Tommy James Biography
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Tommy James' road to superstardom began when a nightclub DJ in Pittsburgh discovered a two-year-old record by "The Shondells" and played it at his weekend dances. The crowd response was so overwhelmingly positive that radio deejays started spinning it and an enterprising record distributor bootlegged it, selling 80,000 copies in ten days. By May of 1966 "Hanky Panky" was the number one record in Pittsburgh and Tommy James was a sensation.
A Pittsburgh promoter tracked Tommy down at his home in Niles, Michigan and urged him to "come on down!" Unable to put the original group back together, Tommy hired a hot P-burgh R&B bar band to replace them. Two weeks later he signed a record deal with Roulette Records. The label, in turn, put their promotion team to work on "Hanky Panky" and made it the summer smash of '66. Thus began one of the longest strings of nonstop hits in recording industry history!
Tommy James promptly followed "Hanky Panky" with two more million selling singles - "Say I Am (What I Am)" and "It's Only Love" - and the Hanky Panky album, which went gold just four weeks after its release.
With three hits under his belt, Tommy brought in producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell, and the three produced seven back-to-back smash singles: "I Think We're Alone Now," "Mirage," "I Like The Way," "Gettin' Together," "Out Of The Blue," "Get Out Now," and the party rock rave-up "Mony Mony." The Gentry/Cordell/James team also produced three platinum albums.
In 1968, Tommy became one of the first artists to experiment with music videos, creating a mini-film around "Mony Mony" for theatrical showings, thirteen years before MTV hit the airwaves.
After spending three months on the road that year with Vice President Hubert Humphrey — the first time that a rock artist had been asked to campaign for a presidential candidate — TJ took over the creative reins of his career by writing and producing the groundbreaking "Crimson and Clover" single and album. (Humphrey wrote the C&C album liner notes, another first.)
Released in early 1969, it went multi-platinum, and spawned two more monster hits: "Do Something To Me" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion." A fourth song from the LP, "Sugar On Sunday," rose high on the charts in a cover version by The Clique.
Tommy followed up the Crimson and Clover album with Cellophane Symphony, which featured the newly developed Moog Synthesizer and included yet another Top Ten single, "Sweet Cherry Wine."
Tommy James was on a roll! Not only did the total sales of his four 1969 hits top those of the Beatles that year, his second volume of greatest hits - The Best Of Tommy James and The Shondells (featuring "Ball of Fire") – also appeared and ultimately sold over 10 million copies.
Alone among his 1960s contemporaries, Tommy had successfully made the transition from a Top 40 pop singer to a respected classic rock album artist.
In 1970 he released the gritty rock 'n' roll Travelin' album (thought by many to be the band's best work) which contained the gold singles "She" and "Gotta Get Back To You,". Tommy then took a break.
Upon his return, Tommy wrote and produced the million selling single "Tighter, Tighter" for the group Alive And Kickin'. Over the next four years Tommy scored an additional 12 chart singles, among them "Come To Me," "Ball and Chain," "I'm Comin' Home," and "Draggin' The Line." During that time he also produced the albums Tommy James, Christian Of The World, and My Head, My Bed And My Red Guitar; the latter of which he recorded in Nashville with an all-star cast that featured ace guitarist Pete Drake and Elvis Presley sidemen, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana.
In 1974 Tommy left Roulette Records and released the In Touch and Midnight Rider albums for San Francisco-based Fantasy Records. Returning to the East coast in 1980, he signed with Millennium Records and racked up three more chart singles, including the million selling AC chart-topper "Three Times In Love." In the 1990s, Tommy formed Aura Records and scored three Top 5 AC hits from his Hold The Fire album.
Meanwhile Tommy's songs had become pop culture classics and were being covered by everyone from punk rockers to country icons. In 1987, Tiffany and Billy Idol's versions of "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Mony Mony" respectively battled for the top spot on the pop chart for a solid month, and each eventually went to #1. It was the first time in music history that two cover versions of songs by the same artist hit #1 back-to-back.
That was just the beginning. In the following years, artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Kelly Clarkson, Prince, Dolly Parton, Santana, R.E.M., Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Billy Idol, Tom Jones, The Killers and many others, recorded his songs and performed them live.
In 2006, Tommy marked the start of his fifth decade as a recording artist with the release of a fan-pleasing, career-spanning retrospective 40 Years: The Complete Singles Collection (1966-2006), which included all 48 of his singles. Next came his I Love Christmas album.
His autobiography – Me, The Mob and The Music – became a bestseller for Simon & Schuster, garnered rave reviews from critics and industry insiders, and was chosen by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 25 greatest rock 'n' roll memoirs of all time (#12).
This thrilling tale of Tommy's career and his tumultuous relationship with the "Godfather" of the music industry, Morris Levy, is on its way to becoming a major motion picture: a project helmed by producer Barbara De Fina, whose credits include Goodfellas, Casino, Cape Fear, Color of Money, The Grifters, The Age of Innocence, and Silence. With top Hollywood screenwriter Matthew Stone completing the screenplay, Tommy's story took a critical step forward in the always-lengthy film development process.
