Book Review: Me, the Mob, and the Music by Tommy James

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

3 comments to Book Review: Me, the Mob, and the Music by Tommy James

  • Bob

    I’ve just finished this book. I am a big Tommy James fan; I find his music unpretentiously reflective of the fun of being a teen in the 60’s. I found the book to be a very interesting chronicle of his career, focusing on his contract with Roulette records and his relationship with its owner, Mo Levy. James has some ambitious plans for this story including a movie and play deal, may triggered by the success of “Jersey Boys.” Best of luck to him. Though Levy is gone, I sure hope nobody else holds a grudge against him for telling story!

  • Brian David Williams

    I cannot wait to read this book , I did have the pleasure of hearing Tommy James talk at legnth about this book during the “Free Library Festival ” at the ParkWay Cenral Branch of The Free Library of Philadelphia . Some memorable moments….when he spoke of his signing the contract with Roulette Records in the background he could hear Morris Levy and an associate planning to beat up a man ( with baseball bats ! ) that had bootlegged one of their bootleged records….the absurdity of a conversation he once had with Vinny the Chin and Murray the K….he also said that it is very telling of Roulette Records that the only known pictures of some of the associates of Roulette records are their mugshots….and surprisingly he said some very admirable things about Morris Levy …such as his development of the “cut out ” record concept (K-Tell Records ) and how much that helped his career , the fact that Morris Levy gave him complete artistic control in the studio, unheard of at the time , and that if he (Tommy James ) had signed with another label he probably would have disappeared into obscurity . The talk lasted about 45 minutes and was followed by a question and answer period that revealed the following …he had no idea what the word Shondell meant when he picked it as a name for his band, it is actually a French word for a manuever that was used by World War One pilots (a sort of ascent and roll to the side evasive move )…he resents people that ask for his autograph and then turn around and sell it on E-Bey, he considers it theft.

  • Elmer Gantry

    I too attended the discussion Tommy James had at the Philadelphia Free Library in April of 2010. The thing that impressed me most about Tommy was that he does not need the “crew” that appeared with him on stage that day. He had two other people (one his co-author) that contributed little aside from sitting on stage with him and their duo purpose was to be stage props because when Tommy let loose he was hilarious and great fun with his crazy stories and wonderful look at the 1960’s rock scene. He loves the audience and, let me tell you, the audience loves Tommy James. It was the highlight of my day at the “Free Library Festival” in Philly that April Sunday to see and hear Tommy present the story of his life. Afterwards, he was gracious and signed every book of every person who stood in line with a little chat with each fan. Again, you sensed that Tommy liked this exchange with the fans unlike many of todays pop stars who wouldn’t be caught dead talking with the fans. Tommy’s co-author was there with him signing the books which wasn’t necessary as this man was along for the ride like the fans in the audience. Tommy should hit the lecture circuit (minus the unnecessary people to sit on stage with him) and let her rip about his amazing life. He would be a smash hit on the lecure circuit and the people would love him. He has an immediate connection with people. I agree with those who question why Tommy James never talked much of his first wife or son or family for that matter–it was the only downside of the book. I sense he gave up a lot for his success and perhaps he wasn’t around a lot for his family.