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

January 01, 1970

(Simon and
Schuster)

 

http://books.simonandschuster.com

 

 

BY BILL HOLMES

 

Tommy James and
the Shondells were one of the most consistent hit making groups of the ‘60s,
with iconic songs like “Hanky Panky”, “Mony Mony”,
“Crimson and Clover” and “I Think We’re Alone Now”
peppering the charts in rapid succession. One would think that the story of
their rise to success in that turbulent decade would be a fascinating
recollection; a gratuitous name-dropping inside look at the greatest era of pop
music and the whirlwind machinery that keeps the whole thing afloat. Instead, Me, The Mob, and The Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the
Shondells
, penned by James with the assistance of Martin Fitzpatrick is a
quick, anecdotal treatment that more often skips across those topics like a
stone on a pond rather than giving the deep dive that the title implies.

 

Like many
celebrity biographies, the beginning stages of a career get a bit more focus
than necessary, since the reader is fully aware that the gamble is going to pay
off for the struggling beginner. The story behind The Shondells is interesting
enough, showing how pure luck can catapult an artist from obscurity to a chance
at fame. In James’ case, a hastily pirated version of a bar band song failed
more than once before exploding in Pittsburgh, providing a launching pad that
would see the band and song break region by region until success was attained.
Ironically, to satisfy those thousands of radio listeners in Pittsburgh, the record was widely pirated and
James never saw a dime of the profits. It would be the first taste in a long
career of financial infidelity. James never doubted his talent and appeal, and
his ego and ability would prove to be equally valid and necessary.

 

But as
interesting as Tommy James should be, he comes off like a supporting character
in his own book, merely a pawn to the Machiavellian tactics of gangster and
record mogul Morris Levy. The Roulette Records head is a fascinating story,
presented as a cigar-chomping, bat-wielding tyrant who had a soft spot for
James beyond his obvious services as a cash cow for the label. James does indict
Levy for his mob connections, naming names and ultimately becoming fearful of
being literally caught in the crossfire. But he also expresses a genuine fondness
for the moments when he was able to connect with Levy on another, more humane
level. James infers that Levy’s methods were critical to his success but that
the material was worthy, and in hindsight the music certainly holds up. Morris
Levy, for all his faults, knew how to work the scene like a puppeteer and milk
and scam every dollar for himself. Arrogant and ruthless, yet a visionary; his
story has yet to be properly told.

 

By contrast, I
didn’t learn much about Tommy James that I didn’t already know or suspect. He
is candid; portraying himself as womanizing, driven and selfish, balancing the
moral dipstick of his behavior and his relationships with others against what needed
to be done to attain and maintain success. Despite being robbed blind, he
justifies his own loyalty to Levy by accepting the lack of payment in exchange
for fame (he had the ability to make a living from the touring dollars).
Interestingly, James does not seem as apologetic for dragging others into the
spider web, assuming that they should also be grateful for the association
instead of understanding why a songwriter who is never seeing a dime might want
to throw some of his work elsewhere. As with Levy, the story perked up whenever
writers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell were discussed; those recollections were
among the most interesting parts of the story.

 

But I was also
disappointed that I did not learn more about Tommy James the producer and
writer. When singles like “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue
Persuasion” and “Mirage” were released, their sound was unique
and the songs jumped out of the speakers. What inspired them? How did they
translate live? What were the other musicians thinking when these songs were
presented? Too often the stories behind these major milestones are rushed
through; a pill-popping writing session followed by the obligatory delivery to
Levy’s office. James had seven top ten hits plus several other charting singles
and it would have been interesting to delve more into the details. Then again,
if he truly was ingesting the vast amounts of alcohol and pills he claims while
maintaining that inhuman and hectic schedule, it’s possible that he just doesn’t remember.

 

It’s interesting
that this story of corruption – far from an expose at this point – is coming
out a full twenty years after Levy’s death. It’s not made clear whether the
delay was from his respect for his mentor or the ongoing fear of reprisal, but
after Fredric Dannen’s book Hit Men and the Hesh storyline on The Sopranos,
new ground is not being broken here. Perhaps
the book is a tie-in with the upcoming re-issues of many of James’ titles, but if
so, that only underscores my wish that more attention was paid to the songs
themselves.

 

Neither James
nor collaborator Martin Fitzpatrick are skilled enough authors to make this a
riveting classic, and the fabricated setting (James telling this tale in one
sitting to a curious reporter) has all the earmarks of screenplay bait. But at
two hundred forty pages it is a brisk read with enough charm to entice readers
to gobble it down in one sitting. Fans of Tommy James will likely find enough
titillation and gossip to satisfy their needs, but those looking for a true
expose on the fascinating tale of corruption in the music industry will not
have their appetites sufficiently sated.

 

 

Leave a Reply