The education and seduction of a rock â€˜nâ€™ roll hit maker
Tommy James came of age just as pop was giving way to rock â€˜nâ€™ roll. Elvis Presleyâ€™s performance on Ed Sullivan provided the initial epiphany, and five-days-a-week of American Bandstand, a job in a record store, junior high school talent shows and a prototypical garage band steeped him in both music and the music business. The early pages of this autobiography provide a great sense of what it was like to be in a rock â€˜nâ€™ roll band in the summer of 1963, from the joy of making music to the grind of trying to make a living. But once â€œHanky Pankyâ€ caught fire in 1966, James was introduced to most of his fans as a fully-formed star; here you get to read about the dues he paid.
Jamesâ€™ rise to fame has been told before, but the details of his first singleâ€™s belated success â€“ its initial failure, fluke resurrection in Pittsburgh, and canny national reissue on Roulette â€“ is a great story. Itâ€™s also the lead-in to the bookâ€™s main thread: the difficult, father-son-like relationship between James and Roulette founder Morris Levy. In contrast to his co-dependency with Levy, his relationships with wives, children and band members werenâ€™t nearly so sticky. Jamesâ€™ first wife and their son are ghosts in the narrative, nearly abandoned in his move to New York and divorced as he takes up with the Roulette Record secretary who eventually became his second wife. His second wife eventually meets a similar fate as he cheats on her and eventually moves on.
He forms and dispatches several iterations of the Shondells, with little expressed emotion. He fires half the band after they fight for monies owed in the wake of â€œI Think Weâ€™re Alone Now,â€ and is complicit in helping Levy cheat songwriters Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry by demanding songs they were pitching to artists whose labels would actually pay royalties. As with the affairs presaging his divorces, these episodes seem to be evidence of a self-centeredness learned from Levy rather than explicitly cruel behavior. But thereâ€™s surprisingly little remorse offered here, and what there is â€“ five sentences when his first wife reappears for a divorce â€“ doesnâ€™t measure up to the affronts. Perhaps James wasnâ€™t ready to share his innermost thoughts and personal feelings in an autobiography.
His telling of stories from the music side of his life is a great deal more compelling. Threaded throughout â€“ and really, most successful musiciansâ€™ careers â€“ is a surprising amount of luck; for James this includes the revival of â€œHanky Pankyâ€ in Pittsburgh, the discovery of songs for two follow-up singles, a chance meeting with songwriter Ritchie Cordell, the creation of â€œMirage,â€ and the incidental knowledge of arranger Jimmy Wisner. What you realize is that James put in the work from a very young age, studied and rehearsed, and put himself in a position to make these opportunities pay off. The crossing of paths may have been serendipitous, but the knowledge and ability to execute was hard-earned. The writing is more anecdotal than nuts and bolts accountings of music making, but you get a good feel for how James navigated changes in the industry to maintain a hit-making career across two decades.
Tommy Jamesâ€™ third solo LP offers Nashville-bred country-soul
After charting fourteen Top 40 hits with the Shondells, Tommy James began a solo career on the heels of a temporary group hiatus that turned permanent. His second solo release, Christian of the World, yielded two big hits (â€œDragginâ€™ the Lineâ€ and â€œIâ€™m Cominâ€™ Homeâ€), but this third solo effort â€“ recorded in Nashville, produced by Elvisâ€™ guitarist Scotty Moore, and featuring the talents of Music Cityâ€™s finest studio players â€“ didnâ€™t catch on with either pop or country radio. And thatâ€™s a shame, because it may be Jamesâ€™ most fully realized album. With a band that included Moore and Ray Edenton on guitar, Pete Drake on steel, Pig Robbins on keyboards, Charlie McCoy on harmonica and DJ Fontana and Buddy Harmon on drums, James cut a dozen originals, mostly co-written with co-producer Bob King, and a cover of Linda Hargroveâ€™s â€œRosaleeâ€ that features some fine fiddle playing by Buddy Spicher.
