By the standard laws of pop success, 17-year old Tommy James and his band The Shondells had already had their chance and missed it by the winter of 1965-66. They’d recorded a couple of records while still in high school, but when neither managed to gain attention outside of southwest Michigan and northern Indiana, the young men were staring at the same fate that awaits most garage bands when they graduate high school: real life. But thanks to an incredible sequence of chance events, a very different fate awaited young Tommy James, who earned his first #1 hit on this day in 1966 with “Hanky Panky.” The original Shondells would not be so fortunate.
The first chance event that led to Tommy James and the Shondells becoming one of the biggest pop acts of the late 1960s happened back in 1963, when the legendary songwriting couple Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich—who wrote “(And Then) He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” for the Crystals, among many other hits—were recording a single of their own that needed a B-side filler tune. In a hallway outside the studio, they took 20 minutes to write “Hanky Panky.”
Fast-forward to 1964, when Tommy James and his Niles, Michigan, friends and bandmates were signed to a local record label called Snap Records. With a contract to record four sides but a repertoire that was even smaller, they quickly learned “Hanky Panky” based on James’ recollection of how it sounded when he heard it covered at a club in nearby South Bend, Indiana. The raw energy of the Shondells’ version made “Hanky Panky” a regional hit, but the record quickly faded away, along with the Shondells’ musical ambitions.
Nearly two years later, in late 1965, a Pittsburgh disk jockey named “Mad Mike” Metro happened to pull “Hanky Panky” from a record-store bargain bin. When he played it on the air, the response was overwhelming, and soon the record was a big enough hit in Pittsburgh to inspire bootleggers to press 80,000 illegal copies for sale in stores. When Tommy James got the call informing him of this turn of events and inviting him to come perform his hit song in Pittsburgh, he made his travel plans instantly, but none of his fellow Shondells could be convinced to join him. And so it was that Tommy James hustled to Pittsburgh alone and drafted a brand-new set of Shondells after hearing Mike Vale, Pete Lucia, Ronnie Rosman and Eddie Gray playing in a local club as the Raconteurs. This lineup of Tommy James and the Shondells would go on to enjoy a hugely successful late 1960s career that featured 14 top-40 hits, beginning with the song that topped the Billboard Hot 100 on this day in 1966.