This is the song that set in motion the strange events that led to the rise of Tommy James & the Shondells, and their journey recording for a record company controlled by the Mafia, the full and fascinating story of which is told in a Songfacts interview with Tommy James
The song was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, which is the team responsible for the hits "Be My Baby
" and "Leader of the Pack
." Barry and Greenwich recorded it themselves as The Raindrops, and released it as the B-side of their 1963 single "That Boy John." Shortly after the release of the Raindrops' version, 13-year-old Tommy Jackson, who would later become Tommy James, slipped into a club in South Bend, Indiana and listened to a local band, the Spinners (not the hitmakers of the '70s) play the song. After hearing "Hanky Panky" drive the crowd wild, Tommy wanted to record it for his second single - he had released one locally the previous year. He and his group, The Shondells, recorded the song at a radio station in his hometown of Niles, Michigan.
The song was released on the tiny Snap label, the first issue of the record label owned by a DJ friend of Tommy. It sold well in the midwest, then faded into obscurity. A year and a half later - in 1965 - Tommy Jackson graduated from high school and the Shondells went their separate ways.
In late 1965, a Pittsburgh DJ started playing the two-year-old single and touted it as an "exclusive." Another Pittsburgh DJ played HIS copy of "Hanky Panky" at various dance parties and the resulting demand caused a "Hanky Panky" war as bootleggers sold an estimated 80,000 illegal copies of the record. DJ "Mad Mike" Metro called Tommy to inform him of the single's popularity and asked if the Shondells could perform it in Pittsburgh. One minor problem: by then, Jackson was a solo act. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he asked a local band, the Raconteurs, if they would like to be the new Shondells. They accepted the offer and he adopted the new stage name of Tommy James.
Record companies took notice and lined up to sign the band. Atlantic, Columbia, Epic and Kama Sutra all courted them along with a smaller label called Roulette. But, as Tommy told us, things didn't go as expected: "One by one all the record companies started calling up and saying, 'Look, we gotta pass.' I said, 'What? What are you talking about?' 'Sorry, we take back our offer. We can't…' There was about six of them in a row. And so we didn't know what in the world was going on. And finally Jerry Wexler over at Atlantic leveled with us and said, Look, Morris Levy and Roulette called up all the other record companies and said, 'This is my freakin' record.' (laughs) And scared 'em all away – even the big corporate labels. And so that should have been the dead giveaway right there. So we were apparently gonna be on Roulette Records." The band did sign with Roulette and did a great job promoting the record, which hit #1 in the summer of 1966. Tommy James was 19 years old and a year out of high school.