There are numerous country touches in the instruments and arrangements, but also the sort of country-soul B.J. Thomas, Joe South and Elvis recorded in the late â€˜60s and early â€˜70s. James didnâ€™t re-fashion himself a nasally country singer, instead finding the soulful style heâ€™d developed on the Shondellsâ€™ Travelinâ€™ fit perfectly with the textures created by the studio players and the gospel-styled backing vocals of the Nashville Edition. Jamesâ€™ voice is easily recognized as the one that graced the Shondellsâ€™ hits, but it sounds just as at home in this twangier setting. The productions are remarkably undated (except, perhaps, Pete Drakeâ€™s talking guitar on â€œPaper Flowersâ€), and though not up to Nashvilleâ€™s current classic rock volume, they still feel surprisingly contemporary.
James and King wrote songs of faith, romance, lost-love and lovable scoundrels, but in the pop idiom rather than the country, so while their topics fit Nashville norms, the words didnâ€™t ring of 17th Avenue. In Jamesâ€™ hands, even the Nashville-penned â€œRosaleeâ€ sounds more like Memphis or Muscle Shoals than Music City. The religious and spiritual themes of Christian of the World are revisited in songs contemplating the hereafter, the call to community, and the sunny warmth and peaceful satisfaction of belief. Unlike the preceding album, however, none of these songs managed to grab the ear of radio programmers or singles buyers. Perhaps no one was ready for James to fully graduate from his career with the Shondells, but in retrospect, divorced from the pop and bubblegum hits that led him to 1971, one can readily hear the new level of artistry he achieved.
Pop bandâ€™s swansong muscles up heavy rock and soul
By the time of this albumâ€™s 1970 release, Tommy James and the Shondells had morphed from the garage/frat-rock of â€œHanky Pankyâ€ to the bubblegum of â€œI Think Weâ€™re Alone Nowâ€ to the pop psych of â€œCrimson and Cloverâ€ to the gospel-soul of â€œSweet Cherry Wine.â€ For this last album as a group â€“ James would fly solo with a self-titled album later in the year â€“ they reduced the psychedelic quotient from Crimson & Clover and experimental flights of Cellophane Symphony and muscled up some heavy rock â€˜nâ€™ soul. The album is surprisingly funky and progressive, especially when compared to what the band had been recording just a few years earlier.
Opening with the near-instrumental title tune, the sound is funky progressive rock, complete with a lengthy syncopated organ-and-drums breakdown and even a short drum solo. The heavy sounds continue with James effectively refashioning himself into a soul shouter and blues crooner. Mike Vale propels the albumâ€™s second single â€œGotta Get Back to Youâ€ with his bass line, and arranger Jimmy â€œWizâ€ Wisner deploys a backing chorus to terrific effect. The bandâ€™s mid-60s garage-rock roots turn up in the â€œLittle Black Eggâ€ riff of â€œMoses & Me,â€ but topped with a processed vocal thatâ€™s very end-of-the-decade, and the bluesy â€œBloody Waterâ€ borrows the guitar hook of â€œTobacco Roadâ€ and roughs it up nicely.
The albumâ€™s pre-release hit, â€œShe,â€ is also the tune that fits least with the albumâ€™s heavy vibe. Co-written with Richie Cordell and bubblegum kings Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, the lush ballad is a throwback to the Shondellsâ€™ earlier work. James and Bob Kingâ€™s originals were significantly more grown-up and gritty than the pop songs the group recorded a couple of years earlier, and suggested the expanded horizons James would explore in his solo career. Traces of the groupâ€™s earlier studio experiments are still to be heard here, but with the psychedelic fog lifting, the focus is more firmly on song craft. Casual listeners may want to start with the hit anthologies Anthology or The Definitive Pop Collection, but fans will want to hear the distance the group traveled to this final collaborative album.
Capitalizing on the success of the previous yearâ€™s pop-oriented I Think Weâ€™re Alone Now, Tommy James and the Shondells paired again with producers Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell to cut their second album of 1967. The album cover depicts the group in a field of blossoms, but thatâ€™s as close to flower-power that the Shondells came on this album. There are production touches of the era, including the tight segue between the first two tracks, the feedback, fades and false endings of â€œHappy Day,â€ and the audio markers closing â€œSide 1â€ and opening â€œSide 2,â€ but the melodies and lyrics remain teen-pop. The seeds planted here would fully bloom the following year on 1968â€™s Crimson & Clover.
