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A Legend in Rock: Tommy James

At the age of 22 in 1969, Tommy James had a string of 14 TOP 40 hits and was riding high. By 1972 at the age of 25, he was washed up.

What happened to one of the 1960’s most prolific rockers?

In the first place, Tommy James (born Thomas Jackson) hit recording pay dirt almost by accident.

Tommy and his first band, the Shondells, were a local sensation in the Niles, Michigan area. They recorded a Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich tune called “Hanky Panky” for a small label owned by Niles DJ Jack Douglas. The record got some local airplay and promptly sank from sight. The Shondells, like most young bands in the mid-sixties, broke up and went their separate ways.

In the meantime, a Pittsburgh dance promoter named Bob Mack found a copy of “Hank Panky” in a used record bin at a store and started playing it at dances and sock hops in the Pittsburgh area. The song caught on with the Pittsburgh kids and a local record bootlegger started pressing copies on his own. When he sold 80,000 copies in the space of a few weeks, the major labels took notice.

Tommy James along with Douglas, Mack and Mack’ partner Chuck Rubin traveled to New York. At first, all the major labels seemed interested. Then, they suddenly backed away. It appears that the head of Roulette Records, Morris Levy, had actually threatened the other labels. Roulette was rumored to be a front for the mob and nobody wanted to mess with Levy. So Tommy James signed with the label.

After recruiting a Pennsylvania band, the Raconteurs, as the new Shondells, Tommy James cranked out an impressive string of hits over the next 4 years:

  • Say I Am
  • It’s Only Love
  • I Think We’re Alone Now
  • Mirage
  • I Like the Way
  • Getting’ Together
  • Mony Mony (James claims the name comes from a Mutual of New York MONY sign he saw when he was recording the song)
  • Do Something to Me
  • Crimson and Clover
  • Sweet Cherry Wine
  • Crystal Blue Persuasion
  • Ball of Fire
  • She

By 1969, James could clearly see that the focus of the music business was shifting from pop singles to longer, more complex albums.

Unfortunately, James tried hard but could never make the transition. He turned down an invitation to play at Woodstock, failing to understand how significant that concert would be. The Shondells broke up.

After two minor hits as a solo artist (“Draggin’ the Line” and “Three Ties in Love”) and one as co-writer and producer (“Tighter & Tighter” for Alive ‘n’ Kickin’), experiencing some drug problems, and tired of the pressures of the music scene, he left Roulette Records in 1974.

James spent some time recording in Nashville and made an album in 2008 with the surviving members of the Shondells.

James racked up 23 gold singles, 9 gold and platinum albums. His early hits have been covered by over 300 other musicians.

His autobiography Me, the Mob and the Music, was published in 2010. In it, James claims that Roulette still owes him $30 to $40 million in royalties that were never paid. He also details how strong a hold organized crime had on the music business during that time.

James currently lives in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

You can find his official website at TommyJames.com.

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