Tommy James Interview: Singer Discusses His Autobiography 'Me, the Mob and the Music'
Written by Melissa Parker, Posted in Interviews Musicians
The music of Tommy James is played continuously, everyday, in every country of the world, and has been for more than forty years. It’s difficult to go for more than a day without hearing “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Dragging the Line,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” or “Mony Mony,” on the radio, television, or a film soundtrack; hits that were made famous by Tommy James and The Shondells in the 1960s.
"Roulette was a front for the Genovese crime family and most of the fans didn’t know that…"
To date, the performer has sold over 100 million records, and has been awarded 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums. From 1967 to 1969, The Shondells turned out hit after hit on the Roulette label, including six that made it to the top ten.
James has outlined his wild ride with the New York-based record company, specifically with label founder Morris Levy, in his new book, Me, the Mob, and the Music.
A Hollywood biopic is in the works for late 2011 and a Broadway production is also in development.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tommy, I’m in Montgomery, Alabama. I believe that city has a particular significance to you.
Tommy James: Really … is that right? That was one of my first big gigs – the Big BAM shows! I have such fond memories of coming to Alabama.
I tasted my first grits there … my very first grit (laughs).
The first night we played there we had to drive from Troy, New York to Montgomery, Alabama, and we did it overnight to play a show the next night. We were all grubby and we stopped to ask this black lady for directions and it was like she had seen a ghost. Back in those days, a black lady couldn’t be sure if someone coming up to her wasn’t going to hurt her. I just felt so bad to scare somebody like that. It really did a number on me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Racial tensions were bad everywhere in the 60s, but they were especially horrible in the South.
Tommy James: Yeah, it was really intense. Then we ended up going to the Coliseum. That was my first arena date. They had the whole thing filled up, probably about 20,000 or so. I was just overwhelmed by it … it blew me away. I loved the whole Alabama scene, the rolling hills, and such a beautiful area down there.
Herman’s Hermits and The Animals were on that first show. I can’t tell you what I did last Tuesday, but I can tell you every minute of 1967. They had their sister station in Birmingham so we did both cities and God, I remember that like it was yesterday.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I also remember that some radio stations refused to play “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
Tommy James: True, it was a dirty record (laughs). You know, we had to change the cover on that. The “I Think We’re Alone Now” album cover was banned. Isn’t that silly? Meanwhile, the number one record of the day was “Let’s Spend the Night Together” by the Rolling Stones, so go figure.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You talk in the book about the crowds in the South being more raucous than crowds in other areas of the country.
Tommy James: Well, they were. They were just the best … they boogied. First of all, the screaming was so intense. They’re a bit more reserved up North. We never got screamed at before and it was just very heady. Montgomery was the first place I ever got screamed at. That’s something you remember forever … that and the grits!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely! Tommy, who were your musical idols as a youngster?
Tommy James: Well, of course, my first heroes were the first generation rock ‘n rollers – Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis. I remember when rock and roll was dangerous. That’s how far back I go. I got my first guitar when I was nine in 1956, so I remember Little Richard when he first came out … and he was dangerous!
I talk about in the book getting my first acoustic guitar. The acoustic guitar was like getting a Chevy pickup with a bad muffler. It was raucous. Hillbillies and country acts played it, but the electric guitar was real smooth.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever have a chance to meet Elvis?
Tommy James: I talked to him, but never met him officially. I was in Nashville with Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana in 1971 doing an album. Elvis was going to come over from Memphis to Nashville and we were going to have steaks out somewhere, but he called the studio and said he couldn’t make it.
I said hello to him on the phone and he invited us to Graceland whenever we could make it … but I didn’t get to go. I always felt bad that I didn’t take him up on that, but I had to finish this album. It seemed so much more important at the time but it wasn’t. The next thing I knew he was gone.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did it feel to sign with a major record company at nineteen?
Tommy James: Well, the funny part was that the record (“Hanky Panky”) exploded out of Pittsburgh. It was two years old at the time. It was one of those “only in America” stories.
I picked up The Shondells who were a bar band then. I couldn’t put the original group back together so I grabbed The Raconteurs in Pittsburgh and they became The Shondells. We went to New York and we got a “yes” from all the big corporate labels; Columbia, RCA, Atlantic. So, we were thrilled.
The next morning, one by one, they all called up and said, “Look, we’ve got to pass.” I said, “What do you mean, we had a deal?” Jerry Wexler said, “Morris Levy from Roulette Records called everybody and said (in a rather gruff voice), this is our record.” What Morris did was scare everyone off.
