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.”
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.
“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.
“The first two singles, ‘Hanky Panky’ and ‘Say I Am,’ sold over two million,” James remembers. “Then I met producers Bo [Gentry] and Richie [Cordell], and we started down a new [pop] path with ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’ That was the song where we sort of declared our musical independence. Roulette never really knew what to do with us musically. They were caught in the ’50s and early ’60s. Creatively, they had no clue. We ended up taking control of our whole career, everything from writing to performing, producing, designing album covers, doing marketing, promotion and assembling a team. There’s no way we could have had that kind of education anywhere else. That string of singles—which included ‘Mirage,’ ‘I Like The Way’ and ‘Gettin’ Together’ — ended with ‘Mony Mony.’ Then history hit us square in the face, a perfect storm of incidents that started, actually, with politics.
“We had performed in Manhattan’s Union Square at a Bobby Kennedy rally, early in his presidential bid,” James said. “I believed in RFK with all my heart. That was back in a time when we all thought a politician could really change things. As a result, we were put on a list of groups available for other rallies. Our demographics were good. They liked us. We were then asked to perform in Los Angeles with RFK on the night he was killed. We had to turn it down because we were booked at The World Teen Fair in, of all places, Dallas, Texas. I even got one of the female reporters that very day to take me to Dealey Plaza where the President was shot. It felt so creepy to walk around there but I had to do it. When I got back to my hotel, I turned on the television and heard the news of the shooting in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel. I was devastated. I went into a personal funk for about two or three weeks. I can’t begin to tell you. I was just beside myself.
“Then we get a call from Hubert Humphrey asking us to go out on the campaign trail, and we immediately said yes. We were to meet him in Wheeling, W.V., after the Democratic Convention. We watched all those kids get beat up by Chicago police at the convention that year and thought, ‘Oh my God, what have we got ourselves into? Is every rally from now on going to be like this?’ We met him the next week, and he couldn’t have been nicer. We ended up doing the whole campaign and becoming great friends. He asked me to become presidential adviser on youth affairs if he won. He wrote the liner notes for the “Crimson & Clover” album. It was the first time that a rock act and a major politician hooked up.
“I even slipped him a Black Beauty. Oh man, you do not want to know Hubert Humphrey on speed!” James said. “I could’ve been arrested. I always felt bad about that. He would always call us into his suite after each rally for a big pow-wow. His doctor would be there. People would come from D.C. to visit. He was proud of us and he liked to show us off. One night he was complaining of being so tired. ‘I’m downright drowsy,’ he complained to me when we were alone, ‘and I have to stay up late writing.’ I told him I had what I called some ‘stay-awake’ pills in my pocket. ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘do you think a thing like that would work?’ I said, ‘I think it would, Mr. Vice President. I take it when I have to stay up late composing.’ Red lights should have gone off all over the place, but he took it from me and he told me a couple of days later, ‘That darn thing kept me up all night.’ I’ve really never told that story, but with an autobiography out, I guess you’ve got to tell on yourself.
“When we left on the campaign trail in August, it was all singles acts. It was us, The Rascals, The Association, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, The Buckinghams. When I got back, 90 days later, it’s all albums. It was Led Zeppelin, Blood Sweat & Tears, Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Joe Cocker. In 90 days, the world turned upside down! We knew that if we were going to continue in this business, we were going to have to sell albums, not singles. And that was something that Roulette had never done. We knew we had our work cut out for us. And thank God we were working on a little record called “Crimson & Clover” at that moment-in-time. That one song allowed us to make the jump from AM Top 40 singles radio to FM progressive album-oriented rock. No other song that we ever worked on would have done that for us in one shot. It became our biggest-selling single and also permitted us to enjoy the second half of our career. And, if you think about it, there was a mass extinction of singles acts at that time, acts that just didn’t make any more records. A lot of them were our friends and contemporaries. In addition, we jumped from four-track to 24-track in the studio in about eight months time. And FM radio was, for the first time since its inception, playing rock ’n’ roll music. That’s the perfect storm of history that allowed us to mature.”
“Crimson & Clover” came out in 1969. Later that year, the first moog synthesizer in rock ’n’ roll was heard on “Cellophane Symphony” by Tommy James & The Shondells.
“We did it in a New York studio on 54th Street called Broadway Sound owned by Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford,” he remembers. “It looked like a gigantic old switchboard telephone machine from the 1920s. Again, Roulette let us do our thing with no interference. In fact, the only time they ever gave us a problem was with ‘Mony Mony.’ Morris wanted to put out ‘One Two Three And I Fell,’ which ended up being the flip side. ‘Mony Mony’ was a party-rock throwback to the early ’60s, and Morris just wasn’t sure we should do a record like that. He thought we wouldn’t be taken seriously!
“That’s when I threw my only temper tantrum in his office, screaming ‘How much more not-serious can you be with the bubble gum sh*t we’ve been doing?’ And I got my way.”
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