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Tommy James & The Shondells

Tommy James & The Shondells
by Bill Holmes

Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich reportedly wrote the song in twenty minutes as a filler track that became the b-side of a failed single. The Spinners, then trolling the bus tour circuit, had it in their repertoire to help get a few people out on the dance floor. Tommy James, nee Jackson, grew up near the Michigan/ Indiana border and would often check out the Chicago and Detroit bands that came through the area. And when James needed another song to cut with his band the Shondells for a local DJ named Jack Douglas, he remembered the dumb riff that caught his ear. Having only heard the song once, James didn't even know the words, so he made some up and mumbled the others. It was just a riff after all. Douglas released the song on his Snap Records label, and after the usual brief local buzz, the record faded away.

That was until Mad Mike Metro, a Pittsburgh DJ, found the record in a bargain bin and started playing it repeatedly on his show, until it eventually soared all the way to number one in the area. By the time he was able to track James down, some local entrepreneur had already bootlegged it and sold thousands of copies. To capitalize on the success of the single, James quickly tried to reassemble the original band, who had all graduated from school and started to go their separate ways. In one of the classic bad career moves of rock ‘n’ roll, they all declined. James then hooked up with a local Pittsburgh band called the Raconteurs, and after he and Douglas were able to license the original to Roulette Records what happened in Pittsburgh happened everywhere. "Hanky Panky" was a smash hit in 1966, hitting the top of the charts and selling over a million copies.

Pop radio was at its best in 1967, when bubblegum writer Ritchie Cordell would pen two of the band's biggest hits—"I Think We're Alone Now" (#3) and "Mirage" (#10); Cordell also co-wrote "Mony Mony" (#3) the following year. The crafty production or these first hits set the records apart from other gum records that were also climbing the charts at the time. Although touches like the opening bass line of "I Think We're Alone Now" were pretty standard, effects like the sound of crickets on the song's break were instantly memorable. James' powerful voice propelled the songs with a combination of lustful angst and teenage innocence, and along with the pulsating bass and versatile keyboards, the Shondells created a trademark sound. James was a fast learner in the studio and soon developed an uncanny knack for successfully blending other styles with the simplistic pop melodies. Soon he was writing and producing the band's music, and the complexity of the arrangements were spot-on for adventurous music fans, whose boundaries were being expanded by the likes of Hendrix and Cream.

The band's peak came in 1969, when "Crimson And Clover" was a landmark psychedelic single that captured the essence and imagination of the times. The echo and phasing effects on the guitar and vocals and the mini-suite structure of the song was an irresistible mix that gave James his second number one record, which eventually sold over six million copies. "Sweet Cherry Wine" (#7) followed, a combination of upbeat shuffle and pop waltz that again featured angelic harmonies and a killer hook. But the year was capped by another chart-topping single, "Crystal Blue Persuasion," a jazzy, lounge-tinged song that was psychedelic enough to wow the heads, cerebral enough to hook the critics, and just slow enough to be a grind-dance classic at proms for the next several years. But music was about to undergo an irreversible transition that would leave Woodstock as the last shining moment of an age of innocence and dreams. James himself would take a break to resolve some personal issues, but the Shondells were done. He produced "Tighter And Tighter" for Alive And Kickin' in 1970 (which reached #7 on the charts), and a year later his solo effort "Draggin The Line" hit #4. Fifteen Top 40 hits in five years. James was but twenty-three years old.

When the solo project Christian Of The World was released, the reactions to the overtly religious cover ranged from laughter to outrage. Some thought the Jesus-like pose bordered on sacrilege—if the Beatles weren't bigger than Jesus, how dare this bubblegum idol don robes? But the introspective yearning that was hinted at in songs like "Crystal Blue Persuasion" were now front and center. If listeners thought it was a joke, the lyrics in James' title track proved otherwise ("Dear Jesus Christ/ lead me on/ show me the way/ take me home"). Radio wisely passed and instead grabbed hold of "Draggin' The Line," whose infectious hook and bouncy production was able to overcome lyrics which extolled the virtues of "huggin' a tree when you get near it". The rest of the record was a pleasant but vacuous blend of folk, music hall and formulaic, but unexciting, pop.

