The music of Tommy James is played continuously, everyday, in every country in the world, and has been for over a generation. His songs have become so ingrained in modern culture, it’s difficult to go for more than a couple of days without hearing one of them on the radio, TV, in films, or one of the 300-plus cover versions of his songs by other artists. To date, he has sold over 100 million records and has been awarded 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums.
He was born Thomas Jackson on April 29, 1947 in Dayton, Ohio. His family finally settled in Niles, Michigan, which he still regards as his hometown. His first stage appearance was as a child model at age four.
In 1959, at the age of twelve, he formed his first rock band, “The Tornadoes”, and began playing local gigs around the area, developing a sizeable following.
In 1964 a local DJ asked Tommy and the group to sign with his new regional label, Snap Records. One of the four sides they recorded was an obscure song written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich called “Hanky Panky”. The group changed their name to The Shondells and released it as a single. It was an instant local hit but didn’t break nationally and was soon forgotten.
Amazingly, two years later, the record was found in an obscure record bin by a Pittsburgh nightclub DJ who played it at his weekend dances. The response was so overwhelming that the local radio stations began to play it and the local record distributor began to bootleg copies of the song. In ten days, sales had reached 80,000 so that by May of 1966, “Hanky Panky” was the Number One record in Pittsburgh and Tommy James was a sensation. Tommy was tracked down and asked to come to Pittsburgh. Unable to put the original group back together, Tommy went alone and hired the first local band he could find to be The Shondells. Two weeks later the new group signed a record deal with Roulette Records in New York and “Hanky Panky” became the biggest hit of the summer of 1966. Thus began one of the longest strings of non-stop hits in recording industry history.
“Hanky Panky” was quickly followed up by two more million selling singles – “Say I Am” and “It’s Only Love” with the Hanky Panky album going gold a mere four weeks after its release in July 1966.
Over the next two years, Tommy added producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell, who produced seven more back-to-back gold singles including “I Think We’re Alone Now”, “Mirage”, “I Like the Way”, “Getting’ Together”, “Out of the Blue”, “Get Out Now”, and the party Rock icon, “Mony Mony”.
The Gentry/Cordell/James team also produced three platinum albums – I Think We’re Alone Now, Something Special and Mony Mony.
Tommy James and The Shondells were also one of the first acts to experiment with Music Videos of their hits, starting with “Mony Mony” in 1968, thirteen years before MTV.
By the end of 1968, after three months on the road with Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s Presidential campaign, TJ and company began writing and producing their own records. Their first project, released in early 1969, was the unforgettable Crimson and Clover album which, in addition to going multi-platinum, spawned three more monster hits for the group – “Do Something to Me”, “Crimson and Clover”, and “Crystal Blue Persuasion”. A fourth song on the LP, “Sugar on Sunday”, was recorded by The Clique and also went Top Ten.
The Crimson and Clover album was followed by the Cellophane Symphony album, which featured the newly developed Moog Synthesizer, as well as another smash hit, “Sweet Cherry Wine”. Their second volume of greatest hits titled The Best of Tommy James and The Shondells was released that same year and featured the smash hit “Ball of Fire”. The LP has sold over ten million copies.
In 1970 the group released another million selling LP, Travelin’, an innovative theme album viewed by many as their best work. It contained two gold singles – “She” and “Gotta Get Back to You”.However, Travelin’ would be the last album Tommy would make with The Shondells. After four hectic years, both Tommy and the band decided they needed some time off.
With the breakup of The Shondells, Tommy continued with a solo career beginning with the writing and producing of the million selling single “Tighter, Tighter” for the group Alive ‘N Kickin’. Over the next four years Tommy scored an additional twelve chart singles including “Come to Me”, “Ball and Chain”, “I’m Comin’ Home” and “Draggin’ the Line”. Tommy also produced three top 40 albums during that time: Tommy James, Christian of the World and My Head, My Bed and My Red Guitar (recorded in Nashville with an all-star cast featuring Pete Drake and Elvis side-men, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana).
In 1974 Tommy left Roulette Records and over the next three years, recorded two albums, In Touch and Midnight Rider, for San Francisco based Fantasy Records.
Returning to the east coast in 1980, Tommy signed with Millennium Records scoring three more chart singles including the million selling “Three Times in Love”.
By the mid-‘80s, Tommy’s songs, now considered classics, were being covered all over the world by everyone from punk rockers like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts to symphony orchestras like The Boston Pops. At one point in 1987, Tiffany and Billy Idol, with their versions of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Mony Mony”, fought it out for the top spot on the charts for a solid month, each eventually going Number One. It was the first time in music history that two cover versions of songs by the same artist went Number One back-to-back.
In the ‘90s Tommy’s music has been played on countless movie soundtracks including: Forrest Gump, the Oliver Stone movie Heaven and Earth, Cape Fear, Pontiac Moon, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Off and Running, Vice Versa and in 1999 REM’s cover of “Draggin’ the Line” was one of the high points in the summer blockbuster Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me while the film “A Walk on The Moon” featured Cher singing “Crimson and Clover” and Morcheeba doing “Crystal Blue Persuasion”. Most recently, three major Hollywood movies have used Tommy’s songs: “Draggin’ the Line” (We Are Marshall) and “Crystal Blue Persuasion (Zodiac and The Nanny Diaries).
In the 21st century, Tommy is busier than ever performing to sell out crowds across the country, as well as working on a myriad of new projects. He has recently signed with Sony BMG for the release of both his Live at the Bitter End CD and DVD. He has recently formed his own record company, Aura Records, to promote both his classic and new material and scored three Top Five AC hits from his studio album, Hold the Fire. He is also working on his autobiography, Crimson & Clover.
In 2008, Tommy’s long awaited Christmas album, I Love Christmas, will be released. The title track is already on thousands of radio Christmas playlists and a new single from the album, “It’s Christmas Again”, featuring the original Shondells - Mike Vale, Eddie Gray, and Ronnie Rossman - will be released to radio this Christmas season. Also in production is a 40-year retrospective CD package, which is certain to become the crown jewel in any Tommy James collection.
Tommy James has left an indelible mark on his industry and his generation with credits and longevity as an artist, songwriter, and performer that few have equaled. With the ever increasing popularity of his music, there seems to be no end in sight.