Today, Tommy's career is still in high gear. He signed an agreement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing to represent his self-published songs and the accompanying masters. This move means that all of Tommy's songs are now being pitched for film, television, advertising and other uses by the world's largest music publishing house.
Over the years, the response has been overwhelming with Tommy's music being featured in national ad campaigns for the likes of Nissan and Kohl's; and grabbing prominent placements in movie and television soundtracks, including 16 Cloverfield Lane, Moneyball, Pirate Radio, Austin Powers, We Are Marshall, The Italian Job, Cape Fear, Forrest Gump....and Crowded, Almost Human, The Goldbergs, Aquarius, Boston Legal, My Name Is Earl, Men of a Certain Age and Criminal Minds.
"Crystal Blue Persuasion" in particular scored big-time on the 2013 season finale of Breaking Bad and The Simpsons BB parody episode.
To date, Tommy has sold over a hundred million records sold worldwide, and has received five BMI "Million Air" awards in recognition of 22 million broadcast spins of his songs.
Today Tommy is still rockin', performing his many timeless hits to sellout crowds across the country, and celebrating his 50th year in the music business by recording a new album.
"We were the wrong act... with the wrong record... at the wrong time!
Where did we go right?" -TJ
As funny as that sounds, in many ways it's true, but the meteoric rise of Tommy James & the Shondells that summer of '66 was surely one of the greatest "Cinderella Stories" in rock history.
"I Think We're Alone Now" was the 4'th smash hit single in a row for Tommy James & The Shondells, and marked a major evolutionary step in both the sound and style of the group. It also began a long-term relationship between Tommy, producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell and musical arranger Jimmy Wisner.
It was June of '67, the "Summer Of Love" - exactly one year since Tommy James and The Shondells burst onto the music scene - and what a year it was!! Voted Billboard Magazine's "Top Male Artists of 1967," their record sales and Top 40 radio success exceeded all expectations.
CELLOPHANE SYMPHONY was unexpected and shocking to many TJ & S fans. It was a bold step forward for a group that had only recently crossed over from AM Top-40 to FM radio and, before the dust settled, became one of their most highly acclaimed works.
Tommy's first solo album titled simply "TOMMY JAMES", was released in the fall of 1970.
"It was a bit strange and a little scary making music without the Shondells... but it gave me a chance to experiment with a lot of new sounds and ideas". - TJ
CHRISTIAN OF THE WORLD was a total departure from anything Tommy had ever done before. While it's true, other 'mainstream' pop and country performers had, on occasion, recorded traditional Gospel music...no other rock artist had ever attempted anything as bold as an album of new 'Christian oriented' songs.
MY HEAD, MY BED & MY RED GUITAR, recorded in Nashville in the summer of 1971, was hailed as a masterpiece by Rolling Stone Magazine. This album was still another example of Tommy's willingness to put himself in new and unusual musical settings to see what would happen.
IN TOUCH was the first of two albums Tommy produced for the San Francisco based FANTASY RECORDS. Recorded in the autumn of 1975 at the Fantasy studios in Berkley, it represented not only a geographical change for Tommy, but also a chance to explore new musical territory.
MIDNIGHT RIDER was the second Tommy James album released by Fantasy Records. This time the setting and the sound was vintage, 70's LA and Tommy turned the entire production over to legendary songwriter/producer Jeff Barry.
"As much as I loved living and working in California, I found I really missed the energy and edge I got from being in New York." - TJ... And so in 1979, at the age of thirty-two, Tommy moved back to the East coast and signed a new deal with Millennium Records.
With the 1988 purchase of Roulette Records by Rhino and EMI and the release of the blockbuster Tommy James and the Shondells ANTHOLOGY album, it was only natural that the next TJ - Rhino package would be a collection of his solo works.
Because Tommy had continued a vigorous recording schedule throughout the eighties and stayed on top of the new digital technologies that were transforming the music industry, he was ready when longtime friend and record exec Ron Alexenberg asked him to do a new album for Aegis Records. The result was HI-FI: an artful mix of lush, synthesized orchestrations offset by hard driving guitars and percussion .... and of course, nine great new TJ songs.
The first AURA release was a "double CD box set" highlighting the best of Tommy's post-Roulette career. It was called TOMMY JAMES DISCOGRAPHY: DEALS & DEMOS '74 - '92, and was a collection of all his singles and best album cuts from the five labels he had worked with since leaving Roulette... MCA, Fantasy, Millennium, Polygram/21, and Aegis.
As the 1980's unfolded, Tommy's music went through a renaissance. Besides being a staple on classic rock and oldies stations, his songs began popping up everywhere... in films, on TV and cover recordings by other artists. Joan Jett had a smash hit with her remake of "Crimson & Clover" while Tiffany and Billy Idol had back-to-back number one records with "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Mony Mony" respectively... his catalog was getting hot.