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Tommy James Rocks On

Sixties hero plugs the hits on TV and Net

March 5, 2004 12:00 AM ET

For an old-timer, Tommy James has some modern ideas about purveying rock music. "The record companies have been really, really struggling the last couple of years, so much so that many of the big retail chains and the record companies have folded and merged," says James, whose hits include "Hanky Panky," "Crimson and Clover" and "Mony Mony." "What we're talking about is a reinvention of the record business, and this is the music that will be re-invented first because it's the music people know."

The first plank of what James sees as his personal reinvention was his decision to licence his old albums from Warner Bros. and make them available via his Web site, tommyjames.com. The next phase is the Sixties Pop-Rock Reunion, a live concert featuring James and his band the Shondells -- along with other hitmakers like the Grass Roots and Herman's Hermits -- that started rotation on PBS on this week. "We'll be on for a solid month," James says. "[The networks] use it to acquire pledges, and [viewers] basically buy the DVD and the CDs and the various things as the show is airing. The show is going to come to life on stage, and the first one is going to be at the Aladdin Theater in Las Vegas."

James' production company is also working on American Jukebox, a proposed weekly network show that also combines music and commerce. "Basically, each show goes through three phases: classic rock, modern rock and future rock -- unsigned bands that no one's ever seen before," James says. "The show takes people through the history of rock & roll. It's like a magazine." At the end of the show, viewers would be able to instantly purchase the music they have seen. "[It has] a Web site, an 800 number and a distributor. All the music from the show will be available to the public in the form of downloading. We will have an actual online jukebox. This is pay-as-you-go rock & roll.

"With single-song downloads for ninety-nine cents, the industry is trying to say it wants to go back to the singles market," he continues. "That's what people want."

The singles market is something James knows plenty about: In 1966 James and the Shondells scored their first hit with "Hanky Panky." The song had actually been recorded three years earlier when James was a schoolboy and had merely been a local hit. However, by a recording industry miracle, a Pittsburgh DJ started belatedly playing it and it made Number One in that city, something that a struggling James discovered after returning to hometown Niles, Michigan, after being on the road.

"What if I hadn't gone home?" says James "What if I'd stayed on the road? I've often thought of how many things could have happened that would have made everything turn out different."

"Hanky Panky" was sub-bubblegum but the Shondells soon progressed to simple but high quality pop like "I Think We're Alone Now," "Mirage" and "I Like the Way." "We knew that this was very unsophisticated stuff," James says. "We were trying to almost make three-dimensional nursery rhymes."

The group issue the ultimate party record "Mony Mony," a gloriously infectious and unashamedly brainless mixture of call-and-response chanting and explosive percussion, in 1968. The title came as a result of James living directly across from the offices of Mutual of New York, whose neon sign flashed out the company's acronym. The same year saw the band belying the apparent brainlessness of "Mony Mony" by going on the campaign trail with Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.

The band then transmogrified into a serious adult rock act with shimmering, self-written classics like "Crimson and Clover," "Sweet Cherry Wine" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion." Tommy James and the Shondells were the biggest-selling singles artists in the world in 1968 and 1969, though they drifted apart after 1970.

James is currently writing his autobiography, due for a 2005 release, and it will no doubt be lapped up by the fans who flock to his live shows, several of which he is playing this spring. "I had basically considered us to be a Sixties act because that's when we made it," he says. "My feeling now is very different. The music has not came off the air. It's been on the radio steadily since it was invented, and that's really phenomenal. This music and these acts have never been bigger. I look out now and I see three generations of people."

Tommy James tour dates:

3/6: Hallandale, FL, Gulfstream Park
4/24: St. Cloud, MN, St. Cloud State University
5/22: Las Vegas, Aladdin Theater
6/5: Frankenmuth, MI, Memorial Park
6/11: Cleveland, New Scene Pavilion
6/19: Fresno, CA, Palace Indian Gaming Center
7/10: Dawson Ridge, PA, Linden Hall Resort
7/24: Lincoln, RI, Lincoln Park
7/30: Westbury, NY, Westbury Music Fair
8/ 11: Detroit, Michigan State Fair

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