Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Rivieras ... and Tommy James

Got a few responses to yesterday's Rivieras piece ... so I thought I'd run a follow-up today ...


>>> What's up with that?!?! How come when Brian Wilson wrote "Surfin' USA", patterned after Chuck Berry's tune "Sweet Little Sixteen", he ultimately had to give cowriting credit (and a substantial amount of royalties) to The Grandfather of Rock And Roll ... yet The Rivieras' surfin' tune "Little Donna" ... a blatant rip off of Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" ... only shows leader Bill Dobslaw's name under the title as songwriter?!?!? (kk)

What's up with that? On Little Donna, it is a blatant rewrite of Rock And Roll Music, but was not a huge national hit. I'd say Chuck Berry concentrated his efforts on Surfin' USA as there was much more money to recover. If Little Donna became a huge hit, it would have been worth the effort for Berry to sue. Just my opinion.
Mark the Shark

Your postings today of the Rivieras reminded me that one of our local DJ's (can't really remember his name) many times would use the instrumental H.B. GOOSESTEP as his theme.
Larry Neal

I had meant to feature this track in that post but couldn't locate it in time ... here is that rousing instrumental now. (kk)

Here's the Rivieras' version of Hanky Panky from their 1965 USA LP. IF the Shondells learned THEIR version from the Rivieras, I would be surprised. They sound light years apart to me.
Clark Besch


When I first wrote that piece back in 2006, it was purely speculation on my part that James may have heard the song performed at a club in Niles, Michigan, as The Rivieras were playing all over the midwest at the time. (And the fact that Tommy worked in a record store increased the odds of him being familiar with the tune as well as The Raindrops' B-Side.) But in 2010 when Tommy James wrote his biography "Me, The Mob And The Music", he finally addressed some of my suspicions once and for all.  I had the right idea ... I just had the wrong band!

James (and his various pre-Shondells high school bands) used to see The Rivieras (then performing as The Playmates) perform all the time ... in fact, they were almost a "rival" band if you will. 

Here, in Tommy's own words, he lays down the scenario for you:

There was a group called the Princeton Five that was terribly popular in the South Bend area. 

(The Princeton Five would eventually chart here in Chicago with their version of "Roll Over Beethoven", right at the start of Beatlemania ... and then more famously, as simply The Princetons, with their Top Ten Local Hit "Georgiana".) 

These guys were rockers. They were our nemesis. There was a group called The Playmates (later The Rivieras) from La Port and The Tempests from Elkhart, and still another band from Mishawaka called The Spinners. There was even another Niles band called The Corvettes. These were only the most popular, but this was our competition and we were the new kids on the block. 

At this time Tommy was calling his band Tom and the Tornadoes!  And they even got to make a record on a small, local label (that went absolutely nowhere ... but would be QUITE the collectible today!) Tommy describes their set list at this time as follows:   

Motown and surf music were hot that year and we did them to death. We also played "Quarter To Three" by Gary "U.S." Bonds, 'Wah-Watusi" by the Orlons, practically everything by the Beach Boys, "Do You Love Me" by the Contours, instrumentals like "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris, "Pipeline" by the Chantays and "Easier Said Than Done" by the Essex. But by far the most requested song that summer was "Louie Louie" by the Kingsman, a song in which no matter how closely you listen to it, the lyrics are still unintelligible. Years later I found ot even the Kingsmen did not know what the hell they were singing!   

James then goes on to describe his feelings about the Kennedy assassination ... and witnessing The Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, an event that transformed his life forever.

The Beatles opened up a floodgate and the British Invasion was on. The Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Animals, the Zombies, the Kinks ... and on and on and on. We loved the new sound. It was very different from the three-chord rockers we had been playing up to that point. This change in music was also reflected in the Tornadoes. We were so transfixed by all the new groups from Britain and so preoccupied with imitating the British rockers, that we weren't paying attention to what was going on in our own backyard.    

That spring a mysterious box of records came into the Spin-It (the record store where Tommy worked) with about twenty-five copies of a song called "California Sun" by a group I had never heard of, the Rivieras. Stranger still, it was on the Riviera label, which in all likelihood meant it was a local band pressing its own records. I put it on the turntable. It sounded like a second-rate impersonation of the Princeton Fives version of "California Sun", which they had been playing for years and was practically their theme song.   

I asked where these records had come from and was told a guy named Dobslaw dropped them off. "Bob Dobslaw? The manager of the Playmates?" She handed me a glossy eight-by-ten. I could not believe it. The Rivieras were really the Playmates, our old sparring partners from La Porte, Indiana. How did they do it? I grudgingly accepted the fact that another local band had had the savvy to put out a record. But, I figured, what the hell difference does it make? Without national promotion or a miracle, they could not do any better than we did with "Judy" and "Long Ponytail" (the single that Tommy had cut with his band earlier the previous year.)   

