Tommy James & the Shondells, “Celebration: The Complete Roulette Recordings 1966-1973”

Tommy James & the Shondells
Celebration: The Complete Roulette Recordings 1966-1973

Whether you’re talking about classic Michigan rockers, garage gods, or psychedelic pop giants, weirdly absent is the name Tommy James. Still without a Rock Hall of Fame nod, James was responsible, in part, for bringing the sinister psilocybin edge of ’60s psych into the AM band’s merry-prankster mainstream with the swirly “Crimson and Clover,” hip-swinging R&B-tinged rockers such as “Mony Mony,” and spooky pop cuts such as “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

James’ legend, however, is too often tied to—then shadowed by—his association with Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records who infamously treated his artists like slaves, paying them next to nothing—Roulette was used as a front for organized crime, a money laundering operation, and tied to the mob. (Too long a subject and outcome to discuss here, I suggest you read Me, the Mob, and the Music for further, often hilarious, always harrowing proof.) The outcome of all of this drama has meant that much of James’ output—with the Shondells or alone—has gone without the continued acclaim that’s been afforded others of his generation.

No more. This new Grapefruit/Cherry Red label box is the first to collect all of James’ diverse work between 1966 and 1973 (thirteen albums on Roulette, sixteen tracks only ever released on 45) in one place—a place of latter-day saints (e.g. 1971’s earthy, religious Christian of the World featuring his “Draggin’ the Line” hit and the storming “Church Street Soul Revival”) and saloon C&W (his foray into country-tinged pop a la My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar with Nashville studio giants Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana).

Mostly though, the whole of Celebration is rich with mid-’60s, acid- and sugar-laced pop, blue-eyed soul, and bubblegum psychedelic rock all rolled in cinnamon and super glued with rippling, irresistibly contagious melody. Starting with the summer of 1966’s R&B frat-rocking Hanky Panky (where James recorded with a group of Shondells he had only played with once), the box set races through sleek but occasionally menacing Californian pop (e.g. the yearning likes of “What I’d Give to See Your Face Again” and “Baby Let Me Down”), the immensely frug-worthy Mony Mony, and 1969’s twin towers of whirling, psychedelic shacking-and-smacking soul pop, the back-to-back releases of the top-charting Crimson & Clover and its eerily orchestral Cellophane Symphony. Zig-zagging between the albums are funky one-off singles such as “Wish it Were You” and “Get Out Now.”

An essential collection and a deep dive into pop’s rare past with a man who made the journey bold, original, and downright frisky: that’s Tommy James’ Celebration.


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