How Hanky Panky in Pittsburgh Put Tommy James on the Map

On April 7, 1969, I produced a show at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena headlined by Tommy James and The Shondells. The concert was one of many “Shower of Stars” shows sponsored by KQV Radio back in the day. Others acts on the bill included Tommy Roe (who had recently released his #1 Billboard hit “Dizzy”), The 1910 Fruitgum Company (“Simon Says”), and various other pop groups, including Pittsburgh’s own Jaggerz.

tommy-james-4-7-69Between 1966 and 1970 Tommy James and The Shondells released two #1 Billboard singles – “Hanky Panky” and “Crimson and Clover” – and charted twelve other Top 40 hits, including five in the Hot 100’s top ten: “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage,” “Mony Mony,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” My good friend, Shondells group member Mike Vale, wrote many of these songs with Tommy.

In 1964 Michigan-based Tommy and an early lineup of The Shondells released a single called “Hanky Panky.” The song, penned by the team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, had originally been recorded as the B side of a record released by The Raindrops. Tommy’s version received some airplay in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, but failed to chart nationally, prompting the band to break up.

In 1966 Pittsburgh record producer and promoter Nick Cenci began getting calls at his Fenway Record Distributing Company from area record stores requesting copies of a single called “Hanky Panky.” Nick was famous at the time for having produced Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes” and “Two Faces Have I,” and The Vogues’ “Five O’clock World” and “You’re The One,” among many others.

Nick couldn’t contact the now-defunct record company called Snap that originally released the single, so he started pressing his own copies — 80,000 in all — and Pennsylvania stores began stocking the record. Nick eventually contacted Tommy and notified him of the song’s popularity in the Pittsburgh region. The singer couldn’t believe it! The next thing you know, he was on his way to Pittsburgh to perform the song.

At this time I had a theatrical agency named University Attractions. I represented many Pittsburgh bands as a manager and agent, and booked national acts at all the Pittsburgh area performing venues. Tom Hartman, who owned the Red Rooster club in Latrobe, PA, wanted me to book Tommy and the Shondells when they came to town. But there was a problem: the members of the original Shondells had moved on, and Tommy had no band!  Now, it just so happened that a year earlier Tom Hartman had recommended a group to me  — The Raconteurs — and I ended up being their manager and agent. This Latrobe-based band was playing at the Thunderbird Lounge in Greensburg at the time that Tommy hit town. Their members included Joe Kessler on guitar, Ron Rosman on keyboards, George Magura on sax, Mike Vale on bass, and Vinnie Pietropaoli on drums. I arranged for The Raconteurs to appear as The Shondells that weekend for Tommy when he played the Red Rooster. He liked them so much that he wanted to recruit them as his permanent band.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 1.05.15 AMOn the Monday morning following their very exciting gig, the Raconteurs came into my office to get paid, as usual. I could sense they were nervous. With some amount of trepidation, Mike Vale informed me of Tommy’s desire to keep them on full-time. But if they accepted his offer, they’d have to break their contract with me, and I could see how bad they felt about ending our professional relationship. I reached into my file cabinet, pulled out their contract, and tore it up so that they were free to become The Shondells. I asked which label they were going to sign with. They replied, “Roulette.” I gave them my opinion of Roulette’s owner Morris Levy, and begged them not to sign with him.  But like most new groups with a chance at stardom, they didn’t care about anything at that time except the perceived fame, fortune and excitement of being on the road with a hit record.

My warning went unheeded. Six months later they came into my office, placed a copy of their royalty statement on my desk, and asked my opinion. They had sold over a million copies of “Hanky Panky,” their debut LP sold extremely well, and their follow-up record was quickly moving up the charts. And despite all this, Morris Levy’s royalty statement showed that The Shondells owed Roulette $600. Mike Vale asked me what they should do about it. I said, “Absolutely nothing. I told you guys that Morris was reputed to have been in the Mafia and that you could never disagree with him if you valued all the parts of your body.” That’s the way it was with Levy. Everyone in the record business knew of his reputation. Everyone, that is, except Tommy James and The Shondells. I don’t know if those guys ever got paid any royalties for all the millions and millions of records they sold. And believe me, they were huge at the time.

In 2011 Tommy wrote a very interesting book about his ordeals in the music business. It’s called “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells.” In the book Tommy tells of his complicated and often terrifying relationship with Roulette Records and Levy and their strong-arm tactics. Tommy was caught up in the middle of it all, and managed to live to tell about it! It’s an interesting book and I recommend it. You can order it from Amazon via this link.

And speaking of music business memoirs, you can order my book “Hard Days Hard Nights” from Amazon by clicking here.

Remember: Tickets are now on sale for my September 19 “Relive the Beatles ’64” show. It features the band Beatlemania Now and other great tribute artists portraying the performers who influenced the Fab Four. Click here to order them online from the Palace Theatre.

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