That all changed that Friday night when I turned on my car radio to WLS, the biggest station in the Midwest, and almost drove off the road. It was Art Roberts, WLS's top DJ, announcing as only he could, "The new smmmmmmmash hit by the Rivieras ... Cal-La-Forn-Ya-Suuuuuuuun!"   (Ah yes ... the glory days ... when WLS was a LEADER instead of a follower!!!)   

I honestly did not know whether to cry or put my fist through the windshield. God, was I jealous. This could not be happening. We knew these guys. They were local schlocks, just like us. What was going on here? I had always felt that their manager, Bob Dobslaw, was a bona fide nerd who could not find his backside with both hands ... but he quickly went up a few notches in my estimation. I was in a state of shock. Over the next few weeks, I helplessly watched as the record climbed relentlessly up the charts. Top 30! No, No. Top 20! Stop, Stop! Top 10! Oh my God! And not just on WLS ... the whole damn country!   

Later that summer Tommy met a DJ named Jack Douglas, who was the morning man at WNIL, the local radio station in Niles. He had been kicking around the idea of starting his own record label ... and offered to record Tommy and his band. "Who knows," he told him, "With enough local airplay maybe we can break out of Chicago." 

All I kept thinking about was the Rivieras ... and I said "Let's do it."  

Unfortunately, when they got to the studio, Douglas wanted them to record what Tommy described as "Mother Goose" instead of rock and roll ... and so that first release, "Pretty Little Red Bird" / "Wishing Well", died a quick but (personally painful) death.    

In September, Tommy stopped by a local club called Shula's and caught his old pals The Spinners playing there.    

I had not seen The Spinners in a while and I wanted to check them out. One of the songs they played during their first set got an amazing reaction from the crowd. It was called "Hanky Panky." I had never heard it before.  

In between sets, Tommy asked Spinners Drummer Hank Randolph about the origins of the tune and Hank told him that they had heard another band do it a few weeks ago and the crowd went nuts ... so they decided that they should do it, too. They weren't able to find a copy of the actual record so they just started playing the bits and pieces they could remember and ad-libbing the rest.   

During the next set, over the PA system, I could hear people requesting this song over and over. The requests were coming mainly from the girls, which was always a good sign. The Spinners played "Hanky Panky" twice more that afternoon and each time the reaction was the same ... the crowd went wild. Everybody hit the dance floor and sang along.  

When I left Shula's later that afternoon, all I could thnk about was getting into Jack Douglas's studio and recording that song. After the Rivieras' rip-off of "California Sun" from the Princeton Five, I knew we didn't have much time and I was not going to take any chances. "Hanky Panky" was going to belong to the Shondells.

Once he got back to the Spin-It Record Store, Tommy did some research of his own and found that the song had first been recorded by The Raindrops as the B-Side of their record "That Boy John". It had been released the previous fall but was quickly pulled off the market after the Kennedy assassination because HE was the "John" referred to in the title.

The Shondells added "Hanky Panky" to their set list and got the same reaction The Spinners got ... EVERYBODY loved this song! They recorded it for Snap Records and the record went straight to #1 in the Niles / South Bend area ... and Top Ten in many other local radio outlets ... but they couldn't get a major market to bite and it, too, slowly faded away.

In his book "Rock And Roll Radio: The Fun Years, 1955 - 1975" legendary WLS DeeJay Clark Weber remembers:

I'm the first to admit that I didn't always hear "hit record" when a song was first played.  In 1965, I was doing a beach party record hop at the Glen Lord Beach Park Pavilion in Niles, Michigan, when a very polite teenager asked me if I would listen to a record that he and his friends had recorded.  I said that I would and put it on the turntable.  My first reaction was that it was a bit primitive, but I decided to be gentle in my response.  I told him that while it was a good first try, it wasn't something that WLS would have an interest in playing on the air.  That song became such a big hit that people still dance to it today.  The kid's name was Tommy James and the song was "Hanky Panky".

It wouldn't become a NATIONAL hit until two years later when a disc jockey in Pittsburgh started playing the record on his program, immediately lighting up the switchboard with more requests. Soon it was a #1 Record in Pittsburgh (so much for "overnight success") and then the rest of the country as well.  (The rest of the story, of course, is history. Tommy James and the Shondells became one of the most successful acts of the '60's ... and their music is still played regularly 45 years later.  By the way, "Hanky Panky" went on to top The WLS Silver Dollar Survey for four weeks during the Summer of 1966!)  

For more on the Tommy James story, you've GOT to pick up a copy of "Me, The Mob and the Music", one of the best bios ever published.