Tommy James shares his stories of mobsters and drugs

By Mike Greenblatt

Had Tommy James done nothing else in his 48-year career but “Mony Mony,” “Crimson & Clover,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Hanky Panky,” “Draggin’ The Line” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” he still would be an influence to a generation or three.
Those six songs stand so evocative of their time, Hollywood producers have used them in more than 40 feature films including “Religulous,” “The Nanny Diaries,” “Zodiac,” “We Are Marshall,” “Monster,” “High Fidelity,” “Pirate Radio,” “Forrest Gump” and “Cape Fear.” More than 300 artists have recorded the songs of Tommy James, including Prince, Billy Idol, Dolly Parton, The Boston Pops, R.E.M., Joan Jett, Tom Jones and Cher.

With the release of “Me, The Mob & The Music” (out now via Scribner) by Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick, James is now telling tales he’s long wanted to share but never has. The book is juicy as hell, filled with unbelievable stories. And yes, he names names.

The success of “Jersey Boys” has opened the door for this book to become the basis for a musical planned for the 2011 Broadway season. Movie rights have been sold with major names being considered for the leads. The relationship between James and Roulette Records president/wise guy Morris Levy (1927-1990) forms the crux of the book: Fascinating, dangerous, it’s a bond that, if done right, could be a blockbuster on stage and on the big screen. The book does it right.

The danger is the selling point. There’s a scene where James is told, for his own safety, to leave New York.

“It was right in the middle of the 1971 New York gang war,” he explains. “The Gambinos were taking over from the Genovese family. Morris was on the wrong side. We were told he had to leave immediately for Spain. So I’m left alone at Roulette going, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

“My lawyer sits me down and tells me he thinks it would be a good idea to get out of New York for a few weeks. Hundreds of mob guys were getting killed! You’d turn on the TV news and see bodies all over the street. I was told if they couldn’t go after Morris, they were likely to go after whoever was making Morris money. And I said, ‘Oh my God, do you mean to tell me I have to go on the lam?’”

Fortunately for James, his lawyer also represented Nashville legend Pete Drake.

“So my lawyer calls Pete Drake, and I wind up in Nashville, Tenn., doing my only country record [‘My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar’] with Elvis’ boys Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana and a lot of legendary pickers. And it never would’ve happened had I not been told to leave New York. It’s funny when I think about it now but just two years earlier, I shook hands in Morris’ office with Gaetano ‘Corky’ Vastola, Thomas Eboli, ‘Quiet’ Dom Cirillo, ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno and Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante!” Salerno served as the primary model for the fictional Tony Soprano, and Levy was the model for the fictional “The Sopranos” character Heshie Rabkin.

Tommy James knows he’s lucky to be alive. That’s more than can be said for Levy’s strong-arm enforcer/bodyguard Nate McCalla, head of Roulette’s subsidiary Calla Records, which was home to Swamp Dogg, JJ Jackson, The Emotions, The Persuaders.

“I knew Nate closely,” James explains. “His office was the first one on the long hall leading to Morris’ office at Roulette in Manhattan, so if someone had to be grabbed, he’d be right there and could do it. Nate fought in Korea, a decorated hero. He once told me, ‘Do you realize what the United States government taught me?’ After I said no, he said, ‘They taught me to kill people, so that’s what I do.’ And he was serious. Nate was really on the inside.

“I left Roulette in ’75 and went to Fantasy. But I always stayed in touch with Nate. It was 1980, and I was at Hyatt House in L.A. on Sunset Strip where we always used to stay. I’m preparing for the Merv Griffin Show and Red Schwartz, another old Roulette guy, is with me and says, ‘Did you hear about Nate? He got killed last night.’ They had found him in a house down in Florida all decomposed. His throat was slit. He was shot in the head and tied to a chair. I felt horrible. Nate was an outlaw amongst outlaws. I heard he was running guns through the Caribbean. So yeah, you’re right about that. I was so lucky to make it out of there in one piece. Let me tell you something: you have no idea! I have been dying to tell this story for years! And the only reason I didn’t — or couldn’t — is that some of these guys were still walking around.”

A YOUNG TOMMY JAMES signs on the dotted line for an exclusive management agreement with Leonard Stogel and Associates in 1966 as Stogel and Roulette Records President Morris Levy look on. Photo courtesy of Tommy James/Scribner

Still, there’s an empathy in the book coming from James toward Morris, one of affection for a man, long after his death from natural causes, now known to be a lying, thieving shyster who never paid his artists, a would-be convict who died without serving a day in jail, despite being convicted of extortion.

“Other than that,” laughs James, the artist most ripped off — to the tune of $30 million — “he was an OK guy! I always felt very schizophrenic about all that. Every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy, I think, if not for him, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. If we had gone to another label — and we were courted by Clive Davis and other corporate labels, and we almost did do just that — we would have been handed to a producer, lost in the numbers, and “Hanky Panky” probably would have been the last time anybody ever heard of us.

One thought on “Tommy James shares his stories of mobsters and drugs

  1. False! In this article, it states that “later that year, the first moog synthesizer in rock ’n’ roll was heard on “Cellophane Symphony” by Tommy James & the Shondells”…..back that bus up! The first rock recording of a moog synthesizer was done 2 years earlier, in November of 1967, on the Monkees’ “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.” album. Listen to the tracks “Daily Nightly” and “Star Collector”, which were both recorded and released almost 2 years before “Cellophane Symphony”. I like Tommy James as much as the next guy, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

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