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Me, the Mob and the Music: Tommy James Tells Enough

                                                                  

Me, The Mob, and the Music
One Helluva of a Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells
By Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick
225 pp, Scribner

Tommy James', Me, the Mob and the Music isn’t quite a tell-all, which may come as a relief to afficianados of 60's pop/rock. Despite the title, you shouldn't expect any sketches of the inner-workings of the Genovese crime family or lurid details about what James may have witnessed or overheard—it’s mostly an occasionally troubling story about Tommy the barely post-pubescent babe in the woods’ dealings with the so-called Godfather of the music business, that Bully of Broadway (or thereabouts) Morris “Moish” Levy.

For almost a decade James was a veritable hit-making machine for Levy’s Roulette Records, really the only winner in the Roulette stable. As the tape unwinds though, James emerges as the hardest working serf on Levy’s manor, locked in a bizarre mentor/tormentor relationship with Moish that drives him to heavy drinking, pill-popping, a penchant for guns and therapy.

Maybe James should have seen it coming in 1966 after a bootlegged version of “Hanky Panky,” the Ellie Greenwich/ Jeff Barry song he and some other Indiana kids recorded two years earlier as Tommy Jackson and the Shondells, sold 80,000 copies around Pittsburgh and the band didn’t see a penny. It’s only because there was a lot more money to be made by bringing Jackson (later James) to Pittsburgh for local appearances that’s there any story to tell at all.

The backstory: by April, 1966, the Shondells had split up and Tommy Jackson was playing the Midwest club circuit in an outfit called Kathy and the Koachmen when he got a call from “Hanky Panky” producer and Snap Records label owner Jack Douglas. Douglas told the bemused Jackson that a club DJ named Bob Mack had found the record in a cut-out bin and made it a hit on the dance floors all over Pittsburgh. Mack had taken the record to a local pressing plant, and 80,000 bootlegged copies later, Mack, Jackson and talent agent Chuck Rubin were running all over Manhattan, trying to shop “Hanky Panky” and Tommy James (the name improvised in a hotel room just the night before) to major labels. Epic, Atlantic, RCA and Kama Sutra all wanted the song and the act. Roulette told them they’d get back to them.

So maybe James should have seen it coming when the next day all the other deals were off the table. Only Roulette’s remained. Jerry Wexler later admitted that he’d gotten a phone call from the Mob-tied Morris Levy warning him to back off the record. Apparently, Levy made a lot of calls because suddenly Tommy James had a career with Levy's Roulette Records. No band, but a career.

He’d find a band in Pittsburgh, five guys who called themselves the Raconteurs (yup!). He’d find the songwriting/production team of Richie Cordell and Sal Tramachi, later Cordell and Bo Gentry, later Cordell and James himself, and together they’d make “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” to name a few.

By 1968, he’d make a lot of money for Morris Levy, allegedly the template for the Sopranos’ semi-retired record promoter Hesh Rabkin, and Roulette. He’d piss off the BBC after “Mony, Mony,” exploded in Britain by agreeing to a network sponsored tour and then reneging so that he and the Shondells could be the official touring band for Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign in 1968. He also would see no royalties on record sales or songwriting, and when he battled Levy over these things, he learned quickly that the joke about Roulette’s accounts payable department  being “the quietest place on the planet” was no joke at all: “Power and money were what his psyche were made of,” James writes of Levy, “His peculiar dementia was that he had to make you understand at a visceral level that he was prepared to blow everything to hell, destroy the very thing that was making him millions, unless you submitted to his will.”

Later, the angst ridden James admits, “The walks home after my confrontations with Morris were a shrink’s dream…I’d usually walk out feeling grateful for having money in my pocket … until I realized how much the son of a (gun) really owed me.”

How much did he owe him? Four years into their partnership, Tommy James hired an accountant who calculated that Levy owed James close to 40 million dollars. When Levy threatened to introduce the accountant to the local fish population, James had to back down. “Aaron (the accountant-edt.) had a family. It was over.”

By 1974, James’ contract with Morris Levy and Roulette records was over too. By 1979 the publishing rights for James’ songs had reverted to him, so it was an odd kind of justice that played out in 1987 when Billy “the sneer” Idol and teenybopper Tiffany both had number one hits with Tommy James songs, and the fab 60’s hitmaker finally made some dough.

Real life justice visited Morris Levy in 1981 when he was arrested on federal racketeering and extortion charges. He was convicted in 1987 and fell to cancer in 1989.

To date, Tommy James has sold 100 million records, including nine gold and platinum albums. And to answer the question posed earlier as to why James didn’t see right away that his heartland sensibility was going to conflict with Pittsburgh hucksters and Levy’s Brooklyn street smarts (and associates with funny nicknames like  “Fat Tony” Salerno, allegedly the “primary model for Tony Soprano), there’s this: Tommy Jackson was 19 years old, married with a son and playing joints with names like the Ups and Downs Show Lounge when he was signed to Roulette. He’d been playing in bands since he was twelve and Levy promised him “Hanky Panky” would be a number one record from coast to coast.

Me, the Mob, and the Music is more about an abusive patriarch who seems determined to drive away the most talented of his children than it is about anything else. To his credit, James tells the story about making his music and messing up his life with affection for the times and sometimes even for the man behind the Levy showbiz empire.  

And take it from me, with the success of Jersey Boys and the bankability of anything mob, the Broadway show and subsequent Hollywood musical won't be lagging too far behind.