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Arts, Sports & Culture

How A Bar Band From Latrobe Became 'The Shondells'

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Mike Vale
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The 1967-70 Shondells. Bottom row left to right: Eddie Gray, Mike Vale, Ron Rosman. Top: Peter Lucia.

In early 1966,  a rock n' roll song called "Hanky Panky" went to the top of the charts in Pittsburgh after a Steel City dance promoter and DJ named Bob Mack gave it a spin. What Mack didn't know is that the song, recorded by Tommy James and The Shondells in 1964, had languished for two years prompting the band members to go their separate ways and get day jobs. When Mack finally tracked down Tommy James in Niles, Michigan where the song was recorded, James told him The Shondells were no more.

In an attempt to capitalize on the success of the song, James was talked into coming to Pittsburgh. But a new group of Shondells still had to be recruited. Musicians from a Latrobe band called The Raconteurs were signed on to perform with James and the rest is history.  

The Raconteurs, not to be confused with the modern Jack White-affiliated band, were a bar band from Latrobe, PA. According to members Mike Vale and Ron Rosman, the band used bar gigs as their way of paying for schooling at St. Vincent College.

It was at a Raconteurs show at the Thunderbird Cafe in Greensburg that they were approached by James and Mack about becoming the new Shondells. At the time, neither Vale nor Rosman had any clue who James was or what the big deal was about his song “Hanky Panky.”

“That wasn’t the music we listened to,” said Rosman.

“Those weren’t the stations we paid much attention to being the rhythm and blues act that we were,” said Mack.

When they realized the popularity and scope of “Hanky Panky,” they were all in.

Their first appearance as a band was on Clark Race’s television variety show. The band had not yet practiced, so the entire performance, music and vocally, was lip synced.

“I picked up a guitar which I couldn’t play at all because I’m a bass man,” chuckled Vale.

The Latrobe-natives soon found themselves on a busy tour schedule with the band. As they would discover later in their time with James, touring was their only income, as their label Roulette was owned by the mob and kept nearly all the money for itself.

The Crystal Blue Band, Vale and Rosman’s current project, is a response to their erasure from the Shondells’ historical narrative. Vale was a co-writer for many of the Shondells’ hits, but the Tommy Jones team has largely erased the members of the Raconteurs from the band’s history.

The Crystal Blue Band draws its name from the 1968 hit “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” a song that Vale co-wrote. The band has released an album titled Legacy, a collection of the Tommy James & the Shondells songs as performed sans James. The upcoming shows aim to remind audiences of the unrecognized contributions of the less famous Shondells.

They will be performing in DuBois on September 3 and at the Casino Theatre September 17 in Vandergrift.

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