Still rockin’, after all these years

Tommy James

Tommy James and the Shondells, Felix Cavaliere’s The Rascals share Amp stage tonight

Patrick Hosken | Staff Writer

In the late 1960s, Tommy James and the Shondells and Felix Cavaliere’s The Rascals, then known as The Young Rascals, could be found at the top of the charts in America. The latter scored big with their soulful hits “Good Lovin,’” “Groovin’” and “People Got to Be Free,” while the former rocked and rolled with “Hanky Panky,” “Mony Mony” and “Crimson and Clover.”

At 8:15 p.m. tonight, both groups will rock the Amphitheater with a nostalgia-dipped concert.

James picked up his first guitar when he was in fourth grade and was playing in his first band by the time he entered junior high. It was that band, The Tornadoes, that recorded a cover of an old tune called “Hanky Panky” in 1964, a recording that propelled James to success, thanks to heavy play on Pittsburgh radio stations two years later.

By 1969, James had assembled a new group — the Shondells — and hit No. 1 on the charts once again with a new song, “Crimson and Clover.” Behind the scenes, however, trouble loomed over the band.

The group’s label, Roulette Records, had ties to the Genovese crime family in New York City, a story James didn’t feel comfortable discussing publicly until the release of his autobiography, Me, the Mob, and the Music, came out in 2010.

“We couldn’t talk about any of it,” James said. “While we were having hits, we had to deal with this.”

The book, James said, initially was conceived as a musical memoir. When laying down the groundwork, however, he realized he needed to tell the full story of his time at Roulette Records, a label he managed to leave in 1974.

James currently is recording music for the movie adaptation of his book with the original lineup of the Shondells.

“It’s so nice to back in there,” he said. “We’ve all stayed best friends, and we lost our drummer, but the three remaining ones get together on a regular basis.”

Cavaliere, too, is still spending time in the studio these days, having released two albums with Booker T. & the M.G.’s guitarist, Steve Cropper. Since he moved to Nashville, Tenn., Cavaliere said, he’s been looking to write his own new music, but he hasn’t had the time due to constant touring.

“There’s great camaraderie among the musicians down there. It’s nice when people kind of know what it’s all about,” Cavaliere said. “Musicians are a rare breed.”

Cavaliere’s The Rascals that tour today are different than the ones who scored big with radio hits in the late ’60s, but they’re just as talented, Cavaliere said.

“All of us really love getting on that stage and playing, even after all these years,” he said. “We don’t enjoy the travel, but what you get there (onstage) is straight-out rocking.”

For both James, 64, and Cavaliere, 66, the most important constant through all the years of recording, touring and playing music has been the fans. Cavaliere said he treasures this appreciation and tailors the live show around it.

“We go backwards in time,” he said. “Our Internet was music; we connected to each other through music. That’s kind of what we do, reconnect them with their youth.”

This includes playing their hits, in addition to a large medley of other songs from the era.

“The last one that we do, I call a ‘retrospective of our time,’ and we come back to “Good Lovin,’” Cavaliere said. “I link the songs together to show that it’s all connected.”

Though the manner of making music is so much different today due to technological improvements, James said, the relationship between the performers and the fans has stayed the same.

“Our fans are so very important to us because they’ve kept the engine in the car going for all these years,” James said. “Honestly, they are the lifeblood of our career, and they always have been.”

James also said he’s excited to play with Cavaliere, a friend since 1966 with whom he doesn’t often get to share the stage.

Tonight’s show is the first time both James and Cavaliere will play at Chautauqua, so audiences can expect much enthusiasm from the performers.

“The audiences, after a certain point in time, become extended family. I look out into the crowd now and see three generations of fans. It’s incredible,” James said. “Live shows are very important to me. It’s important to talk to fans and say hello and get reacquainted.”