were now receiving polite refusals from the major record companies after the enthusiasm for the record the day before. James said, "We didn't know what in the world was going on, and finally Jerry Wexler over at Atlantic leveled with us and said, 'Look, Morris Levy and Roulette called up all the other record companies and said, "This is my freakin' record." (laughs) and scared 'em all away – even the big corporate labels.'" Their only option would be to sign with Roulette.
Since the band had broken up two years before, the only Shondell left was James himself. Mack made his dance club bands available to James, but nothing seemed to fit until one of the bands' guitarists took James to the Thunderbird Lounge outside Pittsburgh. The lounge's house band was a five man group called the Raconteurs. James sang with the band at the lounge, and this time the chemistry was right. The Raconteurs became the new Shondells, and Jackson acquired the professional name of Tommy James. By the third week of July 1966, "Hanky Panky" had become the top single in the nation.
Read more about this topic: Tommy James
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