Tommy James and The Shondells – Celebration, The Complete Roulette Recordings from 1966-1973: Album Review

Any artist or group whose longevity spans the 60’s and early 70’s and keeps up with the times, when many during that period were discarded after a brief moment of fame, deserves a serious listen. This package features eight Tommy James and Shondells albums, compilations, and Tommy James solo work released on the  Roulette label, showing their musical prowess and amazing ability to adapt

Release Date: January 29th 2021

Label: Grapefruit via Cherry Red

Format: 6 CD

It’s  1968, and a dull, tiring coach ride home from the North East after a field trip for a Geography  ‘A’ level class was livened up when 30 odd rowdy teenagers went wild to  Mony Mony when it was played over the coach radio.  It was a massive hit for TJ  and the Shondells. They had other big hits; another rocker Hank Panky in 1966, which opens CD  1  of this vibrant, extensive compilation. I Think We’re Alone Now opens CD2, more well known recently when covered by Tiffany. It was originally given to TJ as a ballad but was an up-tempo hit in 1967 and also they had a US number 1 hit with  Crimson And Clover which along with other tracks from the album of the same name included in the package represents a more psychedelic sound, although it didn’t chart highly in GB.

Hanky Panky was very much in the mould of Mony Mony but by no means should these two tracks define Tommy James’  limitations as a rock n roller even though they are probably the two they are most well known for. This album blows that theory apart as the 6CD  package released by Cherry Red shows that there was nothing Tommy James could not do that represented rock n roll in the mid-’60s to early ’70s. 

There are other examples of raucous rockers in the Mony Mony mode (Good Lovin) but there are some which wouldn’t have seemed amiss from the Motown sound (We’ll Have A Word, Don’t Let My Love Pass You By and As We Go Through Life). There are crooners too, like I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, that dear old Englebert could have picked up on.

Rockers like The Lover which has a rhythm the Mersey beat groups liked to emulate.  Instrumentals too,  a saxy Cleo’s Mood and a guitar-based surfing beat on Thunderbolt also reflect a popular 60’s sound. Even the bluesy rock of Fanny Mae shows another string to the bow to The Shondell’s repertoire led by Tommy James vocals adding credence to the “Can the white man sing the blues?”  debate.

On CD 2 which covers the albums I Think We Are Alone Now and Gettin’ Together, you’ll also find other examples of the above tunes that we’re better known by other artists – Shout, Lulu’s debut hit and a splendid version of Ya Ya, once covered by John Lennon on his Rock And Roll solo album.

Just in these 2 CDs alone, we are given a superb lesson in 1960’s  Rock n Roll history. Songs which any self-respecting British group would have liked to get their hands on to make a sure-fire trip to the hit parade, pop-pickers (there must be a part of me that’s forever Alan Freeman) . Yes, this is the sound that the chart toppers of those times gave us. If any song from this compilation had made it to Juke Box Jury, presenter  David Jacobs would be pressing the ‘Hit’ bell. 

So if you want to relive those halcyon days at the birth of Rock, you’ll give credit to TJ and The Shondells who were surely a most versatile outfit and an extremely tight musical unit. In this compilation, you’ll hear the sound of The Searchers,  Dave Clark  Five, Billy Fury, Johnny And The Hurricanes, and even The Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Four Tops because Tommy James and The Shondells could do the lot.

On the 3rd CD the title track  Mony Mony bursts into life before a change in direction on the album Crimson And Clover where the aforementioned title track highlights the psychedelic tone.

Disc Four showcases their second psychedelic album Cellophane Symphony. It includes rarely released tracks, Contact and Ball Of Fire and some of the last Tommy James & The Shondells album Travellin’.

I thought it was going to be difficult ploughing through this package of a few familiar songs combined with many unfamiliar ones too before eventually re-living my Mony Mony moment. However,  it was joyful not just because of the feelgood factor emitted by the tunes but the amazing musicianship and versatile vocal styles of Tommy James & The Shondells.

Amongst the Shondells albums are shuffled in excerpts from the  Greatest Hits or Best Of compilations to avoid duplicating tracks from studio albums.  The final 2 CDs focus mainly on three Tommy James solo albums. The first, simply titled Tommy James. Even without the Shondells, Tommy managed to find the odd hit with his biggest solo hit  Draggin’ The Line featuring on  Christian Of The World. The final album on the last disc was produced in Nashville with legends of the country scene,  amongst them Scotty Moore, D.J.Fontana, Charlie McCoy and Buddy Spicer. Recorded in 197, the album titled  My Head, My Bed And My Red Guitar represents his venture into country-rock.

All in all the box set includes  141 tracks, a small proportion of which were only ever released as singles or previously unissued 6 of which complete this superb package. Accompanying the music is a booklet with an extensive history of the group with excerpts from Tommy James’ biography.

At a shade under a modest £30 for the box set, we travel through quality rock n roll dancers and ballads, bubblegum boppers to psychedelia. showing Tommy James and The Shondells’ unique ability to move with the times. A journey well worth taking.

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