For whatever reason, celebrity memoirs seem to sell better when they are tell-all tales. In fact, it seems the more salacious, the better. If that’s what intrigues you about such works, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells won’t fit the bill. If, though, you’re interested in the then-nascent pop music industry of the 1960s as experienced by a still teenaged star who ends up signed with the “Godfather” of that business, Tommy James’s memoir may be worth your time.
To a certain extent, the story of Tommy James encapsulates the story of rock music in the 1960s. James, born Thomas Jackson, details how he began playing in bands at age 12, the years spent forming bands and playing local and regional venues, and how he ended up married and a father just shy of age 18. While still 16, James and the Shondells, all local Michigan guys, recorded and released a regional single, “Hanky Panky.” Somehow, although the song would soon disappear regionally, two years later it became a huge hit in Pittsburgh, launching James and the song to national success.
Even that success reflects a young industry. By the time “Hanky Panky” broke out in Pittsburgh, the Shondells had long since disbanded. As the singer, it was James and James alone who was recruited and marketed to the New York music industry. He signed with Roulette Records, owned by Morris Levy, who was reportedly “connected” and known as the “Godfather” of the record industry. It was common at the time to record albums after a single or two had already been released. Once “Hanky Panky” got national release and shot to number one, it was clear there needed to be an album — which also meant James needed to find new Shondells. He did so in a Pittsburgh band called the Raconoeturs, who quickly discarded that name and ended up in a New York City recording studio and on national tours with James and would rocket to more anonymous fame with him. The only common denominator between the Shondells’ first single and first album was James himself.
Much of the book discusses the relationship and dealings between James and Levy. Levy had moved from nightclubs, including the famous Birdland, into the record industry. He founded and bought a number of record labels, including the K-Tel label that would be near ubiquitous in the 1970s. The descriptions by James give the impression the Roulette offices were a cross between corporate and wise guy America, with secretaries and accountants crossing paths with well-dressed guys with baseball bats who dealt with record bootleggers. One of Levy’s keys was to obtain the rights to songs, occasionally even having his or his young son’s name added as a writer. That happened with James, whose income came largely from the concert circuit. Although Levy would give James a check here and there, royalty accountings and payments bordered on nonexistent.
In large part thanks to Levy and Roulette, though, James and the Shondells were a popular part of the developing sound of the late 1960s. “Hanky Panky” had a basic, almost primitive, rock and roll type feel. In 1967, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which reached number four on the charts, would be credited by some as inventing “bubblegum” music, a claim to fame James acknowledges yet still tries to distance himself from. Then, in 1968, “Crimson and Clover” would reach number one with a psychedelic rock approach. James relates the stories behind both the writing and recording of many of these hits, including confirming that the tune “Mony Mony” got its name when, taking a break from writing the song, he saw a neon sign on the Mutual of New York building that kept spelling out “MONY”.
Me, the Mob, and the Music seems to almost take a sense of pride in Levy’s background and reputation. James does not hesitate to describe incidents that suggest organized crime ties or seeing in meeting such individuals in Levy’s office. He recalls one time when, after leaving Levy’s office, “all I could think of was how many murders, crimes and God knows what else I had just shaken hands with.” Levy going missing when a battle broke out for control of . At the same time, it is clear that despite being among the artists whose money Levy kept, James had a great deal of respect and gratitude for Levy, developing almost a familial relationship with him.
Often, though, it feels like James is merely skimming the surface or picking out highlights here and there. In fact, the extent to which the book stays away from the tell-all style is reflected in the fact that at times it seems to actually ignore aspects of his life. For example, although we James talks about his first wife and their son and the guilt he felt as he achieved stardom while they remained in Michigan, he never discusses what type of relationship, if any, he had with the boy as he grew up. Rather, both wife and son fade from the story once James mentions they got divorced. Likewise, James spends little time on his career after the Shondells broke up in 1970 and gives no glimpse of how someone who suddenly achieved worldwide fame and success in his teens and early twenties copes once he is out of the spotlight. More notably, while James mentions that Levy owed him some $40 million in royalties, there is no discussion of when and how that was ever resolved.
As a result, James is not always a thorough historian. Still, he tells enough of the story and his experiences to not only give us a look inside the rock music world of the late 1960s but to leave little doubt he did get “one helluva ride” like Levy promised when he signed him.
It took me years to realize that In the Court of the Crimson King didn’t come with marijuana seeds enclosed in the cover.
Tommy James, Me, the Mob, and the Music