That’s how we ended up on Roulette, an independent label, and sort of a moderately sized one at that. But, as years have gone by, I’ve been very grateful we signed with Roulette in one way because if we had gone to one of the bigger labels, we’d probably have been handed to a producer and gotten lost in the numbers. It may have been the last time anyone heard from us, especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.”
I’m actually very grateful we went to Roulette. Also, Roulette really needed us and hadn’t had a hit in a while. So, it was important for us at a creative level also. Getting paid and doing business with them, though, was a disaster. It was truly a “mobbed up” label.
Roulette was a front for the Genovese crime family and most of the fans didn’t know that … most of the people in the country didn’t know that. We learned that incrementally. We’d see them in Morris’ office and a week later we’d watch them on the television news being hauled out of a warehouse in New Jersey by the cops for some mob activity. We’d say, “Isn’t that the guy we just met in Morris’ office?” Of course it was and that kept happening until we figured out who we were rubbing shoulders with.
The book really is an autobiography, but about two thirds of it is devoted to this very dark and sinister story of trying to have a career in pop music as this very dangerous dark thing is going on behind us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was finally discovered that Morris owed you about $40 million in back royalties.
Tommy James: Yes, it was between $30 and $40 million in the end. We were making money from other sources, though. We had, of course, concerts and other things that were happening; commercials, BMI, that sort of thing. But, the record royalties were just not going to happen so I constantly had to make a decision whether to break this up or stay with Roulette. I think I made the right decision by staying with Roulette because we did end up with twenty-three Gold records there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine); I believe the first time your contract was up you made the decision to re-sign after realizing that Morris was involved in the mob.
Tommy James: That’s right. I had pretty much made up my mind that I didn’t want to break up the machine. I knew it was a bit like selling your soul to the Devil, but I also knew that it would be almost impossible to start that up anywhere else. The system was working and I didn’t want to break it up. In the end I get to tell this story. It would have been a very boring story without Roulette. It’s going to be a movie in about eighteen months and a Broadway show.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think your speaking out about the crime family might have set a precedent for others to come forward to share their stories also?
Tommy James: Well, let me tell you, I did wait until the main ones died. I’ve wanted to tell this story for a very long time. Mark Fitzpatrick, my co-writer, and I started this almost eight years ago. We were going to call it “Crimson and Clover,” and make a nice musical book about the hits and everything. It would have been interesting, but we got about a third of the way into it and realized that if we don’t tell the Roulette story we’re basically only telling half of the facts.
A lot of the stuff wouldn’t make sense without the Roulette story. But, I was very uncomfortable doing that because some of these guys were still walking around. So I basically put the book on a shelf for a couple of years. We went on to other things until the last of the Roulette regulars (as I call them) passed on. That happened in December of 2005 with Gigante (“Vinnie the Chin”) who died in prison. He was really the last major boss of the family.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think the crime families are as entrenched in New York and New Jersey as they were forty years ago?
Tommy James: I think they probably are not, but it’s hard to say. The next generation of mob guys are not street guys. Up at Roulette we had some really amazing notorious gangsters on a regular basis. Morris himself had quite a reputation as a mobster, but he wasn’t Italian so he wasn’t a “made man” as they say. Morris’ partner was Tommy Eboli, the head of the Genovese family. Vito Genovese was in prison and Eboli was basically the acting boss of the family, taking messages back and forth. Gigante was an up and comer back then and I have them sort of listed in the book.
Let’s put it this way – when Vito Genovese died on Valentine’s Day in 1969, they had all of the boys up there at Roulette in meetings. I was brought into the office and I met those guys. Tony Salerno, Gigante, and of course, Eboli, was up there a lot. I actually have their pictures in the book; it’s pretty bad when the only photos you can find of your record company executives are mug shots.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet it was nerve wracking meeting those people.
Tommy James: Yes, I didn’t know if I was in trouble by just being with them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever feel like Morris Levy or any other member of the crime syndicate would actually physically harm you?
Tommy James: Yes, I did actually. I must tell you that we were very lucky to make it out of there in one piece. There were several moments that were very scary; one of them being when I had to go to Nashville. There was a terrible gang war that broke out in New Jersey.
The Gambinos were taking over New York and Morris was on the wrong side. He and Nate McAlla from Roulette left and went to Spain. They left all of us holding the bag at Roulette. My attorney told me that it would be a good idea if I left town for a few weeks. I asked, “Do you mean that I’m on the lam?”
