Tommy James recalls, “One night I was playing for 20 drunks in a bar in Michigan, and the next night I’m playing for 10,000 screaming fans in Pittsburgh. It was literally overnight. It was very unexpected, one of those winning-the-lottery type stories.”
Tommy James & the Shondells formed in 1959 as Tom and the Tornadoes, with the then 12-year-old Tommy as lead singer. In 1963 he renamed his band The Shondells, after his favorite guitarist Troy Shondell.
Meanwhile, world-class hit songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich were recording a group called The Raindrops and realized they had forgotten to write a B-side for the single “That Boy John.” They sat down in the studio and within 20 minutes came up with “Hanky Panky.” It was released as a B-Side to an unsuccessful record and consigned to obscurity, except….
Sixties garage rock bands throughout the country discovered the song. It had a hot beat, was easy to understand, and (best of all) had only a few chords. And one night Tommy James heard it played in an Indiana club. He decided to record it with The Shondells. James recalls “I really only remembered a few lines from the song, so when we went to record it, I had to make up the rest of the song.” So the record was made and, lacking distribution, was consigned to obscurity, except…
In 1965 Pittsburgh disc jockey “Mad Mike” discovered the record in a pile of old singles and began playing it on the radio. The switchboard lit up, and “Hanky Panky” was a smash hit in Pittsburgh. James decided to re-release the song and traveled to Pittsburgh where he hired a local band, The Raconteurs, to be the new Shondells.
After appearances on TV and in clubs in the city, James took a master of “Hanky Panky” to New York, where he sold it to Roulette Records. “The amazing thing is we did not re-record the song,” recalls James, “I don’t think anybody can record a song that bad and make it sound good. It had to sound amateurish like that.” It was released and quickly went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in July 1966.
Tommy James has written a book called Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells in which he describes various types of record business “hanky panky.”