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Tommy James Visits the Ludlow Garage, Talks Career and Upcoming Film

June 13, 20249 Mins Read

The intimate basement theater setting of the Ludlow Garage was filled to the brim with energy and a lifetime of memories associated with the timelessness of Tommy James and The Shondells’ music on an early summer night on June 1.

Tommy James and The Shondells produced a surprising amount of hit records in the ‘60s, including two number ones and several in the top 10, with James carrying on solo after with even more, ultimately selling over 100 million records over the course of his career. 

Hits like “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Draggin’ the Line” and others have played over the airwaves of radio for a lifetime, been featured in countless movies and TV shows and exist as pop culture touchstones. This is in addition to having a second life on the charts and in the cultural ether as cover versions by Billy Idol (“Mony Mony”), Joan Jett (“Crimson and Clover”), Tiffany (“I Think We’re Alone Now”) along with R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen and a ton more. This is all more than enough to make James an essential rock and roll legend to see live and hear these songs in person.

The night began with an introduction backstage for our interview after Carol, James’ noticeably fun-loving and sweetheart of a manager, grabbed me and we quickly made our way to the backstage area through a set of double doors into one room and back, then toward another, then back out before someone informed us we came through the wrong door — a funny start to a great night. Going through a neighboring set of doors, I immediately caught a glimpse of James in the opening of a curtain just before he came out to meet me in the green room and introduce himself with a handshake and warm introduction.

We talked for a few minutes about his family moving from his birthplace nearby in Dayton, and Ohio’s connection to rock and roll before another group came in who turned out to be two celebrities in their own right — Cincinnati DJs “Dangerous” Dan Allen and Gary Stevens of one of the city’s finest radio stations, the full-time oldies station WDJO. They talked about memories of Chuck Berry a bit before taking a photo and leaving while I got one as well after Carol luckily asked if I’d like one too. It was getting close to showtime so we said our goodbyes and agreed to finish the interview over the phone before I made my way out to talk more with Allen and Stevens and find my seat.

The Ludlow Garage was filled with fans of mostly a certain generation but peppered with people of all ages ready for a night with a legend. The lights went down and James’ band walked onto the crowded and instrument-filled stage. James surprisingly performs with a seven-piece band. There are two guitar players, a bass player, a drummer, a keyboard player and, most impressively, an organ player with a Hammond B3 organ and a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet, something you don’t see too often in a live setting and a sign of good things to come.

Then James walks onto the stage and they immediately go into his 1971 solo hit “Draggin’ the Line” featured just last year in the opening credits of the Jennifer Lawrence comedy No Hard Feelings. James seems to come to life in a whole new way onstage. He tells the audience early on something along the lines of “let your energy meet ours and let’s see what happens.” He holds his end of the bargain up just fine.

The second song is another huge hit, “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” and by the third song in the set, the 1967 bubblegum pop of “Getting Together,” I notice my chair and the whole row of attached seats rocking in rhythm from the audience all the way down the line moving in unison to the music.

He stops to introduce the next song and tells the story of his rare experience with Roulette Records, who helped get the group their first #1 record and label head, Morris Levy, who turned out to have heavy mob ties.

Levy’s organized crime connections eventually resulted in complications that sent James to live in Nashville for a time for his safety. He details this story and his career in his book Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells, which James explains is being made into a movie. A stripped-down version of the band performs a slower acoustic arrangement of the iconic “I Think We’re Alone Now” that he tells the audience will close out the movie.

Over the phone a couple of days later, James seems excited about the film project that he’ll co-produce with famed producer Barbara De Fina (Goodfellas, Casino, etc.) James tells CityBeat about the progress of the movie, explaining how things were put on hold during COVID and the recent writers’ strike, but says, “Hollywood is up and running again and so they’re in the casting phase right now. So, it looks like it’ll be another 18 months to 2 years.”

An unexpected highlight of the show was “Tighter, Tighter” a song James co-wrote and gave to the band Alive and Kicking in 1970, I later learned from the person sitting next to me at the show who turned out to be podcaster Tony Peters of the Icon Fetch podcast and who I have to thank for the night’s setlist. It’s one of those songs you know but don’t know you know — an underrated piece of soul-filled power pop bliss.

Once the unmistakable tremolo-soaked introduction of “Crimson and Clover” starts, there is yet another high point. It’s one of the greatest songs of all time and the live rendition is as transcendent as you’d hope with James sounding as good as he does on the 1968 record. The years between don’t seem to have affected him as a performer in any way, shape or form and I’m completely blown away by the vitality and power of his voice. Most singers of his generation have to perform their songs in a lower key, but nothing seems altered or changed in the whole set — in fact, James soars above even the original.

When asked how he maintains his vitality as a performer he answers humbly. “Well, I’ve been doing it an awful long time. We’ve been doing it really since our first hit record — right out of high school. So, I’ve been doing it really for the better part of 60 years. I’m very fortunate to be healthy and be able to do this. I’m 77 and it’s amazing that I’m still doing it. I never thought we’d be doing it this long.”

Music has been a lifelong passion for him. “It was all I ever wanted to do, pretty much from the time I saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956,” James says. “I was 9 years old. I got my first guitar, an acoustic guitar, and a year later I got my first electric guitar and I just started playing everything I could play from the radio and I had a huge record collection. I started my first band when I was 12. We actually started playing local dates when I was 13. So, I got in it right away, and this is in my hometown of Niles, Michigan. When I was 14, I made my first record. We’re still selling it today (laughs), if you can believe that, online and at the shows. I worked at a record shop when I was a kid, a teenager going through high school, and recorded “Hanky Panky,” the song that ended up being our first hit record when I was 16. So, anyway, the point is, it’s all I ever wanted to do and I was just very blessed and very fortunate to be able to do it my whole life.”

Tommy James and The Shondells went on to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show themselves three times as he tells CityBeat the opportunity is a career highlight, among many.

The next song in the set is that first hit record, “Hanky Panky” and James performs it with a cutting rhythm delivered with attitude fitting for the frat rock, garage anthem that put him on the map just out of high school all those years ago.

The tail end of the set featured the classic version of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” with James summoning little explosions of energy that push the song above and beyond the original recording.

They close with “Mony Mony,” one of the all-time great party anthems with its call-and-response rock and roll gospel “Yeah” build up with the audience throwing their hands in the air each time their turn comes around. The band plays an extended version of the song, vamping on riffs, bending it into different songs while James steps off stage and into the audience moving through the crowd shaking hands, taking pictures and greeting fans. He returns and they finish the song with a goodbye.

The band could have walked off stage for good and the crowd would have been satisfied with the uplifting, hit-filled tour de force of a performance, so, when they come back on for an encore, as most bands do, this time it really feels like a treat.

The encore starts with “Sweet Cherry Wine,” a song whose lyrics of communal euphoria ring especially true in the moment and in memory, followed by 1967s “Mirage” and a reprise of “Mony Mony.”

From digging deep performing all these years, to going out into the crowd every night to get close to the fans, something James mentions as a favorite moment in the show or hosting his weekly radio show on SiriusXM (Getting Together with Tommy James on ‘60s Gold Sundays from 5-8 p.m.), which he says was a great way to stay in touch with the fans during COVID when he couldn’t perform — it seems that it’s about connection for Tommy James. We’re lucky to have had that connection for so long and he’s still there, ready to connect you to memories of the past while making new ones with some of the best songs popular music has ever produced.

James sums it up best when he tells CityBeat, “All I can say is, it’s been a wonderful lifetime of rock and roll, it really has been.”

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