Monday, May 14, 2012

Me, The Mob, And The Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells

Admit it.  You can name three or four Tommy James tunes off the top of your head.  How about these: Crimson and Clover, Crystal Blue Persuasion and I Think We're Alone Now.  All great pop songs. All number one records.  All memorable.  All embedded in our ears.  And that's without mentioning Mony, Mony, Hanky Panky, Draggin' the Line or a mess of other singles that charted high.
Let me say, right off the bat, I'm not some secret Tommy James freak who has been waiting all my life for this memoir.  In fact, I doubt only the true Tommy James freak, of which there must be some somewhere, have been waiting all their lives for this memoir.  Still, when I saw this was being published, it made me think about Tommy James and the Shondells and their place in the scheme of rock 'n' roll.  What was it like for a lightweight hitmaker like Tommy James to hit it big while the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and other more influential musicians were at the height of their popularity and creative output?  Hoping for an answer to that question made me want to read this memoir. 

So there's the "Me" and the "Music" of the title.  What of "the Mob"?  Ah, yes, the story of Roulette Records, the baby of Morris Levy, a notorious label chief who was so mobbed-up, he gave his bodyguards their own labels.  A guy so cutthroat, he actually cut throats.  Thing is, he knew a hit when he heard it.  Tommy James came along after a long dry spell for Roulette so Levy made him a star.  Along the way, Levy invented the cut-out and the K-Tel label as a way to double dip from his own publishing empire.  Shrewd, mean and loyal.  That was Morris Levy. 

No great revelations here, of course: kid comes from nothing, makes it big, mobster screws him out of millions, too much booze, too many pills, James finds Jesus (I do wish Jesus would talk to James about his hair!  He sports a rather frightening coif these days), record label folds like a house of cards, prison, cancer, oldies circuit.  Sounding like every cliche imaginable, Me, The Mob, and The Music is a highly readable story that I couldn't put down.  Honest.

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