PLEDGE WEEK: “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
PLEDGE WEEK: "Hanky Panky" by Tommy James and the Shondells

This episode is part of Pledge Week 2022. Every day this week, I’ll be posting old Patreon bonus episodes of the podcast which will have this short intro. These are short, ten- to twenty-minute bonus podcasts which get posted to Patreon for my paying backers every time I post a new main episode — there are well over a hundred of these in the archive now. If you like the sound of these episodes, then go to and subscribe for as little as a dollar a month or ten dollars a year to get access to all those bonus episodes, plus new ones as they appear.

Click below for the transcript


In today’s main episode we look at the career of Bobby Fuller, who many have speculated died because of in some way upsetting the Mafia. So in this bonus episode we’re going to look at someone who had a much longer, more successful, career, and did so because he managed *not* to upset the Mafia. We’re going to look at the involvement of Morris Levy in the birth of bubblegum, and at “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells:

[Excerpt: Tommy James and the Shondells, “Hanky Panky”]

The original lineup of the Shondells started out when Tommy James was only twelve years old, and still going by his birth name Tommy Jackson. They performed for three years under various names before, in 1962, recording their first single, “Long Pony Tail”, under the name Tom and the Tornadoes:

[Excerpt: Tom and the Tornadoes, “Long Pony Tail”]

That was actually a cover version of a song originally recorded by the Fireballs, a group that Norman Petty had produced a couple of minor hits for at that point, and who would go on to have a number one with “Sugar Shack”, but who are now best known for being the group that Petty got to overdub new instrumental backing on Buddy Holly’s acoustic demos so he could keep releasing posthumous hits.

“Long Pony Tail” was not a hit, and soon the group had changed their name to the Shondells, inspired by the local one-hit wonder Troy Shondell, who had had a hit with “This Time”:

[Excerpt: Troy Shondell, “This Time”]

The group continued making records on tiny labels with no promotional budget for several years, until they recorded a song called “Hanky Panky”. That song had been written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and released as a B-side by Barry and Greenwich’s studio group The Raindrops:

[Excerpt: The Raindrops, “Hanky Panky”]

That record had never been a hit, supposedly because the song to which it was a B-side, “That Boy John”, made people think of John F Kennedy, who was killed shortly after the record’s release.

But a copy had been picked up by a musician in Michigan, who had added the song to his group’s live set, and it had become popular. Another local group, the Spinners — not the vocal group from Detroit, or the British folk group, but another group of the same name — saw the reaction that band had from the song, and added it to their own sets. They hadn’t got a copy of the record themselves, so they didn’t know all the words, so they just made new ones up, other than “My baby does the hanky-panky”.

When Tommy James saw the reaction the Spinners had, he felt he had to grasp an opportunity. Back in 1960, Joe Jones had recorded “California Sun”, a song written by Henry Glover, on Roulette Records:

[Excerpt: Joe Jones, “California Sun”]

Another group on the same local scene as the Shondells, the Princeton Five, had been playing that song in their sets — and then a third local group, the Playmates, renamed themselves the Rivieras, ripped off the Princeton Five’s arrangement of the song before the Princeton Five could record it, and made the national top ten with it:

[Excerpt: The Rivieras, “California Sun”]

The lesson was clear — if a local band starts doing well with a song, it’s winner-takes-all and whoever gets into the studio first gets the hit. So the Shondells went into the studio and quickly cut their version, based on what they could remember of what the Spinners could remember of someone else’s live versions of “Hanky Panky”, making up new words where they didn’t know the real ones. It was released on a tiny local label called Snap:

[Excerpt: Tommy James and the Shondells, “Hanky Panky”]

The record was a very minor local hit, but didn’t get any airplay in major markets, and the Shondells split up, and James joined a new group, the Koachmen.

The Koachmen toured for a while, playing dead-end gigs and scraping a living for many months, with constant lineup changes, until eventually also calling it quits. It was then that James got the shocking news that “Hanky Panky” was now number one in Pittsburgh. Somehow a local dance promoter had found the record and started playing it at club nights. It had gone down shockingly well, so a Pittsburgh company just started pressing up more copies from the single, and it sold eighty thousand copies in ten days. The company pressing the record got in touch with the owner of Snap Records, who told Tommy that he needed to put together a new Shondells quickly.

As it turned out, there was another band in the area who were called the Shandells (according to James’ autobiography — other sources say they were called the Raconteurs). James became their lead singer and changed the group’s name to the Shondells,

James went to New York to try to get the newly-successful record national distribution, and to get his new Shondells signed. There was the start of a bidding war, with Red Bird, Atlantic, RCA and others all interested… until Morris Levy of Roulette Records phoned the owners of all the other labels and told them “This is my record”.

James was quickly persuaded that it wasn’t a good idea to refuse offers made by someone with Levy’s mob connections, and Tommy James and the Shondells signed to Roulette Records. “Hanky Panky” was reissued and went to number one.

The group had a series of hits from 1966 through 1967, including “I Think We’re Alone Now”, written for the group by their producer Ritchie Cordell:

[Excerpt: Tommy James and the Shondells, “I Think We’re Alone Now”]

And “Mony Mony”, a group effort written by several people including Cordell and James, inspired by a large flashing neon sign advertising Mutual of New York:

[Excerpt: Tommy James and the Shondells, “Mony Mony”]

These early hits helped define bubblegum music, and were massively successful. Levy took a fatherly interest in James, and while he refused ever to pay the royalty rates in James’ contract — James estimates he is owed thirty to forty million dollars in unpaid royalties — he did make sure that James got what Levy thought was a fair amount, and the two had a good relationship, though James resented much of Levy’s attitude towards his music, and had very real qualms about working for a mobster. James particularly disliked the pressure he was under to produce hit singles rather than grow as an artist.

James was, though, allowed to change styles as the times changed, and moved into psychedelic rock, co-writing and recording the number one hit “Crimson and Clover” with the group’s drummer:

[Excerpt: Tommy James and the Shondells, “Crimson and Clover”]

And “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, inspired by the Book of Revelation, with two other band members, which went to number two:

[Excerpt: Tommy James and the Shondells, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”]

In 1970, James went solo, having another major hit with “Draggin’ the Line”:

[Excerpt: Tommy James, “Draggin’ the Line”]

He also co-wrote and produced the big hit “Tighter Tighter” for Alive N Kickin’:

[Excerpt: Alive N Kickin’, “Tighter Tighter”]

But two changes in the early seventies saw James lose his commercial momentum. The first was that he started more explicitly writing about his Christian faith, including titling a solo album “Christian of the World”. The other, more serious, problem was that a mob war started in New York, with one of the families opposed to Levy’s targeting Levy’s friends. Levy made James get out of New York and move to Nashville to keep safe, and James moved into country music while he was there, but was unsuccessful in his new genre.

James eventually escaped from Levy, as Levy’s control over his music industry holdings slipped with his loss of dominance in the mob, but James never returned to commercial success, though his old hits continued to have influence on the next generation of bubblegum pop — in 1987, Tiffany’s cover version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” was knocked off number one by Billy Idol’s version of “Mony Mony”.

He currently tours as a nostalgia act, and finally receives royalties from his hits. He’s often somewhat dismissed as a minor act, but James, with and without the Shondells, had a hugely impressive run of hit singles, and his catalogue is probably due reevaluation.

One thought on “PLEDGE WEEK: “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells

  1. Trudi

    Tommy and the Shondells did have another pretty decent chart hit with “Three Times in Love” in 1980, but that is the most recent success the group had.

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