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Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride…

Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The…

by Tommy James

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"Things had died down a little in New York, literally. There weren't that many people left to kill."

An interesting and worthwhile account of the music business in the sixties. It was made notoriously disreputable by mobsters like Morris Levy who used the business for money laundering. Like many of Levy's artists, Tommy James and the Shondells rarely shared any of the royalty proceeds. James had some big successes, but in my experience as someone who grew up in the sixties, they were a small part of the music scene. James' frequent references to The Beatles gave the impression that he was a little envious of their avant-garde status and success. Towards the end he relates his experience of finding God after a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, which unfortunately came across as trite, laughable even. Obviously words about faith are unfamiliar. Still, this was an entertaining and very enjoyable story. Martin Fitzpatrick provided an excellent narration of the audiobook version. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Apr 23, 2017 |
More interesting than I thought it would be. Tommy James has some stories to tell and doesn't shy away from showing himself in an unflattering light. His relationship with mobster Morris Levy is a fascinating look at the underside of the record business in the 60s and 70s. ( )
  tgamble54 | Sep 13, 2015 |
Tommy James sang, wrote, or helped write some of the greatest rock'n'roll songs of all time--Crimson and Clover, Crystal Blue Persuasion, Mony Mony, I Think We're Alone Now--and more. This is the story of how he started out, thanks to the support of his parents, who bought him his first electric guitar, his first bands and recordings (while he was still going by his real name, Tommy Jackson), and how one of those early recordings, Hanky Panky, became a breakout hit in Pittsburgh two years after it was initially released and after the band (the original Shondells) that recorded it had broken up.

Soon, Tommy was in New York attracting interest from all the major record labels--but it was Roulette Records and its mob-connected owner Morris Levy who made Tommy an offer he couldn't refuse. For the next several years, as Tommy made hit after hit, Levy raked in millions in royalties that should have belonged to Tommy, his band, and the other songwriters. James (the name he had taken for his first New York recording) was making a nice living from concert money, which Levy didn't control, and being only 19 when he signed with Levy, it took him some time to realize how much he was been taken for. His relationship with Levy was love-hate at its best. At the same time he was being robbed, he still appreciated Levy's knack for knowing and promoting a hit record. But any mention of collecting what they were owed only earned James, his accountants, and lawyers threats of physical violence that they knew Levy was more than capable of carrying out.

Meanwhile, Tommy's personnel life was a bit of a shambles. He had gotten his high school girlfriend pregnant and married her at age 17, only to leave her and his son at home six days a week while he traveled the Midwest with one of his early bands to make enough money to scrape by on. When "Hanky Panky" became a huge hit, James started spending more time in New York, where he became involved with one of the secretaries at Roulette. The secretary, incidentally, introduced him to Richie Cordell, his most important songwriter and songwriting partner. Soon, James asked his wife for a divorce and re-married. Along the way, he had started drinking too much and taking enormous quantities of pills--pills to stay awake at night so he could write songs, pills to overcome his constant stage fright, pills for pretty much anything he could think of.

James' success continued for several years, but finally he couldn't put up with Levy's thievery any more and confronted him in his office, resulting in a monumental fight. James' only weapon was just to stop recording and walk out. Levy continued to release what was left in the can as long as he could. Finally, James was released from his contract--but Levy retained the publishing rights, including those to new James compositions, through 1979. But even after freeing himself from Levy, James still missed his advice. Other than discussions about money, he could talk to Levy about things better than he could talk to anyone.

There was one more hit in the early 1980s, and James also produced other acts, but his glory days were over. Soon he was divorced and re-married again--but this third marriage would be a lasting one. James checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in 1986 and successfully kicked his alcohol and drug habits. By this time, the royalties he had long been denied, were started to roll in (six- or seven-figure checks).

This is a fascinating, page-turner of a story that I devoured quickly, but it is still rather incomplete. It could use another hundred pages or so to flesh out James' own story better and to provide a little more background and detail on how Levy was able to get away with what he did for so long. James' recollections are also just a little too clear for someone who spent much of the time in a drug-induced haze, and he writes of his career, even the latter part of it, as pretty much one success after another, if not commercial, then at least artistic. But there was perhaps a darker side he doesn't delve into deeply enough.

The only time I saw Tommy perform was about 1974 in Montgomery, Alabama at an "Oldies" show headlined by the Four Seasons. After (I think) performing one song, he started speaking to the crowd, telling them that the promoters only wanted to hear the hits and not any of his new stuff. He rambled on for a few minutes while the band played the memorable opening of "Dragging the Line" over and over again. Finally, the police came to the front of the stage and Tommy's part of the concert was over as the obviously drunk or pilled-up James was led away (not arrested). Ironically, the same night Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons introduced a new song, "My Eyes Adored You" that went on to become a huge hit and spark the band's second period of success in the 1970s.

Although James doesn't shy away from talking about his addictions and his abandonment of his first wife and child, even calling himself "a flaming asshole" at one point, his descriptions of his performing career seem to gloss over this dark period. Obviously things weren't going quite that well if he was playing second bill to The Four Seasons at an Oldies show only a few years after he was at the top of the charts.

