Rock legend comes home to Michiana
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – “Hanky Panky,” “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Crimson and Clover” are just a few of the hits written and performed by Tommy James and Shondells. This week Tommy James came back to his hometown of Niles, Michigan. On Friday night he played a homecoming concert at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.
“I always feel like I carry this part of the country with me wherever I go, I carry my hometown,” James explained. “I can’t tell you how many times that’s really helped…you sort of lose your identity when you’re in New York.”
James said he has fond memories of growing up in Niles. He described it as a “leave it to Beaver” setting. He credits Michiana with giving him his unique music style.
“This part of the country has got a little country flavor, it’s got a little rock, it’s got a little R & B, it’s really a well rounded musical place,” he described.
But, he said what really got him started in music was one of his first jobs working at the Spin-It Record shop after school.
“I got an amazing education there about the music business, labels, songwriters, publishers,” he described. “I use that to this very day.”
While he was attending Niles High School he formed a band and started playing music around town. A local DJ with WNIL gave him the chance to record a song in 1964, he chose “Hanky Panky.”
“We did about six takes and took our favorite one and it came out locally and did pretty well, we were on all the jukeboxes,” he described.
But, lack of a distributor kept the song from spreading. After graduating high school, James and his band went out on a tour of the Midwest that didn’t lead to high expectations.
“We come back to Niles feeling like complete losers,” he described. “But, that's how the good Lord works. Because the minute I got home, I got the call from Pittsburgh that changed my life."
Around 80,000 bootleg copies of “Hanky Panky” had sold in Pittsburgh. Tommy James and The Shondells went up to Pittsburgh to start living the dream of a music career that eventually led to New York City. James and the band signed a deal with Roulette Records, a “front” company run by Morris Levy for the Genovese crime family. James says there were perks to the company’s ownership, the band was given freedom to explore their musical talents and run their own affairs that they wouldn’t have had with a bigger company. But, there were dangers and James explained they were probably cheated out of millions. Things got especially frightening when Morris Levy fled the country during a bloody mob war and James was advised to leave town and head to Nashville.
“A frightening affair,” he described. “I look back on it now and because we were young and dumb really helped a lot.”
In his nearly 50-year career James has written 23 golden singles, 9 platinum albums and sold over 100-million records across the world. But, he said the highlight will be the homecoming concert in South Bend. But, what would he have done if “Hanky Panky” had never been a hit?
"I almost got a job in the John's Bargain Store in South Bend when I was 18 years old,” he said laughing. “If I hadn’t of done music, if I hadn’t of done rock and roll, I don’t know what would’ve become of me.”
James details his life and career in his book “Me, the Mob and the Music.” Portions of the proceeds from his concert at the Morris will be donated to the music department at Niles High School.