‘Hanky Panky’ Started It All for Tommy James and the Shondells

Singer Tommy James Remembers 'Hanky Panky'
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

It’s been almost 50 years since Tommy James and the Shondells rocketed to fame with “Hanky Panky,” the first of a string of million-sellers that includes “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Mony Mony” and many others, with their first notice in Variety coming in “Hanky Panky’s” first week on the charts. James’ colorful career was recounted in his raucous 2011 autobiography, “Me, the Mob and the Music.” With that title, it’s no surprise to hear it’s being developed for the screen by producer Barbara De Fina, whose credits include “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

Your first record went straight to No. 1 in 1966. What was that like?

It’s one of the most disorienting things that could ever happen to you. You have no idea how it actually happened. I was 19 years old and I had been working in a record store in Niles, Mich. Suddenly I was at the top of the charts, and below me were all the acts whose records I had been selling at the Spin-It Record Shop in Niles: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, the Animals. It was like being in the eye of a hurricane.

That sounds great, but also scary.

You have fear that you won’t be able to do it again. So you’re expecting some grown-up to walk you through it. But they were all asking me, “Hey, kid, what’s next?” And I said, “I’m working on a few things.” The truth was I had no idea.

“Hanky Panky” had already come out as an obscure B side for another artist, right?

And when we debuted at No. 81 on the charts, the writer, Jeff Barry, who co-wrote it with Ellie Greenwich, went to Morris Levy, the head of our label, Roulette, and said, “You might want to take my name off this thing.” He was embarrassed by the song. Within a couple of weeks, we were heading straight to No. 1, and he went back and said, “I think you can leave my name on it.”

Morris Levy is quite a character in your book.

Without him, we’re not here talking. If we were on any of the big labels, we would have had one hit and gotten lost in all the other big acts, but we were the only act on Roulette, and I had the keys to the candy store.

So the summer of 1966 was a busy time.

We were playing bowling alleys and dives with a No. 1 record. It wasn’t till after the second record that the gigs start to catch up. Suddenly we’re putting out albums and doing national TV shows like Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is.” My manager, Carol Ross, was an “Action” dancer, so she remembers what it was like. That summer was the most grueling time of my life, but also the most fun I ever had.

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