Classic Tracks: Tommy James & The Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now"

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Matt Hurwitz


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Tommy James in 1967

Tommy James in 1967

In early 1966, a dejected Tommy James arrived home in Niles, Mich., from what appeared to be the last road gig with his then-group The Koachmen, just in time to answer a phone call that would change his life.

Two years before, the group had recorded their first single, “Hanky Panky,” which was recorded at a radio studio by a local DJ, Jack Douglas, and issued by a small local label. “The record just came and went,” he says. “I graduated from high school in '65, and I took my band on the road. We played Rush Street in Chicago and up through the Midwest, and we came home very out of work and depressed.”

But then James received that telephone call. “Hanky Panky” had sprouted new legs in Pittsburgh, thanks to numerous bootleg pressings from the original single. “They sold 80,000 pieces in 10 days, and it was the Number One record in Pittsburgh,” he recalls. James had a hit on his hands. “If I had missed that call, there wouldn't have been a Tommy James.”

Unable to reassemble his original high school friends, The Shondells (a name he came up with in study hall in 1963 — “Anything with an ‘-ells’ on the end of it was cool,” he says), James says he went to Pittsburgh and “grabbed the first bar band I could find.” The band, The Raconteurs — Eddie Gray on guitar, Mike Vale on bass, Ron Rosman on keyboards and Peter Lucia on drums — headed to New York with James as The Shondells to find a real label.

Initially, all the labels they visited — Columbia, Epic, Atlantic, Laurie and Kama Sutra — said “yes” to James and his group. But within a day or so, they each called to say they'd changed their minds — all except Roulette. It appears, says James, that Roulette “was pretty mobbed up. At the time, Roulette really was a singles label, but they didn't have much going, from a creative standpoint. The last hit they'd had was in '63 with The Essex's ‘Easier Said Than Done.’” Label boss Morris Levy was ready for some new blood. “Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us that Morris Levy had called all the record companies, and said, ‘Dis is my f***in’ record!' So, apparently, we were going to be on Roulette.”

Levy quickly made an official national release of “Hanky Panky” on his label in June 1966, and it was a Number One hit within six weeks. That disc was followed by another, a cover of The Fireballs' “Say I Am.” But James quickly realized that in absence of such a presence at Roulette, he would need to put together a production team to keep the hits coming. “I realized that my life, at that point, was going to be a never-ending search for the next single,” he says.

“I grabbed a bunch of people over at Kama Sutra,” whose offices at 1650 Broadway were located in the “Brill Building District,” the legendary songwriters' haven. One of those people he “grabbed” was writer/producer Ritchie Cordell, who, with writing partner Sal Trimachi, provided James with his next single, “It's Only Love.” “Almost immediately, after we put that record out, Ritchie changed songwriting partners to Bo Gentry, and, in November, they came to me with ‘I Think We're Alone Now.’ They banged it out for me on a piano. It was a very slow ballad, but you could hear that it was a hit record. It had all the elements.”

The trio went to the studio located in the basement of the building, Allegro, and recorded a demo, with James introducing the song's distinctive thumping bass-plus-guitar eighth-note intro (a style known as “pegging”). “We sped it up. Bo sang the lead and I played guitar, and we took it back to Morris Levy and played it for him, and he flipped out. We all knew we had something really special there.”

A month later, on Christmas Eve 1966, James, Cordell and Gentry returned to Allegro to record the song for release with engineer Bruce Staple. “It was originally Kama Sutra's demo studio, which Bruce had built,” James recalls. “They kept upgrading and upgrading, and finally started taking outside clients.”

Staple had assembled a conglomeration of gear from Pultec amplifiers — a row of which, says James, made up the recording console. “It was very primitive. This was real bear skins and stone axes. There was a low-frequency hum on all of those old recordings — if you play them sped up, you can hear it. Plus, we were in the basement, and every time the subway would run through we had to stop recording!” There was a single Scully 4-track recording machine, which played back through Altec 604 monitor speakers. “The Scullys were great,” James says. “At the time, you could punch in on a Scully faster than any other machine.”

One of the first steps in the recording process for James was to hire an arranger. “I was asked by Morris Levy's secretary if I wanted an arranger, and the first name that popped into my head was Jimmy Wisner.” James was a fan of Wisner's (whom he subsequently dubbed “The Wiz”) after hearing his arrangement the previous year on Len Barry's hit single, “1-2-3,” and spotting his name on the label, though Wisner's history extended back to the days of Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell.

Cordell and Gentry showed Wisner the song, which the arranger recorded on cassette to study. “The first thing I like to do is make sure the key and tempo are correct; it's crucial,” Wisner says. “Generally, people don't sing with the same energy in rehearsal as they do in the session because there's no studio pressure. The excitement triggers a lot more energy in people. You generally need to compensate by making it a half-tone or a tone higher.”

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