Tommy James and The Shondells still rocking over and over
SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. — Tommy James’ songs have memorably been covered by artists from Dolly Parton to Prince. His litany of hits includes “Mony, Mony,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” and “Crimson & Clover,” among many others.
More than half a century after he entered the music business, James and his backup band, the Shondells, kick off their first tour date of 2019 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, at the H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University. Their opening act will be ’60s band The Buckinghams. Ticket prices range from $55 to $75.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” James during a telephone interview. “Pennsylvania is where it all started for me. It’s almost back to my old stomping grounds.”
James said he was 12 years old when he first earned a paycheck as a musician in his hometown of Niles, Mich. His band played at local sock hops and wedding receptions. Before he was out of high school, he had already signed two small record deals.
One of the first four sides he cut for a regional label was a single called “Hanky Panky” in 1963. The song did well locally but, lacking widespread distribution, it quickly faded into oblivion.
James’ band then set off on a tour of the Midwest. They hit a low point when the rundown club where they were playing was shut down because the owner hadn’t paid his taxes.
“We got sent back home,” James said, “but that’s how the good Lord works, because as soon as we got back home, I got the call that changed my life.”
Three years after its release, “Hanky Panky” had suddenly shot to the top of the charts in Pittsburgh.
James formed a new backup group that became the Shondells and was soon signed by a major New York label. By the summer of 1966, “Hanky Panky” was the No. 1 record in the country.
“Every year I’m in this business, I look back at that moment and say what a miracle that was,” James said.
Today, James has 23 gold singles and nine platinum albums to his name and has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. He’s also well-known as a songwriter, with more than 300 recorded cover versions of his songs.
“It’s interesting to hear how another artist from another time interprets your music,” he said.
For example, Billy Idol’s ’80s rendition of “Mony, Mony” was “probably the way we would have done it if we’d done it 20 years later.”
Today, James hosts a weekly radio show on SiriusXM’s ’60s on 6 channel. His new single, “So Beautiful,” is set to debut in February or March, and his album, “Alive,” is slated for April release. His autobiography is in development as a major motion picture, and his songs will appear in nine other upcoming films.
“It’s going to be a good year,” he said modestly.
Although these projects keep him busy, James has no intention of giving up touring.
“I think it’s very important to maintain your status as a working act,” he said.
He’s been with the same Shondells members for more than 30 years.
“When I look out at our concert crowd, I literally see three generations of people,” he said. “When we started out 53 years ago, never did I think we’d still be doing this in 2019. I’m really quite amazed by it all and very blessed.”
Top photo: Tommy James and the Shondells will perform Saturday, Jan. 19, at the H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University. (Submitted photo)