Recording artist, songwriter, music producer
Born: April 29, 1947, in Dayton, Ohio
Lives in: Cedar Grove, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2016: Performing Arts
Tommy James formed his first band at the age of 12. More than six decades later, he’s still rocking.
Born Thomas Gregory Jackson, the future star bought his first guitar at age nine and graduated to an electric guitar the following year. According to “The Billboard Book of Number One Hits,” he and his musician pals formed a group called the Shondells while in seventh grade and recorded a single, the long-forgotten “Long Pony Tail.”
A local disc jockey in James’s new hometown of Niles, Michigan, became interested in the band and suggested they record more material. That’s when James stumbled upon “Hanky Panky,” a tune written by the famed songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. The band cut “Hanky Panky,” had a local hit and got back to their schoolwork.
Several years later, after James had graduated from high school, a Pittsburgh disc jockey unearthed “Hanky Panky” and suddenly James was in demand. He formed a new version of the Shondells, and, fueled by the buzz in Pittsburgh, landed a recording deal with Roulette Records in New York. Much to James’s amazement, Roulette released his original, amateurish version of “Hanky Panky” and in June 1966 it became a No. 1 nationwide hit.
“Hanky Panky” began a string of 10 consecutive top-40 hits for the Shondells, including “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which went to No. 4 in February 1967, and “Mony Mony,” a No. 3 hit in April 1968. The band’s sound was in harmony with the Beatles-era British pop that was dominating the U.S. charts at the time.
By 1969, however, music had moved into more sophisticated territory, and James and company knew it was time to update their sound. The result was the ethereal “Crimson and Clover,” written and produced by James with plenty of studio gimmickry. “Crimson and Clover” became the group’s second No. 1 hit in February 1969. The similarly dreamy “Crystal Blue Persuasion” went to No. 2 that June.
James went out on his own in 1970 and the following year enjoyed his biggest solo hit, “Draggin’ the Line,” which reached No. 4 on the pop chart. Despite this success, James, plagued by business and personal issues, took a break from music for much of the 1970s. In the 1980s, CD reissues the Shondells’ hits and hit covers of their best songs (including Billy Idol’s take on “Mony Mony” and Joan Jett’s cover of “Crimson and Clover”) spurred James to return to recording and touring.
Concerning those business issues, James’s 2010 autobiography, “Me, the Mob, and the Music,” is considered among the best musical memoirs.
These days, James continues to write, record and perform. In 2017, he told New Jersey Monthly, “All this juvenile rock ’n’ roll behavior has kept me young, and given me a chance to keep up my childishness. I’m not turning in my rock ’n’ roll card until I have to.”