Despite the hit, it was never the same after 1971. The times, they were a'changin' after all, and the solo, "serious" Tommy couldn't compete with the new brand of icon like James Taylor. The continuing partnership with Bobby King produced interesting moments like the gospel-tinged "Come To Me" and "Ball And Chain," a bubblegum song with more serious, religious lyrics. But the less said about Midnight Rider, James' collaboration with Jeff Barry, the better. Ten years later, James scored again with "Three Times In Love,” an acoustic-driven song (featuring Luther Vandross harmonies) that found its niche in the post-punk, pre-Eurosynth year of 1980. But once again (despite guitarist Jon Tropeo's George Harrison-like noodling) the balance of the record was filled with songs like "Lady In White" that seemed better suited for Tony Orlando or the medallion-and-chest-hair era Bee Gees. James continued to record but never reached the charts again.

But even if James had hung it up in 1970 and became a farmer, the legacy he and his band left behind is an irreplaceable part of rock and roll's pop Mecca. The greatest hits collections available on Rhino are wall-to-wall rock-solid, chock full of songs that make you turn up the volume and sing along. Every oldies station in the world carries three or four songs in regular rotation, where they prove to have aged better than most of their contemporary rivals. When rocker Joan Jett hooked up with Ritchie Cordell and Kenny Laguna years later, "Crimson And Clover" was a hit all over again. Even Tiffany's pre-pubescent interpretation of "I Think We're Alone Now" and Billy Idol's trash can rendition of "Mony Mony" can't bury the charm of the original hits that live on over thirty years later.

Crazy Elephant

Crazy Elephant
by Bill Pitzonka

"There is no Crazy Elephant," insists writer-producer Ritchie Cordell. "That was just Bob Spencer." Robert Spencer was a member of the Cadillacs, who recorded the rock and roll classic "Speedo," a #14 hit from 1955. In the years that followed, Spencer kept active in the industry, often penning songs and selling them off without just compensation, according to Cordell. In 1969, Spencer linked up with Kasenetz & Katz just as their Super K bubblegum machine was churning out the hits full-throttle.

Kasenetz & Katz hooked him up with Cordell and Joey Levine, who together had penned the soulful "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'." The searing single, featuring Spencer's scorching lead vocal and an obvious background vocal assist by Levine, was submitted to Buddah Records, the New York-based label with whom Kasenetz & Katz had been so continually successful. "We played it for [Buddah General Manager] Neil Bogart," the Super K boys recall, "but he said, 'No, I don't hear it.'" Undeterred, they walked Crazy Elephant over to Larry Uttal at neighboring Bell Records, who snapped it up. By May 1969, "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'" hit #12 in Billboard. Its stateside success prompted a British release, where it also peaked at #12.

Kasenetz & Katz recruited a five-piece band of college-age youths to support the single on the road, pose for pictures, and fill out the inevitable album. According to the credits on that sole self-titled LP, the lucky winners of this strange sweepstakes were Larry Laufer (leader, keyboards and vocals), Ronnie Bretone (bass), Bob Avery (drums), Kenny Cohen (flute, sax, and vocals) and Hal King (vocals). The whole process was standard operating procedure for bubblegummeisters Kasenetz and Katz. More often than not, according to Cordell, they would "send five bands [with the same name] out on the road. They'd stick them in a room with the album and have them learn all the songs."

"Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'" was the only Crazy Elephant record for Cordell and Levine. When the Spencer-soundalike follow-ups "Sunshine, Red Wine" and "Gimme Some More" failed to click, Kasenetz & Katz took Crazy Elephant in a new direction—overseas to London. In 1970, they brought in future 10cc members Kevin Godley, Lol Creme, and Graham Gouldman to take over the writing and production duties. Despite the ambitious single "(There Ain't No) Umbopo" (which the trio had recorded in an alternate version for Pye UK as Doctor Father), Crazy Elephant had effectively run its course, and was quietly retired.

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