Tommy James has always been an enigma to me, a second tier sixties artist with a trunk full of hits and a boatload of critical condemnation. Although he achieved astounding success he never quite hit the big leagues with acts like The Who, The Doors, Moody Blues, Kinks, and The Beach Boys; and though he flirted with big-time success (George Harrison even wrote a few songs specifically for James) he never achieved the stratospheric rock god status of The Beatles, Stones and Dylan.
Tommy James & the Shondells were great like The Turtles were great - no small praise, as both of these underrated bands could sing with incredible range and harmony, play their own instruments innovatively, and write incredibly gifted melodic pop songs that sometimes verged on psychedelic perfection.
I remember when Hanky Panky became a smash hit in 1966. It was an unassuming slice of garage rock heaven that was high on primitive cool and had a touch of reverb to give it a slight echo effect. It had a minimalist vibe like Question Mark & the Mysterians 96 Tears, though James’s ham fisted lead guitar couldn’t compete with those 32nd note organ riffs that the Mysterians used to propel their one and only #1 hit.
At the time I thought Tommy James was no match with this odd Question Mark dude who wore shades and chased wildebeasts. A few years later both the Shondells and the Mysterians released Do Something to Me. Tommy James had a chart hit with it. Question Mark did not - and the Mysterians eventually receded into obscurity, the fate of most sixties rockers.
The story of Hanky Panky alone is worth the price of admission. It is the tale of a Phoenix rising from the ashes to become a shining star. It an incredible tale of dumb luck that evokes a Bacon-esque link to unlikely alliances. It probably couldn’t happen today.
James recorded Hanky Panky in 1964 on the small independent SNAP label owned by Jack Douglas. James was making waves playing Elks Clubs and Legion halls in Niles Michigan and selling boxfuls of the record. But by 1965, James realized that those big 50,000-watt radio stations in Detroit and Chicago were not picking it up and it was clear to him that Hanky Panky was “not gonna fly”.
Then in April 1966, James got a call from a co-worker at the Spin-It Record Shop. He told James that Douglas was trying to find him and that Hanky Panky was the #1 record in Pittsburg.
It changed his life forever
As the story goes a DJ by the name of Bob Mack plucked the 45rpm out of a used record bin and started playing it at his teen dances. It was the most requested record in town and the crowd response was outrageous. The original disc was bootlegged, picked up by Fenway Distributors and sold throughout Pittsburg and nearby counties. It was a monster hit.
Sensing this was the chance of a lifetime; James hopped into a car and drove straight down I-80 to his destiny. Bob Mack and James joined forces to find a new group of Shondells. They proceeded to scour the clubs in and around Pittsburg and eventually discovered a gifted band at the Thunderbird Lounge called The Raconteurs. After a few rehearsals with James, they realized they had a true leader with a great voice. They jumped at this uncommon opportunity. The rest is a history that can never be repeated, as record companies no longer scour regional markets as they once did in the sixties.
This is a memoir with several twists. Tommy James ended up signing a contract with Roulette Records. It was like signing a pact with the devil, a real life godfather of rock & roll by the name of Morris Levy. Levy founded Roulette Records in 1956 and he quickly learned the value of claiming publishing rights. He allegedly claimed authorship of several early rock & roll songs that he did not write, including Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya”, The Riviera’s California Sun and others. This practice allowed Levy to become one of the wealthiest record executives in the biz. It is alleged that he had ties to the Genovese crime family. In fact, James delayed the completion of this book until after Vinnie “the Chin” Gigante passed away in 2005.
James explains that his contract with Roulette was similar to many contracts at the time in that most of the publishing went to Roulette and royalties were never paid to the artists. This was true for Tommy James. Instead of getting regular royalty checks for the sales of his hits, James had to rely on Levy’s unpredictable largesse. If Levy were in a good mood, he would instruct his assistant to cut James a check for ten grand or even buy him a house. Otherwise Levy might yell and scream and threaten James life. Levy would insist that James had no royalties because of the production/recording costs and living expenses that Roulette covered. Levy exercised complete control over his artists through unpredictable transfers of money and the threat of violence. Intimidation was his forte.
In this modest 225 page memoir, James is able to tell his story, warts and all, through intersecting plot lines and partially filled spaces that nonetheless detail his music (the hits) and the creative process while titillating us with stories from the dark side. He never digs very deep and that may be all well and good. The sad tale of drug and alcohol abuse and infidelity/promiscuity is pretty familiar in the lore of sixties/seventies rock & roll.
Women were never liberated and free love was more of a male dominated ruse. Get it while you’re hot brother. In an exercise of doing/undoing James reveals episodes of Levy’s vicious underworld of crime and violence and then describes Levy’s fatherly love, generosity and affection. It seems Levy borrowed the art of building loyalty following episodes of intimidation - breaking you down and building you back up. It’s a military science for those who like control. It appears to be similar to the Stockholm syndrome in which the victim ends up aligning with the aggressor
It is interesting that James seems defensive about critiques of his songs, especially the earlier pop hits such as its Only Love, I Think We’re Alone Now, and Mirage. He disagrees with the critics and feels he’s been misunderstood and grouses that others borrowed his riffs and used them to create hybrid music for pre-teens called “Bubblegum.”
He points to the year 1968 when Kasenetz and Katz formed Buddha records and co-opted his music – rhythms and chord progressions - and used them on songs like Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, Down at Lulus, and Indian Giver. Well…it’s a fine line to draw in the sand. Personally, I like bubblegum music and I’m not so quick to jettison that label - though it no longer carries much underground cool. There was a time in the eighties and nineties when punk bands played songs by the Monkees, Ohio Express and the Archies - and I loved it!
I was especially appreciative that James brought the reader inside for a glimpse (remember, not very deep) of the creative process on some of his greatest songs – Mony Mony, Crystal Blue Persuasion, Crimson and Clover, Sweet Cherry Wine (his only protest song), Ball of Fire, and Draggin’ the Line
Ultimately all of the major players in this memoir are given a balanced review of their strengths and contributions as well as their warts and failings - Tommy James included. This makes the book more memorable and more human…especially for James. He is no angel and he admits to knowing exactly what he was doing and whom he was dealing with when he signed his pact with the devil. He learned to look the other way and knew when he could push and when he should walk away. It may have saved his career …and his life
I saw Tommy James perform for the very first time at Pine Knob in the late seventies. He opened for Franki Valli and the Four Seasons. Valli was stiff and perfunctory, sounding more like a lounge lizard than an early rock & roll hero. He even said something like; “this is for all the lovely ladies here tonight,” before singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Yeech. But Tommy James was right on the mark. He sang well and the band was incredible. He stole the show.
I saw him a second time in 1985 at the Saginaw Civic Center. He was in a package tour produced by Chrysler to raise funds for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. It was a one-of-kind iconoclastic show featuring Tommy James & the Shondells with Don Ciccone of the Critters, the original Four Tops led by the irresistible baritone of Levi Tubbs, the Temptations with Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin (the original lead singers), Spirit with Randy California, Ed Cassidy and Jay Ferguson, and Mark Lindsey (lead singer of Paul Revere & the Raiders) backed by Spirit!
It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to shine and each band hit their mark with a bulls-eye. Tommy James’ note perfect muscular performance was right on par with the other rock and soul icons on the bill. It is a flawless and forgotten gem never to be repeated. It was pure magic.
Me & the Mob and the Music is a must read for anyone who loves the music of the sixties and seventies and wants to learn more about the underside of a very corrupt business. The book is published by Scribner Press, A Division of Simon & Shuster Inc. You can purchase it locally @ Barnes & Noble.