In 1958, when Tom was eleven, his family moved to Niles, Michigan. That year he formed his first band "The Echoes" with classmates Ed Steinbauer, Chuck Murray, Mike Booth and Dale Mayhew. In 1959, at the age of twelve, James formed his second band called "Tom and the Tornadoes". A year later the band changed its name to The Shondells. By 1964, a local DJ at WNIL radio station in Niles formed his own record label, Snap Records. The Shondells were one of the local bands the DJ recorded at WNIL studios. One of the songs was the Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich ditty "Hanky Panky", which was recorded as The Raindrops. The song was a hit locally, but the label had no resources for national promotion and it was soon forgotten.
In 1965, a DJ in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found a copy of "Hanky Panky" and played it as a station "exclusive". Listener response was positive, with many wanting to know where they could get a copy of the "new" single. Another DJ started playing the song at local dance parties. Responding to the demand, a local bootlegger taped the song off the radio and began pressing copies of it. Eventual sales of the bootleg were estimated at 80,000. Pittsburgh DJ "Mad Mike" Metro tracked down Tommy James and informed him that his record was No. 1 in the city. James almost hung up on Metro, but was convinced to come to Pennsylvania and make appearances promoting the surprise hit. Soon, James was in New York, selling the original master of "Hanky Panky" to Roulette Records. By the late summer of 1966, it was the top selling single in the nation.
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