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Tommy James’ 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert LIVE! at the PNC Bank Arts Center

By Shelley Bromberg, MsBrom.com. Photos by Love Imagery

It’s Friday, June 2, 2017.

The sun is shining brightly, and it’s the perfect weather for an estimated 10,000 people to come together to celebrate Tommy James’ 50th Anniversary in the Music Business Concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ.

Even though it’s a concert, the evening feels more like a party, as fans, family, and friends come out to celebrate the music legend, Tommy James, leader of the iconic ‘60’s group, Tommy James and The Shondells.

For many of us just going about our daily lives in this state, we realize at times like this that we are living in the epicenter of rock and roll history!

There is also a wide array of personalities and surprise guests who have come out to celebrate the occasion.

For instance, backstage, we spot tonight’s special guest host radio DJ “Cousin Brucie” — Bruce Morrow — and his wife, Jodie, along with Artie Pasquale and Bobby Funaro, actors from the TV series The Sopranos.

In addition, there are lots of musicians backstage!

One of them is The Shondells’ long-term bass guitarist, Jonathn Ashe, who reminisces about recording the group’s multi-million seller “Mony Mony” with Tommy and the band while on leave from the military in 1968.

Ashe recalls his bewilderment upon hearing the song played for the first time — months later — on the radio while serving with his military unit in Alabama. When he told the G.I.s nearby, “That’s me playing!” they responded disbelievingly with, “Yeah, sure it is.”

Ashe further notes that this story is “on page 137 in ‘the book.’”

The book to which he refers is Tommy James’ compelling autobiography, Me, The Mob, and the Music, which is currently being made into a major motion picture. The memoir chronicles James’ early career days working unwittingly with a record company that served as a front for a New York City organized crime family.

As the clock approaches 7:30, we take our seats in the amphitheatre, where excitement and anticipation mount. The crowd is packed with mostly baby boomers, clearly animated and eager to relive the music of their youth.

First up on stage is Ronald Gravino, the Vice President of the Garden State Arts Foundation (GSAF) Board of Trustees, who states that this concert is a “once in a lifetime show.”

Gravino also thanks the sponsors of today’s show: LiveNation, PNC Bank, SiriusXM Radio’s 60’s on 6 featuring Cousin Brucie, Sills Cummis & Gross, P.C./Hon. Jerold Zaro, The Two River Times, Hon. Jerry Langer, Princeton Public Affairs Group, Inc., and Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos, Jr. — in addition to individual donors — for their generous contributions.

Cousin Brucie, prominent DJ of SiriusXM Radio — who, back in the ’60’s, was on the air locally at NYC’s 77 WABC-AM radio station — welcomes the audience asserting, “I promised you the music would always be here for you.”

Certainly, if tonight’s concert is any indication, this statement rings true!

Cousin Brucie introduces the rock band, Groovin’, which features two well-known New Jerseyans, Gene Cornish — formerly of the Young Rascals — and Bobby Bandiera — formerly of Bon Jovi and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes.

Providing back-up vocals for the group are students from the Lakehouse Music Academy located in nearby Asbury Park, NJ.

Aptly named, Groovin’ immediately gets the crowd rolling, performing such classic Young Rascals’ hits as “I’ve Been Waiting Too Long” and “A Girl Like You,” where the horns wail as Bobby Bandiera’s voice serenades the packed ampitheater with his soulful sound.

Next, the group performs their namesake song, “Groovin,” which has the audience tapping their feet and moving their heads to the beat. After strong applause, Cornish exclaims, “That song is 50 years old today because of New Jersey!”

Another highlight includes Felix Cavalieri and Eddie Brigati’s beloved Rascals’ composition, “How Can I Be Sure,” which features Vincent Santoro on accordion. Following a stunning lead vocal performance, Cornish refers to Bandiera saying, “A beautiful song, a beautiful voice, a beautiful man.”

Following hearty applause, Groovin’ performs its final number — “Good Lovin’” — which they dedicate to everyone, notably Tommy James. The crowd energetically claps and sings along in response: All you really need is (Good lovin’)/Gimme that good, good lovin’ (Good lovin’)/ All I need is lovin’ (Good lovin’)/Good lovin’, baby!