For now, the band polished the transition from garage and frat rock to production-oriented pop theyâ€™d begun earlier in the year. James finds more space to unleash the power of his vocals, the bandâ€™s harmonies fit together more tightly, and arranger Jimmy â€œWizâ€ Wisnerâ€™s touches add decoration without distracting from the chewy pop-rock center. The title hit opens with a riff copped from the Spencer Davis Groupâ€™s â€œGimme Some Lovinâ€™,â€ but lightened to the tone of a 1910 Fruitgum Company production. James and Shondellsâ€™ bassist Mike Vale contribute four originals, including the galloping rocker â€œLoveâ€™s Closinâ€™ in On Meâ€ and the frenzied â€œYou Better Watch Out.â€
Though many of the tracks verge on bubblegum, as Ed Osborneâ€™s liner notes point out, the albumâ€™s ballads reach to the more sophisticated vocal arrangements and considered tempos of what would become known as West Coast Sunshine Pop. Like their previous album, these sessions were recorded on a 4-track at Allegro Sound, and though most of the instruments are still panned hard left-and-right, the sound is smoother, the band sounds more settled into their surroundings, and the album more cohesive. For many listeners the hit collections Anthology or The Definitive Pop Collection are better places to start, but fans interested in getting past the hits will enjoy finding that the groupâ€™s albums are fleshed out with more than the typical singles-band filler.
Tommy James and The Shondells kicked around their Michigan stomping grounds for several years before finding regional success in 1963 with a cover of Barry & Greenwichâ€™s â€œHanky Panky.â€ By the time the single was rediscovered two years later by a Pittsburgh radio station, the original Shondells had gone their separate ways. James recruited a band to be the new Shondells, and in 1966 toured behind the single, cut a deal with Roulette Records and turned their flop into a chart-topping hit. Line-up changes ensued and the band hooked up with songwriter Richie Cordell who gave them the hit title track of this 1967 release, their third studio album.
Cordell wrote or co-wrote (often with an uncredited Bo Gentry) ten of this albumâ€™s dozen songs, filling out the track list with covers of the Rivieraâ€™s â€œCalifornia Sunâ€ and the Isley Brothersâ€™ â€œShout.â€ Like the title tune, Cordellâ€™s songs tended to pop melodies and adolescent professions of love, creating strong appeal for teens and pre-teens. Cordell later contributed more explicitly to the bubblegum genre with songs for Crazy Elephant and the 1910 Fruitgum Company, but the seeds were sewn here as he helped Tommy James and The Shondellsâ€™ transition from garage-styled frat-rockers to studio-produced pop. The albumâ€™s second hit, â€œMirage,â€ borrows most of the hooks from â€œI Think Weâ€™re Alone Now,â€ and they were fetching enough to merit a second visit to the Top 10.
The albumâ€™s songs stood in contrast to the psychedelic works of 1967 (Sgt. Pepperâ€™s, Are You Experienced?, Surrealistic Pillow, et al.), but unlike the groupâ€™s previous albums, which consisted mostly of material drawn from the labelâ€™s publishing catalog, these titles were fresh. Better yet, the band and their arranger, Jimmy â€œWizâ€ Wisner, added some great instrumental touches. Wisnerâ€™s strings and horns lift â€œTrust Each Other in Loveâ€ beyond its bubblegum roots, and the â€˜50s-styled ballad â€œWhat Iâ€™d Give to See Your Face Againâ€ is given a terrific twist by the country piano and fuzz-guitar break. Thereâ€™s a Stax-styled rhythm guitar on â€œBaby Let Me Down,â€ and the harmony vocals of â€œI Like the Wayâ€ are topped with a perfect horn-line.
The sound quality of these tracks varies, with most in stereo that suggests 3-track recording (instruments panned left and right and vocals in the middle), despite the 4-track studio. Tracks 1 and 11 are mono, with the latter subtly shifted to one side, moving sloppily towards the center at the 24-second mark, and popping fully into the center at the 35-second mark. The original mono single mixes of â€œMirageâ€ and â€œI Like the Wayâ€ can be found on the collection 40 Years: The Complete Singles (1966-2006). For most listeners, the singles collection, or hit anthologies Anthology or The Definitive Pop Collection are better places to start; but starting with this album, the band and its writers and producers had something more to say than would fit on the singles charts.