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Rollin' back to his roots
Luke Hansen, Juda, holds out a few of his more prized Tommy James and the Shondells records, from his collection of more than 4,000 records Wednesday afternoon. James has roots in Monroe, having lived here from 1956 to 1959, when his parents managed the Eugene Hotel on the downtown Square. Hansen will be in attendance as James returns to the state for a sold-out concert at Ho Chunk Casino in Wisconsin Dells. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
MONROE - Few voices immortalize the 1960s like the voice of Tommy James. He sang such early rock 'n' roll hits as "Mony Mony," "Crimson and Clover" "Crystal Blue Persuasion," "Draggin' the Line" and "I Think We're Alone Now."

But in 1958 - a decade before he and his band the Shondells were selling more singles than the Beatles - he was just another sixth-grader in Monroe who greased his hair like Elvis. James lived here from 1956 to 1959, while his parents managed a hotel on the downtown Square.

He returns to Wisconsin this Saturday, March 9, to play a sold-out concert at Ho Chunk Casino in the Wisconsin Dells.

It was in Monroe that James discovered rock music, saw Elvis on TV for the first time and learned to play the guitar. He describes his early years living here in his 2010 book "Me, the Mob and the Music," which he says is being adapted for a film produced by Barbara De Fina ("Goodfellas," "Casino").

James anticipates the movie will come out on Universal Studios within a couple of years.

"The director is being chosen right now," he said last week from his home in New Jersey. De Fina, who was married to director Martin Scorsese in the late 1980s, is "this petite little lady about 5-foot-1 and she does these mob movies. She's really fun to hang around. You get a real education talking with her."

Her interest in Tommy James' story is no surprise, given his unusual connection to organized crime. After he left Monroe for Michigan and eventually to New York City to sign with Roulette Records, he got unwittingly ensnared in the label executive's allegiances to the Genovese crime family.

Roulette Records turned out to be a front for a money-laundering operation. He estimates the company swindled him out of $30 to $40 million in royalties. Morris Levy, the label's exec, has been named as a possible inspiration for the character Hesh Rabkin on HBO's "The Sopranos."

As James and his band learned of their label's sinister underbelly, "we couldn't talk about it." When Levy died in 1990, it freed James to talk openly.

"There's nobody to stop us from telling the story now," James said.

Maintaining ties

Several of James' friends from Monroe have kept up with him through the years, watching as the talented kid they knew as Tommy Jackson emerged as an internationally known star.

"It was my father that actually taught him his first chords on the guitar, sitting on the front porch out in the country," remembers David Wangnoss. The guitar was a 1946 Martin. Wangnoss still has it. Up until then, James had only a ukulele to play. "He beat on that ukulele something fierce. Once he found out that Dad knew how to play the guitar, he went spastic on me."

Eventually James convinced his own parents to buy him a used electric guitar from a barber on 16th Avenue who moonlighted in a polka band at their hotel.

"When this band came in, I was really flipped out watching the guitar player," James said. It wasn't long before he was performing, too. The television station WREX out of Rockford held auditions at the hotel for its show "Talent Roundup." James came in second playing "Oh Julie" by the Crescendos.

Mike Doyle, now the Green County clerk, remembers being in classes with James at St. Victor School. "I got straight Fs in music class because I refused to sing," Doyle said. James, in contrast, "had a natural talent."

Years later, Doyle was working in the kitchen at the Memorial Union in Madison as part of an internship for his chef's training. It was 1966 or 1967, he remembers, and James was performing on a stage at the Union. At first, Doyle didn't make the connection that this was his childhood buddy - "I didn't put Tommy James and Tommy Jackson together." Off and on since then, the two men have kept in touch and Doyle often goes to see James perform when he's in the area.

"It's been my privilege to know him," Doyle said.

Terry Stauffacher, another classmate from St. Vic's, also reconnected with James years later. Last fall he took a Cheese Days T-shirt as a souvenir to James, when the two met up after a show in Michigan.

"He remembers everything about Monroe," Stauffacher said.

Remembering Monroe

James hasn't been to Monroe since an afternoon visit in 1965, but it has a special place in his history.

"Monroe is where I started playing," he said. Every now and then to reminisce, he'll "wander the town" on Google Maps' Street View.

He discovered his first jukebox here. He remembers it as a cathedral-like Wurlitzer that spun 78s in the bar of the Eugene Hotel, which his parents managed.

The Eugene Hotel building is still standing. An antique shop, Wildflower Collectibles, has its entrance where the lobby of the hotel used to be. The owners of nearby cheese shop Baumgartner's, Chris and Tyler Soukup, bought the building recently and plan to keep it as rental retail property. They're still deciding what to do with the gutted third floor.

Wangnoss remembers the Eugene Hotel bar as a plush establishment with cloth napkins and "silverware that weighed a ton." He and James met on a Saturday morning in the late 1950s while watching cartoons and B Westerns at the Goetz Theatre down the street. Just a year apart in age, the boys hit it off and hung out often at the Eugene and at the Wangnoss family farm north of Monroe.

"He had an infatuation with the farm," Wangnoss said. "He swore he'd never seen a cow before in his life."

A few years after James left Monroe for Michigan, Wangnoss remembers James calling him up at home and suggesting he move to Michigan so they could be in a band together. It didn't matter that Wangnoss didn't play - "We'd teach ya," he remembers James saying. But Wangnoss' mom took a dim view of him moving so far away.

Looking back now, Wangnoss joked, "I could've been a Shondell."

It was also in Monroe that James started his music collection, saving up his allowance every week to buy records and a $17 acoustic guitar at the Monroe Music Store, owned by John and Hilda Ammon on the Square at 1018 17th Ave. The shop is long gone, but a photo of it hangs on the walls of Pancho and Lefty's Outlaw Grill, the current tenant at the address.

"My whole life has been so centered around music that I can sort of tell time by what record I was listening to," James said. "I know when I was 11, when I was 10, by what I was listening to on the radio."

Luke Hansen, a record collector near Juda, has 4,000 LPs and a similar connection to music. Even though Hansen was only 5 years old at the time, he remembers hearing the Shondells' "Hanky Panky" when it came out in 1966. "I grew up on a farm, so it was playing on the barn radio," he said. He has all James' albums, live DVDs and most of his 45s and counts himself as a big fan.

Hansen found the original 45 for James' first single "Hanky Panky" at a garage sale by Lucky 7 in Monroe. It was released in 1964 on a local label in James' hometown of Niles, Mich., two years before a DJ in Pittsburgh fortuitously discovered it in a cast-off bin. The song spread quickly from there.

This weekend's concert in the Dells will be Hansen's first time seeing James perform and he's hoping to meet him. He's fascinated by James' little-known, decades-old connection to Monroe. Nowadays, "there's probably only ten people in Monroe that know."

Bring him back?

Among those here who do know, they want to bring James back for a concert.

"I have a bucket list, and that's probably number one," said Wangnoss. His efforts thus far at finding a venue in Monroe haven't been successful. In the meantime, he and other friends are headed like Hansen to Ho Chunk to see the concert Saturday.

"Afterward," Stauffacher said, "we're going to go up to his suite and reminisce."

What sticks with Stauffacher, Wangnoss and others who know James personally is his unassuming nature.

"He's as common as the day is long. He'll stay and sign autographs until the janitors go home," said Wangnoss.