En route to his place in rock history, Tommy James unwittingly got involved with some unscrupulous figures in the music industry.
This Saturday Tommy James, he of the Shondells fame who sold over 100 million records since the 1960s, will perform in Atlantic City, that of the Boardwalk Empire-created buzz fictionalizing the town’s infamous past from the 1920s.
It’s hard to fathom a link between the well-mannered kid from America’s heartland and an East Coast town with such a scandalous past, but a big one is brewing. As with A.C., which recently had its story spun from a book into the aforementioned HBO series, James co-authored an autobiography called Me, the Mob and the Music that tells the story of a budding musician from a wholesome upbringing who took “one helluva ride” with some devious and dangerous people.
James’ book was released earlier this year and is already in its fifth printing. So well received was it that plans are in motion to turn it into both a Broadway musical and a major motion picture, both of which are likely to be completed some time in 2012.
“The thing of it is, it all happened sort of together,” James tells Atlantic City Weekly. “I definitely want to kiss Frankie Valli for doing [the major Broadway hit] Jersey Boys, because that really opened the floodgates for these types of musicals. Right after the book was released we started getting calls for the movie rights, and then all of a sudden we were approached by the Neiderlander family, who own nine Broadway theaters and about 2,000 theaters across the United States. They approached Barry Rosen, who’s producing the movie, so everything sort of came together at the same time.”
James (born Thomas Jackson in 1947) has been a northern New Jersey resident since 1972. He spent his early youth in Ohio and formative years in Michigan, and the “helluva ride” kicked off when he and his then band, Tommy and the Tornadoes, recorded a cover of an obscure song called “Hanky Panky” that was bootlegged and played by Pittsburgh DJ and club owner Bob Mack. The song skyrocketed in popularity, major record companies clamored to put James and his band on their label, and he wound up in the New York City office of Roulette Records boss Morris Levy.
“‘Hanky Panky’ is what started my career,” says James. “Bob Mack played it in his dance clubs, the kids loved it, they bootlegged the record and sold 80,000 of them in 10 days, and we’re sitting at number one. We got to New York two weeks later and all the record companies want to do business. We get a yes from Columbia and Epic and Atlantic and RCA, and the last place we took the record to that day was Roulette.
“Well, Morris calls all the other record companies up the next morning and says [in a deep, gravely voice] ‘This is my fuckin’ record.’ So we were apparently going to be on Roulette. He even backed down Columbia. It was amazing, the reach of this guy. Then of course, we understood why.”
It would become frighteningly apparent to James and the Shondells that Levy was closely associated with New York City’s organized crime syndicates, and would often use violent, strong-arm tactics to intimidate rivals in the music business. Co-written with Martin Fitzpatrick, the book chronicles the chaos in a captivating and often humorous way, detailing how the release of the Shondells’ album Crimson and Clover (the title track of which was their greatest of many hits, co-written by James and the late Shondells’ drummer Peter Lucia) was fortuitously timed to allow the band to segue from radio’s top-40 format into more progressive rock music.
“When we went out in August on the [Hubert] Humphrey [presidential] campaign in 1968, the whole world was about singles,” says James. “It was us, the Rascals, the Association, the Buckinghams, Gary Puckett — all singles acts. We get home 90 days later and it was all album acts — it’s Blood, Sweat and Tears, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker — it was just incredible the change that happened in just that 90-day period.
“Crimson and Clover was really the record that allowed us to go from AM top-40 singles to FM progressive album rock. And there’s no other single record that we’ve ever worked on that would have done that for us on one shot. We were very fortunate to have that record just at the right moment.”
Crimson and Clover was also intended to be the title of the book, until James was persuaded to tell the whole story of his rocky road with Roulette.
“I was really intending to just write memoirs,” he says. “About eight years ago we were going to write a nice book about music and the hits and stuff, and about a third of the way into it we realized that if we don’t tell the whole Roulette story, that we’re cheating ourselves and everybody else. But I was very concerned about the fact that some of these [organized crime] guys were still walking around, and I was very uncomfortable laying it all on the table, so we put the book on the shelf for a couple of years.
“Then, in December 2005, when the last of the ‘Roulette Regulars’ as I call them passed on, that’s when we started in earnest writing the book, and it took us almost three years before it was officially ready. We started shopping the manuscript and immediately it got gobbled up by Simon & Schuster.”
James admits that Levy’s far-reaching influence and willingness to allow the artists autonomy — something most of the major-record executives did not do — helped the Shondells become the household names they became. Levy cheated and stole from the Shondells and other artists in his stable, but he did have a more humane side that comes out in the book at times, and James and other major stars were sort of in limbo emotionally when Levy passed away from cancer in 1990.
“If we had gone with one of the corporate labels, I can tell you right now, especially with a record like ‘Hanky Panky,’ we would have been given to an in-house producer, we would have been lost in the numbers and probably that would have been the last anybody ever heard from us,” says James. “Morris made us what we became because [Roulette] pretty much left us alone in the studio. We were allowed to morph into whatever we could become. And that’s an education you could not pay for. I learned a whole business, from writing the song to album retailing and everything in between. I could never have learned that at Columbia or RCA.
“I can’t tell you how schizophrenic my feelings are about all this stuff, and how I’m torn in my feelings toward Morris. It’s a very complicated thing, and I would vacillate back and forth between one set of feelings and another because we were being robbed, there’s no doubt about it. Even when I was there I had to almost constantly monitor myself about ‘What am I going to do?’ because, in essence, it was the story of trying to be in pop music with this very dark and dangerous story going on behind us, and I didn’t know how to play it.”
James says that while the completed movie version of the book is many months away, the ending has already been written. As the closing credits roll, and shortly after Levy has died on the screen, the Shondells’ hit song “I Think We’re Alone Now” will play at a reduced speed from the original version, sort of symbolic of the fact that the band is now without its contentious mentor.
“When you look at the big picture, you’ve got to say that the good far outweighed the bad,” says James. “Because of what happened during the Roulette years, every time I go to say something nasty about Morris Levy or Roulette Records, I am always reminded that if it hadn’t been for Morris Levy or Roulette Records, there would not have been a Tommy James. He made me a star — and now we’re going to make him one.”
So, in a sense, the helluva ride continues.
"We’re like four brothers, and it’s really exciting to see how we deal with those dynamics and the challenges that everyday life brings. And then to carry that onto the stage has really become a large part of our style, a sort of Rat Pack way we deal with one another.”