Anyway, I ended up going down to Nashville that year (in 1971) to make an album. They told me if they couldn’t go after Morris they’d go after whoever is making Morris money and that was me. Of course, there was the big blowout that I had with Morris to get off the label. That was a real scene, very frightening.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why do you think Morris eluded the police for so long? Did he have some officials on the payroll?
Tommy James: You know, one of the scenes in the movie is going to be this big Christmas party they had at the roundtable every year. Morris would have this big blowout Christmas party and you would see mob guys hanging out with City officials, religious figures, and cops … you know, they were just one big happy family! I couldn’t believe it! So, what can you say?
Morris had his hands in everything. He was called the godfather of the music business and was aptly named. You know, I’m watching all of this and here we are trying to have this career in pop music with all of this craziness going on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let me talk just a moment about the music. You mention in the book about a shift in the music business and general culture in 1967. What do you attribute those changes to and how did you change with the times?
Tommy James: Well, one of the things I was very grateful for was that, at a creative level, they left us alone and allowed us to morph into whatever we could become. I was very grateful for that.
In 1967 music began to move in a very progressive direction. I’m talking about groups like Cream, Big Brother, and Janis Joplin. We basically began to change a bit with the times. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that there was this huge turnover from the singles market to the album market.
We went out on the (Hubert) Humphrey campaign in 1968. When we left in August, the big acts of the day were The Shondells, The Rascals, The Association, Gary Puckett, The Buckinghams, and all were singles acts. When we got back ninety days later there were all album acts; Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Joe Cocker. It was unbelievable. I had never seen a change happen like that and it happened in just a few weeks.
We knew if we were going to continue with our careers that we had to sell albums, something Roulette had never really done. They were a singles label and we were a singles act. We were very fortunate to be working on “Crimson and Clover” at that moment because that song allowed us, in one shot, to make that move from the singles market (AM Top 40 singles) to FM Progressive Album Rock. No other single we ever worked on would have allowed us to make that change that fast.
There were so many events surrounding “Crimson and Clover” that it really became (after “Hanky Panky”) probably the most important record we made.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” was released in 1969 and was a social awareness song. I’m comparing that song to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” in that they are both social awareness songs. You wrote that with Christianity in mind, right?
Tommy James: Right, I sure did, and “Sweet Cherry Wine,” too. Everybody thought we were talking about drugs (laughs).
Do you want to hear a funny story? The 700 Club was at my house recently. A few weeks ago I did The Howard Stern Show and later I did The 700 Club with this one project. That is the amazing story of rock and roll. It transcends all of this stuff!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has the film been cast yet?
Tommy James: We’ll be making an announcement in just a few weeks about the whole thing. I can only say that the Tommy James character will probably have to be two actors because of the amount of time involved. We know that one actor who is being seriously looked at, as the older Tommy, is Val Kilmer who did such a great job as Jim Morrison.
Barry Rosen and Mary Gleason are the executive producers for the movie. It’s going to be an all-star cast for the movie and it will also be a Broadway show. The show will open in San Francisco in about twelve months and then brought to New York.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you be making an appearance or cameo in the film?
Tommy James: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’ll probably be a bartender or an elevator operator … a janitor maybe.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A walk on part sort of like Alfred Hitchcock.
Tommy James: Exactly (laughs). But, how ironic that the rehashing of this story is going to end up as probably being the biggest story I’ve ever been involved in.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is your son, Brian, in the music business?
Tommy James: He’s not. He’s a design engineer and very good at it. He’s forty-five years old and a hell of a drummer, but his real calling is being an engineer. He’s not particularly a singer so it would be very hard to be a sideman in today’s market and expect to make a living.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re touring right now?
Tommy James: Yes, we’re all over the United States. We were at the Hall of Fame in Cleveland in the middle of May doing a book seminar called Legends and we also played a concert there.
Anyone can go to our website at www.tommyjames.com and see all of the concert dates listed. The next two years are going to be very interesting with the various projects.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will there be a new album, too?
Tommy James: Well, you know, there obviously will be a soundtrack album. The original Shondells from Pittsburgh and I are back in the studio making music for the movie. The first thing we’ve done is closing credits production for “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which is slow, no drums, and very dreamy … totally different from the original record.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That sounds great, Tommy. I’ll look forward to the film and any other upcoming projects.
Tommy James: Well, thank you. We’ll talk again when that happens!
Photo Credits: Front slider photo courtesy of Tommy James
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