by Scott Silsbe
1959. A 12-year-old Tommy Jackson forms a band called Tom and the Tornadoes in Niles, MI. A year later, 13-year-old Jackson sneaks into a club in South Bend, IN—just down the road from Niles—and sees a band of nobodies play “Hanky Panky” to a riotous crowd. They want to hear it again.
When his new band The Shondells record it for Snap Records, Tommy can’t remember all of the words. But that’s not important. What’s important is that she does the hanky panky. Had he ever heard the version by The Raindrops? It doesn’t matter. He fills in some of the gaps with semi-coherent mumbles.
Where was Mad Mike Metro when he first heard “Hanky Panky”? Did he own a 45 of it on Snap first, or was it one of the Pittsburgh-produced copies on Red Fox Records? Or was it some kind of bootleg? Was it too popular already for him to try to hide it from everyone else by scratching off the label? Did he ever try to record bongos over the top of it to make the kids really get down to it at Danceland?
The middle-aged guy next to me at the bar, an oldies-freak, says, “I never did like that song.” He must have heard it about a thousand times or so back then, at those dances and parties at The White Elephant, Teenland, The Lebanon Lodge, The Blue Fox, Teen Scene, The Tarena, and Action City.
It’s December 1965. There are some 80,000 bootleg copies of “Hanky Panky” floating around Pennsylvania. Mad Mike finds Tommy’s phone number in Niles and calls him to see if he’ll come play “Hanky Panky” in Pittsburgh. I’m sure it’s snowing in Niles. The Steel City must seem far away. Tommy hangs up the phone and starts making plans. He’s needed in Pittsburgh.
Not too long ago, I was doing some research on old Pittsburgh DJs—specifically Mike Metrovich (a.k.a. Mad Mike Metro). Hanky Panky turned out to be a song essential to Mad Mike’s legacy, so my research led me to Tommy James and how that song became a hit. This little piece incorporates many details that I discovered and a few that I imagined. I love that a three-minute pop song like this can have such a rich backstory. And Pittsburgh’s a great music city, where these kinds of stories seem to pop up all around you. The middle-aged “oldies-freak” is my friend Amy’s father, John Urban, a born-and-bred Pittsburgher—talking music with him was another inspiration for this piece.
Scott Silsbe was born in Detroit. He now lives in Pittsburgh where he sells antiquarian books, makes music with friends, and writes things. His poems and prose have appeared in numerous print and web periodicals including Nerve Cowboy, Kitchen Sink, The Chariton Review, Third Coast, The Volta, and Cultural Weekly. He is the author of two poetry collections: Unattended Fire (Six Gallery Press, 2012) and The River Underneath the City (Low Ghost Press, 2013).