Tommy James mobbed by fans

Written by Scott Mervis on .

tommy james"When I come to Pittsburgh, it's like looking up an old girlfriend," Tommy James said looking out at the full house Tuesday night at the Joseph-Beth Booksellers on the South Side.

There didn't seem to be any old girlfriends in the room, but there were plenty of faces from the pop star's past to greet him for the signing of his new tell-all book, "Me, the Mob and the Music."

Sharing the podium with Mr. James and co-writer Martin Fitzpatrick was Eddie Grey, a former member of his Pittsburgh-based Shondells. In the audience were the sons of the Red Fox

Fenway record execs who first released the breakout hit "Hanky Panky" in Pittsburgh.

Also there was Bob Mack, the local dance promoter and WZUM deejayDJ who discovered the record here in late 1965 after Mr. James had virtually given up on his shot at fame. Mr. Mack told me about bringing such acts as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and the Drifters to Pittsburgh for the first time to play at his dances. Because he had multiple venues - including the White Elephant and Bethel Roller Rink - he was able to book them here at a special rate to make the rounds on a given night.

Mr. Mack was so eager to talk about his former dance spots, it was hard to nail him down on how he actually dug up "Hanky Panky," a record that was fairly limited to the Niles, Mich., area. That's one detail that is not in the book. Mr. Mack explained that he had a record store at Smithfield and Liberty and that, amidst the competition among deejays DJs here to find obscure records to spin, he would typically buy up collections from around the country. As he recalls, "Hanky Panky" turned up a collection sent from a Notre Dame student who needed some quick cash. Mr. James was surprised to hear that story.

Mr. Mack also said that when he first heard "Hanky Panky" it was too slow for the dances, and when you played songs that were too slow you lost the kids to chatting or fighting. What he did, and it was fairly common here, is that he played the record on 48 or 50 rpm, thus speeding up the beat. In fact, when they bootlegged the song here to press the records they did the same thing.

Anyway, at Joe-Beth, Mr. James spoke and took questions about the book - everything from what life under Roulette Records exec

mobster Morris Levy ("getting paid was like taking a bone from a Rottweiler") to the inspiration for "Crystal Blue Persuasion" (faith, not drugs) to whether he had a dog named Sam as he referenced in "Draggin' the Line" (Sam was a cat, but that didn't sound right).

Mr. James spent nearly two hours signing books, and it would have been longer if Joe-Beth hadn't sold out of copies. Then, a small party, including his savvy manager Carol Ross-Durborow, Roots of Rock & Roll and PBS "American Soundtrack" producer Henry DeLuca and Mr. Grey, had a late dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. There, Mr. James told us about his recent stops at the Howard Stern Show, where the host was sharp and surprisingly well-mannered, and "Marky Ramone's Punk Rock Blitzkrieg," where the drummer told him that "Hanky Panky" was a huge influence on the Ramones.

I also got to raise a question I neglected to ask him in the previous phone interview, which was about turning down that invitation to play Woodstock. Mr. James said that the band, exhausted from touring, was taking some vacation time in Hawaii when he got the call from Artie Kornfeld to play the backwoods festival. He told the promoter, " ‘You want me to leave paradise to play a pig farm?' By Friday," he added, "we knew we'd made a mistake."

Now that we've had the book signing, the next step is to get Tommy James and the Shondells back here for a concert. He only does about 30 a year. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

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