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Tommy James, the Mob and the Music

Alex Kilpatrick | Wednesday, September 7, 2011

With hits like “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Crimson and Clover,” Tommy James, both as a solo act and with his band the Shondells, has produced 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums.

James will return to Michiana, where he attended high school, to perform with the Shondells this Friday, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. at the Morris Performing Arts Center. I chatted with James about life in the music business over the past 45 years and his recent autobiography, in the works to become both a Hollywood biopic and a Broadway musical,

Alex Kilpatrick: You recently wrote an autobiography, “Me, the Mob and the Music,” detailing your music career. Why did you choose this title?

Tommy James: It was the three topics that were covered in the autobiography. The first couple chapters are about Niles, [Mich.,] where I grew up and how I got into the music business and so forth. And the second topic is essentially Roulette Records, once we started having hits. Roulette Records, of course we didn’t know at the time but we found out after we signed with them, was not only a functioning record label but it was also a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. Of course, this was not known throughout the industry. Some of the insiders knew, some of the disc jockeys and so forth. Of course, the music is obvious. We wrote about writing the songs and the hit records, so those are the three topics that were covered in the autobiography, and a mixture of rock and roll and gangsters in New York.

AK: You signed for Roulette Records with Morris Levy in 1966. How would you describe your relationship with Levy as your record label owner?

TJ: When we got to New York, our first record “Hanky Panky” had sort of exploded out of Pittsburgh in 1966, because I had originally recorded it in ‘64. I grew up in Niles, Mich. and not far from Notre Dame actually. That’s where my career began. When “Hanky Panky” exploded out of Pittsburgh unexpectedly in 1966, I had just graduated from high school the year before and went right into New York and almost immediately got involved with Morris Levy, who was the head of Roulette Records.

Morris Levy was a very notorious individual. He was called the godfather of the record business, and for very good reason, because he really was. Morris was an associate of the Genovese crime family. Of course, we didn’t know that until we had signed with Roulette, and my relationship with Morris can only be described as sort of an abusive father, I guess. Morris was right out of central casting. I mean, he was a very scary guy, about 6 feet 4 inches, weighed 250 pounds, and he was really a very intimidating individual. All of the people around him, who were not running

Roulette but who were in his office continuously, were a lot of mobsters, in addition to the other people who worked at the record company, so we had to really walk on eggshells the entire time we were at Roulette.

On the other hand, Roulette did sell over 100 million records for us, and we had 23 gold singles on Roulette, as well as nine gold and platinum albums, so I always have these mixed feelings about Roulette and about Morris Levy, because if it wasn’t for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. And that really is the truth. He sold our records like nobody else could, but the problem was always getting paid. We ended up being cheated out of between 30 and 40 million dollars. The point is that Morris Levy who ran Roulette was a dictator, he was a mobster, he was a thug — he was all those things, but he also was an amazing record man. So I have all kinds of mixed feelings about Morris Levy and writing this book and doing this project has been very therapeutic actually for me.

AK: There are plans in the works to turn your autobiography into a Hollywood film, as well as a Broadway play. How do you feel about the prospect of seeing your life story on screen or in theatre?

TJ: It’s a little scary to be perfectly honest with you. It’s a sort of giddy feeling. I’m giddy about it but I also, on the other hand, am a little bit nervous about it. I mean, I can’t imagine what I’m going to feel like opening night of the play, of the musical. As soon as we turned the book in, I almost immediately started getting calls for the movie rights and for the Broadway rights. The Broadway show will be up and running in about 18 months, two years and about six months after that will be the movie. Even though the movie’s going to be developed at pretty much the same time, they’re going to be out at different times, because they would bump heads obviously. But we are very, very excited. I know I’m very excited about the story coming out as a musical and as a movie. I just am really amazed by all this and still can hardly believe it.

AK: You earned fairly immediate success with songs like “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Mony Mony.” How did you adjust to such widespread success at a young age?

TJ: I made it right out of high school and the first six months of my career, I was basically a spectator. It felt like being in the eye of a storm. You’re really in over your head when you make it that young and when you’re thrown into the entertainment business that young, you just sort of have to take it a step at a time and a day at a time, because that’s all you know how to do.

Gradually, I got a little more used to it. I put a production team together in New York and was able to make a lot of new records and gradually we started producing our own records and writing our own songs. At Roulette, because of the relationship we had with Roulette, we were the biggest act on the label and so we were sort of given the keys to the candy store. We were allowed to really take charge of our own career.

I was always very thankful for that, because if we had gone with one of the big corporate labels, we probably would’ve been a one hit wonder, especially with a record like “Hanky Panky” as our first song. At Roulette, they actually needed us and even though getting paid at a business level was a disaster, at a creator’s level it couldn’t have been better, because they allowed us to take charge of ourselves. And this would’ve never happened at a larger label. At Roulette, I got an education I could’ve never had any other way. I was able to learn to be a songwriter and a producer and actually get involved in the nuts and bolts of making our records, designing our albums, every aspect of the record business. I guess you could say in one way, it was very heavy. In another way, I really had to concentrate and learn how to be a professional very quickly.

AK: You’ve produced 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums over the course of your musical career. Do you attribute your successes to any specific musical artists?

TJ: I suppose, yeah, everybody sort of steals from everybody in the music business. My first heroes were the first generation rock and rollers. Elvis and Buddy Holly and then later on the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Frankie Valli and so forth and the acts that really had staying power. By the time we got into the business, my musical taste was a little bit of everybody. There were so many artists that I loved and I just loved rock and roll. I loved everything it stood for.

When I began songwriting, I found that the Midwest has some very interesting traits about it from a musical standpoint. You’re growing up in the area around Notre Dame, South Bend and Niles [and] you’re really sort of well balanced. You’re not too close to Chicago, you’re not too close to Detroit, you’re sort of in a small market there, and the things that everybody seemed to like in my dance band, the live cover band that I had before we started making records, a lot of that made its way into my records.

In other words, I always sort of loved party rock, which was just kind of slop rock and roll, that three-chord rock and roll that used to put everyone on the dance floor when I played in my cover band, The Shondells. When I got into New York and started making records and writing songs, a lot of that came with me and so a lot of the songs, especially the early ones like “Mony Mony” and “Do Something to Me” and “I Think We’re Alone Now,” all had that quality to them of sort of party rock that I developed as a young teenager playing in my band.

AK: You’re performing in South Bend next Friday, Sept. 9. How does it feel to be performing so close to your hometown of Niles, Mich.?

TJ: I love it. It feels great. I don’t get a chance to perform in my hometown very often and when I do, it’s a very special moment for me. I’ll get a chance to see a lot of my high school buds that I haven’t seen in years. I’ll get a chance to spend time in my hometown, because I grew up both in South Bend and in Niles, so it’s going to be a really wonderful homecoming and I’m going to get a chance to visit with people I haven’t seen in ages, so for all those reasons, it’s going to be very special for me.

AK: Anything else you would like to add?

TJ: I’d love to just say thank you to everybody because that’s where I started out in the Michiana area and these were the people who began it all for me. Secondly, I’d just like to say, we’d like to invite everybody to come out to the show. We’ll get a chance not only to do all the hits but we’ll get a chance to meet people and shake a few hands and talk with some folks. The Morris Auditorium is really a gorgeous place. I love playing there. I haven’t played there probably in over 20 years and so it’s going to be really a very special night.

In The Bend

What: Tommy James and

the Shondells

Where: Morris Performing Arts Center

When: Friday, Sept. 9, 8 p.m.

How Much: $37-100