“On a creative level, because we stayed all those years at Roulette, we couldn’t have been better off. The label actually needed us! So they let us do whatever we wanted in the studio. The problem was, of course, getting your money was like taking a bone from a Doberman. It just wasn’t going to happen. And they let us know early on if we made too much of a fuss, we’d end up like Jimmie Rogers!”
Not to be confused with Jimmie Rogers, “The Singing Brakeman” (1997-1933), or Jimmy Rogers the blues guitarist (1924-1997), pop singer Jimmie Rogers had the No. 1 song in the country (“Honeycomb”) in 1957 and reached No. #3 with “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” that same year.
Although never reaching those heights again, he continued to record for Roulette without being paid, but unlike Tommy James, became obsessed with receiving his rightful royalties. Big mistake. He demanded, cajoled, threatened and constantly loudmouthed his way into being beaten to within an inch of his life in 1967.
“He never recovered from it,” Tommy explains. “He was getting screwed, and he knew it. They basically beat him to what they thought was to death on an L.A. freeway, but he survived. This was always an issue, and I knew it. He had gone after his royalties, and he had not stopped. So we were always very aware of that and what the scene was at Roulette if you pushed it too far. I suppose if we had been destitute, I would have felt much different, but because we were making money from touring and BMI and other areas, it wasn’t quite as bad.”
If the lows were death-defying, the highs were unbelievable. Morris told James early on when he signed him to expect “one hell of a ride” and that promise wasn’t empty. Jamming with Tito Puente, blowing off Frank Sinatra because he was too stoned to remember to meet him, slipping Vice President Hubert Humphrey some uppers — great stories all!
“The thing is,” James remembers, “Morris Levy was the single most fascinating character of my entire life. He was the most fun person you’d ever want to hang out with. Just don’t ask to be paid. You hang out with Morris Levy, anything could happen! Literally, anything. He knew everybody. Morris was Jewish, but his Christmas parties were legendary. They would go on for two or three days at The Round Table or Birdland, two clubs he owned. The 1967 Christmas party in New York City, for instance, everybody in town was invited, and I mean everybody! City officials and religious figures were hanging out with mob guys! It was just nuts. That was the party where J.J. Jackson and Tito Puente and Tommy James & The Shondells were all onstage jamming at the same time. Morris loved Latin music, and he knew all the greats of
Phoenix provides the setting for one of the more tragic stories of this band.
“Oh God, I’ll never forget it,” James sighs. “It was a big bandshell, and we were playing in Encanto Park. The crowd got so unruly in rushing the stage that they had to stop the concert, and we were herded into a Brinks armored truck that almost tipped over! That was one of the scariest crowd situations ever. Usually, our crowds are pretty well-behaved but that was really ugly. A few people died when so many others surged to the front that they got trampled underfoot.”
With the recent Collectors’ Choice re-release of four pivotal albums in James’ career, a natural musical progression emerges. In 1967, “I Think We’re Alone Now” exhibited a pure pop sound containing all the requisite Beach Boy harmonies, organ flourishes and silly love songs to satisfy the ear of teenage girls.
Later in 1967, “Gettin’ Together,” mostly due to the aforementioned fact that they were left totally to their own devices, contained little psychedelic intros and outros, enough to spark to interest the burgeoning album-rock crowd without alienating the little girls who still formed the bulk of their audience.
In 1970, “Travelin’” was totally experimental, even containing a track so over-the-top in a Zappa freak-out way (“Bloody Water”) that you’d hardly know it was the same band. These three albums, plus 1972’s Nashville effort, make up the first wave of reissues.
“I thought Collectors’ Choice did a nice job re-mastering them; they really sparkle,” James said, “and I understand there will be more. Roulette allowed us the time and the money and left us alone in the studio. We couldn’t get paid, but we could spend as much of Morris’s money as we wanted. So, besides ordering lots of hamburgers on his tab, we had the freedom to morph into whatever we could become. It was the best gift Morris could have given us, although he was always cracking the whip for the next record. We always had to have that next record in the can.
Hopefully, Collectors’ Choice will re-release the two pre-1967 Tommy James & The Shondells albums. Before they were pure pop for teenage girls, Tommy James & The Shondells was a total garage band. “Hanky Panky” is definitely related in musical scope, for instance, to “Louie Louie,” the proto-typical garage anthem by Oregon’s The Kingsmen.