NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and some would call me a double-dipper. But that’s mostly because I had two scoops of mint chocolate chip this week.
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I’ve got some Family Trivia for ye today. Tell me which one of these musical family pairs doesn’t belong, and why:
Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart;
Jack and Meg White from the White Stripes;
Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis;
And, Alex and Eddie Van Halen from—duh—Van Halen.
All of these pairs are related to each other, but one of them doesn’t match the others. Who is it, and why? I’ll have that answer, and a little bit more, at the end of the show.
Let me tell you a little bit about “Hanky Panky”…because that’s sort of what I do here.
First up, I know what you’re thinking: you hear that chorus and you think: somebody wrote that? But that’s not fair. In fact it took two people to write this one. “Hanky Panky” was written by the songwriting duo of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, who we last saw in Episode 114, just a few weeks ago, when we looked at their song “Leader of the Pack.” But in this case, Greenwich and Barry recorded it themselves as “The Raindrops” back in 1963. Barry told Billboard magazine once that he though the song was pretty terrible and was meant to be a B side. And in fact,
[THAT BOY JOHN]
The Raindrops released it as the B side to this track, which was called…
…”That Boy John” was a minor hit, but it had the misfortune of being released in November of 1963, and when President Kennedy was killed, the song was pulled from radio playlists and that was pretty much the end of that.
But as I mentioned, the B-side was this fun little ditty…
Around the same time the song was recorded a second time by another girl group called The Summits…
…whose version is pretty much the same as the Raindrops, but maybe swings a little more with the saxophone. It’s also got a neat little false ending on it before coming back strong for another minute-and-a-half before fading out for real. I’m not sure how the timing worked out, but the Summits version came out before the Raindrops, and it failed altogether to chart.
Now, around this time there was a teenage boy from Niles, Michigan by the name of Tommy Jackson. And Tommy sneaked into a night club in South Bend, Indiana to hear a local band called The Spinners play. This wasn’t the same group that had those hits in the 70s; this was a small local band. And one of the songs that The Spinners played was “Hanky Panky,” which young Tommy noted went over really big with the crowd. In fact, he was impressed enough that he wanted to record the song with HIS band. And this wasn’t Tommy Jackson’s first single; this was his second. He’d been with a band since 1959 when he was 12, as Tom and the Tornadoes. Sometime in 1963 he changed the name of the band to honor his favorite guitarist, Troy Shondell. So Tommy Jackson talked his band, by now called the Shondells, into recording the song, which they did at radio station WNIL, back home in Niles, Michigan.
There are clearly a few differences between the Raindrops and Summits’ versions, and the Shondells version of this song. The Raindrops’ version is a pretty typical girl group song—I’m not saying that as a bad thing, but there was a definite sound to those songs and this one had it. The Summits put a little more of an R&B spin on it.
The other difference is that there are a few changes in the lyrics. Why is that, you ask? I’m glad you asked. It’s because Tommy Jackson couldn’t remember all the words, so he just started making them up.
And as far as the sound? This was no girl group. This is pure Garage Rock.
The record was released on Snap Records, which was owned by a friend of Tommy who was a disc jockey. And the Shondells’ recording of the song sold pretty well in the Midwest in early 1964, then it just kind of faded away. In 1965 Tommy Jackson graduated from high school and that was pretty much it for the band.
But later that year a DJ in the Pittsburgh area named Mad Mike Metrovich, picked up the record again and started playing it on WZUM as an exclusive. Now, Metrovich had a schtick of not telling listeners who the artists were, to make it tough to find the records. In fact, when he DJed teen dances in the area, he often scratched out or glued pictures over the record labels so that people wouldn’t know the details as a means of keeping the records exclusive. Sometimes he’d even tell listeners: “Listen in—you may never hear this song again!” And sometimes he kept that promise.
But the thing is, when a record has sold a few thousand copies in the Midwest, it’s not so much of an exclusive. And finally another DJ in Pittsburgh started playing HIS copy of the song, and the next thing you know, there are literally 80,000 bootleg copies of the Shondells’ “Hanky Panky” floating around the Pittsburgh area.
Now, Tommy Jackson had no idea that any of this was going on until Metrovich called him up to let him know that the single was hot, and asked if the Shondells could come play it live in the Pittsburgh area. Tommy said “Sure,” but what he didn’t mention was that he’d been a solo act for over a year. So he went to Pittsburgh on the down low and started hanging around the clubs and such until he found a band he liked called The Raconteurs. He offered them the job as the new Shondells, and they accepted it. And that’s when Tommy Jackson became Tommy James.
Tommy James himself tells an interesting story at this point. The record is hot in Pittsburgh, which believe it or not was a bit of a tastemaker city. So the record labels naturally started paying attention, and they all began to line up to sign Tommy James and the Shondells. He said that he heard from Atlantic Records, Columbia Records, Epic, Kama Sutra, and a little label called Roulette Records. But all of a sudden
the big record companies started calling him up and saying, “We gotta pass, we have to take back our offer,” and so on. Tommy James says he got something like a half dozen calls in a row mysteriously cancelling their offer. Everyone but Roulette.
So maybe it’s time to do a little backstory on Roulette Records.
Roulette was founded in 1957 by four partners headed by a man named Morris Levy. During the late 50s, Roulette had a bunch of hits by Buddy Knox, The Playmates, Jimmie Rodgers, Ronnie Hawkins and the Delicates, plus they released albums by Dinah Washington, Count Basie and Pearl Bailey. They gave the performers a lot of musical freedom, but they were kind of shady with the money. It turns out that Roulette Records had some strong ties to organized crime, and Tommy James himself has suggested in multiple venues that it was specifically a front for the Genovese crime family. In fact, one of the partners owned four other small labels and gave all of them to Morris Levy, to cover his gambling debts. Levy then folded them all into Roulette. And Morris Levy, by some reports, ran the label with an iron fist.
Okay, back to 1965. Tommy James and the Shondells are getting a sudden cold shoulder from the big labels, and FINALLY he asked someone what’s going on. And it was Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records who said that Morris Levy called up the other labels and said, “This is MY record” and basically scared everyone away.
So Tommy James and the Shondells did, indeed, sign with Roulette Records. They also did a bunch of TV appearances, and club dates and it wasn’t until after all that that the Roulette 45 was released. But here’s the funky part: Tommy James sold the original 1964 master to Roulette Records for the 45 pressing. They didn’t do another recording! But by all accounts, Roulette did an amazing job of promoting the record, and it spent two weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1966. It was also Top Ten in most of Europe, it made it to Number 38 in the UK, and it was a Number 3 record in South Africa.
As far as covers, there have been a bunch, but none of them have had the same success that teenage Tommy Jackson and his original Shondells had. Most of them are pretty faithful to the Shondells’ version, so it’s kind of pointless to play them here,
but I invite you to check out the covers by Neil Diamond in 1966, by Joan Jett in 1980, just before she broke big, and there’s this version you’re listening to now, a pretty good cover by seminal punk band The Cramps in 1982.
And now it’s time to answer todays trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about four musical family pairs and asked you to identify the one that doesn’t belong. They were:
Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart;
Alex and Eddie Van Halen;
Jack and Meg White from The White Stripes;
And Noel and Liam Gallagher from Oasis;
[SEVEN NATION ARMY]
The answer in this case is Jack and Meg White. In all the other cases, the pairs are siblings, but while Jack and Meg White TOLD everyone they were siblings, the truth is they were married to each other from 1996 until 2000, shortly before the band got famous. And incidentally, Jack White’s original name is John Gillis, which means HE took HER name. How about that!
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when—coincidentally by request—you get the Candy Everybody Wants.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.