So to conclude, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but it doesn't provide a really objective view of James' considerable success, his accomplishments, or his trials and tribulations. And there is certainly a lot more to be written about the life and career of Morris Levy and Roulette Records. In the meantime, I'm going to crank up some Tommy James on my MP3 player. After all these years, it still sounds great. ( )
  datrappert | Dec 15, 2012 |
For whatever reason, celebrity memoirs seem to sell better when they are tell-all tales. In fact, it seems the more salacious, the better. If that's what intrigues you about such works, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells won't fit the bill. If, though, you're interested in the then-nascent pop music industry of the 1960s as experienced by a still teenaged star who ends up signed with the 'Godfather' of that business, Tommy James's memoir may be worth your time.

To a certain extent, the story of Tommy James encapsulates the story of rock music in the 1960s. James, born Thomas Jackson, details how he began playing in bands at age 12, the years spent forming bands and playing local and regional venues, and how he ended up married and a father just shy of age 18. While still 16, James and the Shondells, all local Michigan guys, recorded and released a regional single, 'Hanky Panky.' Somehow, although the song would soon disappear regionally, two years later it became a huge hit in Pittsburgh, launching James and the song to national success.

Even that success reflects a young industry. By the time 'Hanky Panky' broke out in Pittsburgh, the Shondells had long since disbanded. As the singer, it was James and James alone who was recruited and marketed to the New York music industry. He signed with Roulette Records, owned by Morris Levy, who was reportedly 'connected' and known as the 'Godfather' of the record industry. It was common at the time to record albums after a single or two had already been released. Once 'Hanky Panky' got national release and shot to number one, it was clear there needed to be an album -- which also meant James needed to find new Shondells. He did so in a Pittsburgh band called the Raconoeturs, who quickly discarded that name and ended up in a New York City recording studio and on national tours with James and would rocket to more anonymous fame with him. The only common denominator between the Shondells' first single and first album was James himself.

Much of the book discusses the relationship and dealings between James and Levy. Levy had moved from nightclubs, including the famous Birdland, into the record industry. He founded and bought a number of record labels, including the K-Tel label that would be near ubiquitous in the 1970s. The descriptions by James give the impression the Roulette offices were a cross between corporate and wise guy America, with secretaries and accountants crossing paths with well-dressed guys with baseball bats who dealt with record bootleggers. One of Levy's keys was to obtain the rights to songs, occasionally even having his or his young son's name added as a writer. That happened with James, whose income came largely from the concert circuit. Although Levy would give James a check here and there, royalty accountings and payments bordered on nonexistent.

In large part thanks to Levy and Roulette, though, James and the Shondells were a popular part of the developing sound of the late 1960s. 'Hanky Panky' had a basic, almost primitive, rock and roll type feel. In 1967, 'I Think We're Alone Now,' which reached number four on the charts, would be credited by some as inventing 'bubblegum' music, a claim to fame James acknowledges yet still tries to distance himself from. Then, in 1968, 'Crimson and Clover' would reach number one with a psychedelic rock approach. James relates the stories behind both the writing and recording of many of these hits, including confirming that the tune 'Mony Mony' got its name when, taking a break from writing the song, he saw a neon sign on the Mutual of New York building that kept spelling out 'MONY'.

Me, the Mob, and the Music seems to almost take a sense of pride in Levy's background and reputation. James does not hesitate to describe incidents that suggest organized crime ties or seeing in meeting such individuals in Levy's office. He recalls one time when, after leaving Levy's office, 'all I could think of was how many murders, crimes and God knows what else I had just shaken hands with.' Levy going missing when a battle broke out for control of . At the same time, it is clear that despite being among the artists whose money Levy kept, James had a great deal of respect and gratitude for Levy, developing almost a familial relationship with him.

Often, though, it feels like James is merely skimming the surface or picking out highlights here and there. In fact, the extent to which the book stays away from the tell-all style is reflected in the fact that at times it seems to actually ignore aspects of his life. For example, although we James talks about his first wife and their son and the guilt he felt as he achieved stardom while they remained in Michigan, he never discusses what type of relationship, if any, he had with the boy as he grew up. Rather, both wife and son fade from the story once James mentions they got divorced. Likewise, James spends little time on his career after the Shondells broke up in 1970 and gives no glimpse of how someone who suddenly achieved worldwide fame and success in his teens and early twenties copes once he is out of the spotlight. More notably, while James mentions that Levy owed him some $40 million in royalties, there is no discussion of when and how that was ever resolved.

As a result, James is not always a thorough historian. Still, he tells enough of the story and his experiences to not only give us a look inside the rock music world of the late 1960s but to leave little doubt he did get 'one helluva ride' like Levy promised when he signed him.

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie)
  PrairieProgressive | Jun 20, 2010 |
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Tommy James had been performing locally in Michigan rock bands since the age of 12. His cover of "Hanky Panky" became a minor local hit. Then, in 1966, the record was re-discovered by a Pittsburgh DJ who started playing it on heavy rotation. Soon, every record mogul in New York was pursuing Tommy and the band. And then an odd thing happened: every offer but one disappeared, and James found himself in the office of Roulette Records, where he was handed a pen and ominously promised "one helluva ride." Morris Levy, the legendary "godfather" of the music business, needed a hit and "Hanky Panky" would be his. This book tells the intimate story of the complex and sometimes terrifying relationship between the bright-eyed, sweet-faced blonde musician from the heartland and the big, bombastic, brutal bully from the Bronx, who hustled, cheated, and swindled his way to the top of the music industry.--From publisher description.… (more)

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