For their high-energy performance, Groovin’ is rewarded with a standing ovation!

The audience is then treated to good wishes sent by Bobby Rydell and Dolly Parton, as well as a montage of video greetings from Stevie and Maureen Van Zandt, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, Kate Taylor, Phil “Fang” Volk from Paul Revere & the Raiders, Adam Sandler, and Tony Orlando — all wishing Tommy James well on this momentous occasion — his 50th year in the music business.

After a short intermission, Cousin Brucie tells all of his “cousins” in the audience that what is happening on this stage tonight is “love, dedication, soul, and life,” adding, “we’re here to celebrate a golden moment and to say ‘thank you’ to Tommy James.”

Then, onto the stage steps Tommy James — to a standing ovation.

Tommy breaks out into his 1971 solo hit, “Draggin’ The Line,” as people dance in the aisles to his and the band’s rockin’ sound.

Never sounding better, James exclaims, “This is some night! Anything can happen tonight. We’re gonna have a love fest with some friends!”

The family singing group, the Cowsills — Bob, Paul, and Susan — take the stage with singer Kate Taylor and Tommy for an electrifying performance of James’ 1968 Top Ten hit, “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” which features fabulous vocals and a powerful instrumental performance.

Other highlights of James’ set include not one — but two — different versions of “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

The first version is a slow, moving ballad.

Later in the set, however, a second version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” is an up-tempo power pop rendition like the one heard on Tommy’s original 1967 ’45 rpm single. The driving beat brings back the feeling of the original recording to which an entire generation of couples can relate — the quest to find that time and place where they can truly be alone.

More surprises continue as Pepe Cardona, from the band Alive “N” Kicking, takes the stage for a soulful performance of “Tighter, Tighter,” featuring a wailing electric guitar solo by The Shondells’ John Golden.

The next guest, Joan Jett, rocks out with Tommy on a song with which they both scored Top Ten hits — the psychedelic “Crimson and Clover.”

With former Shondells keyboardist Kenny Laguna joining in on keyboard, Jett and James sing and play dueling guitars while crimson lights flash and that famous tremolo effect employed on the original Tommy James and the Shondells’ recording washes over the audience.

Another special treat is a rousing performance of Tommy’s 1966 hit “Hanky Panky” featuring well-known R&B artist Gary U.S. Bonds, as avid fans “hanky panky” in their seats.

The climax of the evening’s performance begins when the band breaks into a smoking rendition of James’ 1968’s Top Ten smash, “Mony Mony.”

The crowd sings along as James descends the stage, walks into the audience, and shakes hands with friends and fans who have come to celebrate this special evening with him.

Back on stage, James introduces his band, featuring Glenn Wyka on drums, John Golden on lead guitar, Jonathn Ashe on bass guitar, Mike DeMaio on Hammond organ, and Bobby Guy on keyboards.

Thanking his manager, Carol Ross, and his music licensing specialist, Ed Osborne, Tommy calls all the performers on to the stage to join him on a rockin’ reprise of “Mony Mony.”

The Cowsills, Kate Taylor, Joan Jett, Gary U.S. Bonds, and The Sopranos’ Artie Pasquale and Bobby Funaro rock out with Tommy for the “Mony Mony” finale, as the audience joins in from their seats!

It’s an all-star finish with Gene Cornish, Bobby Bandiera, and Jonathan Ashe — not to mention Cousin Brucie, Pepe Cardona, and many more musicians, friends, and associates — groovin’ on stage to one of the greatest party songs of all time!

The esteemed performers end the show with a heartfelt, “We love you Jersey — God bless!” as Tommy exclaims, “I will never forget this night. I will never forget New Jersey!”

And judging from the excited reaction of this standing crowd, they will never forget this once-in-a-lifetime event either!

For more information on Tommy James — including his upcoming performance with The Shondells at the Cape May Convention Hall on July 12, 2017 — please see tommyjames.com. To learn more about future Garden State Arts Foundation performances at the PNC Bank Arts Center — including The Osmonds on June 13, the US Army Field Band & Soldiers’ Chorus on June 29, and Cousin Brucie’s Rock & Roll Year Book Vol. I on September 15, 2017— please go to gsafoundation.org.

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