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BWW Reviews: ME, THE MOB AND THE MUSIC Is Mostly 'Mob'

"It is always reported that there are five major crime families in New York--Gambino, Genovese, Colombo, Lucchese and Bonnano--and that's mostly true. But back in the sixties, there were six families. All of the above and the Roulette family." (Tommy James)

Me, the Mob and the Music is the autobiography of sixties' hit-maker Tommy James (as told to Martin Fitzpatrick).

If, like me, you are a big fan of James' semi-auteurish music (at one point he writes rather off-handedly and self-deprecatingly about "inventing" bubble-gum music but don't let the casual air fool you, he has a point and, given the direction music has taken in recent decades, that distinction makes him one of the most sneakily significant musicians of the last fifty years), and want to learn something in depth about his creative process, you can probably give this book a pass.

And, if, like me, you want to learn something meaningful about the former Tommy Jackson's interior life, something beyond his bare bones biography, this volume won't get you much further than Wikipedia.

On the other hand, if, like me, you are interested in the ways and means by which mobsters like James' old Roulette record label boss, Morris Levy, controlled significant parts of the music industry in the sixties and beyond, this book is a must read.

To the extent that the book takes us into James' interior life, it does best in the early years, when he does do a pretty good job of sharing his experiences as an up-and-coming rock and roller in the fifties and early sixties.

Writing of his stage debut with his first band the Echoes--singing Ricky Nelson's "Lonesome Town" in a junior high variety show--he keeps it simple: "The auditorium was packed with our classmates and their parents, daring us to be good. One bad note and we could never show our faces again."

That's not just an apt description of getting up on stage when you're thirteen. It's a pretty good description of junior high in general.

These kind of terse, sometimes vivid, descriptive notes do punctuate the book. James' basic upbeat personality comes through. But he's a little light on introspection to say the least. Marriages, divorces, the birth of a child, relations with various members of his band, the Shondells, a late career commitment to a more spiritual life (which, in his case, meant ditching the rock and roll lifestyle and re-embracing Christianity), even his time as a "youth adviser" to Hubert Humphrey's 1968 campaign--all of these things pass with little more impact than items crossed of a shopping list.

The one relationship that the singer explores in any detail, and which frames and sustains his narrative, is that with Levy...and it's a relationship well worth telling a tale about.

I came to this book knowing Levy as the man who, through his hold over an unregenerate gambling addict named George Goldner (who also happened to be a genius record producer), gained control of numerous "start-up" record labels in rock and roll's first decade, including Roulette, which became Tommy James' recording home. Through his contempt for everything but the bottom line (meaning not just money, but money specifically acquired through the art of intimidation), Levy had managed, directly or indirectly, to ruin the careers of Frankie Lymon, the Chantels and the Shangri-Las among many others.

In a sense, James got off lucky. He formed a personal bond with Levy, who seems to have genuinely liked him. Eventually, it became a rough-and-tumble, father-son relationship. But the seeds of disaster were in the beginning, which is one story James dwells on at length.

Aficionados of sixties' music are generally aware of how James' first hit came to be. He was one of the countless garage band wanna-bes working the upper Midwest when he finagled a recording date some time in 1964 with his latest band (the first version of the Shondells) and made a record called "Hanky Panky," which went exactly nowhere.

Nearly two years later he got a phone call which relayed some interesting news: "I hung up the phone and tried to put the pieces together. I was playing covers in the Indiana Café. The Shondells did not exist anymore. I had the number one record in Pittsburgh. I was numb."

From there, it was a story straight out of period lore: "I considered putting the original Shondells back together, but by then Jim Payne had joined the service; Larry Wright had moved away and no one could find him; Hank Randolph, from the Spinners and the Koachmen, would have been perfect except that, unlike me, married with a child, he was single and got drafted."

Nonetheless, James and his manager made their way to Pittsburgh and, from there, to New York, where they made the rounds of one record company after another who kept bidding up the price for the kid who had a breakout hit in a major market (it would eventually go #1 in Billboard).

And then:

"The next morning, a frantic phone call from Chuck Rubin got us out of bed in a hurry. He told us that every record company we had gone to see yesterday, the ones that had been so eager to sign us to a deal, had inexplicably called him up to tell him they were going to pass on the record. One of them, Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records, admitted that he had received a call from Morris Levy, the president of Roulette, who informed him 'This is my f-ing record! Leave it alone.'"

Thus was the "partnership" formed--one in which, like others before him, James (having formed a new version of the Shondells) would make millions he would never see:

"The funny part was that it really never dawned on me how much I was being screwed by Morris. I had never had the money in front of me, so I never missed it in the way that I would have if, say, I had a million dollars and then next year lost a million dollars. I was making good money on the road so I always had enough to get by. Morris was so consummate in his thievery that I could never really see what was never in front of me."

Unlike most of the people Levy "screwed," Tommy James--thanks to both his very real talent and his ability to look the other way at certain key moments--at least got a long run of hits and a certain abiding respect in the music industry. The story of how he got by and how he eventually screwed up the courage to leave makes up the bulk of the book from that point forward.

After James finally broke with Levy in the early seventies, the relentless mobster even got his hooks briefly into John Lennon's solo career. The dispute over Lennon's Rock and Roll album came down to this:

"By this time everybody was suing everybody else. The case dragged on for another year and Morris lost. None of this surprised me. Morris made millions and would go on to make more, but there was something inside him that could not do it legitimately. Morris would always rather make ten cents illegally than a thousand dollars honestly."

James does not speculate on whether this had anything with Lennon going into an almost immediate "retirement" that lasted five years (ending just before his death). He just recalls heaving a distinct sigh of relief because it wasn't his problem anymore and at least he had gotten some life lessons out of the deal--like a worm's-eye view of how the record business really worked in the days when pop culture was busy glamorizing mob ethics:

"Morris knew that if you created a second label as an adjunct to your main label and pressed records that never sold, you could write off your expenses to the IRS. Morris had dozens of labels under the Roulette umbrella. Some were legitimate labels that usually defined a specific genre, like rock, doo-wop, jazz, folk, comedy, Latin, or the latest flavor of the month But some, like the Tiger Lily label, were nothing more than tax scams. Morris used Tiger Lily like a garage sale. He took random recordings that had been accumulating in his vaults and pressed them up under the Tiger Lily label and then warehoused them. They were never actually sent out to retailers. If they were sent out, it was only in tiny shipments meant to give the impression of vast distribution....Other record companies followed Morris' lead....By the time Morris owned his record store chain, Strawberries, he was making money on the venture three ways. But it also became his downfall."

So much for the romance and glamour of mob life...and mob income.

The "downfall," incidentally, would be extortion charges (successfully brought in the late eighties) and, interestingly enough, though this book was published in 2010, James effectively ends his story with Levy's death (of cancer, in 1990...just before he was supposed to report to jail).

Tommy James is a forgiving guy. He doesn't seem to harbor any grudge that includes the sincere hope that there's a hell waiting for his old boss' immortal soul.

I'll just say that the man who wrote "Crystal Blue Persuasion" and "Crimson and Clover" and "Sweet Cherry Wine" and so many others, is a better man than I....and I'm glad he lived to tell the tale.

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)