Just as the first automobile was followed closely by the first insurance agent, so did the fledgling rock and roll industry quickly attract the opportunistic. And so, many rock stars’ stories are littered with their exploitation by unscrupulous managers, promoters, and record company executives.
Thomas Gregory Jackson — better known as Tommy James — experienced both a breakneck ascent to ’60s rock stardom and the parasites who invariably prey on show business successes. Me, the Mob, and the Music is a breathless account of James’ improbable, vertiginous rise to the top of the charts, and the cutthroat owner of his record label who profited so richly from his success.
For the most part, the story of Tommy James could have come out of Hollywood (and, in fact, may wind up there): Through a lucky fluke, 16-year-old Tommy James records a song that becomes a hit, unbeknownst to him, after being rescued from obscurity. One day he is playing clubs in Niles, Michigan; the next, he’s sought after by the leading New York record labels.
And the day after that, the labels all drop him like a hot pastrami. All, that is, other than Roulette Records.
As James learns, Roulette’s colorful owner, Morris Levy, has intimidated away all other comers and is staking a claim for his label. This technique of artist acquisition might have been less successful had not Levy been closely associated with the powerful Vito Genovese crime family. Even savvy industry pros like Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler admitted to rescinding his offer to release “Hanky Panky” on his label when Levy calls to inform him, “This is my f—ing record! Leave it alone!”
Levy may not have been “made” himself, but he did routinely conduct “family” business in his Roulette office. Consequently, James heard more about mob activities than he was comfortable with, from the men he says were the basis for several characters on The Sopranos, including “Fat Tony” Salerno, the inspiration for Tony Soprano, and the “Mo” Levy-inspired loan shark character, Hesh Rabkin. Levy was close enough to the Genovese family that he fled the country during the Mafia wars of the early 1970s that claimed some of this book’s other characters.
What could easily have been the story of a one-hit career trajectory, as in That Thing You Do, instead becomes a 100 million record-selling hot streak for Tommy James and the Shondells. Of course, they made great records, but thousands of great records made in the ’60s failed to sell above the double digits. James acknowledges that Roulette and Levy played an important role in his success, even when business negotiations involved record distributors and baseball bats. While James has misgivings about Levy’s business tactics, he adopts a “see no evil” attitude toward them as they’re applied to making hits of his records.
The book’s casual, conversational style and the singer’s candor make for an engaging, snappy read. Snappy almost to a fault, actually. James’ parents, his wives (three and counting) and son, and the Shondells are barely sketched in as he rushes through his early history and peak years as a hit maker. Clearly, the story James wants to tell is about his relationship with Levy, who serves as both the story’s villain and a surrogate for James’ father. James is shown seeking Levy’s approval, overlooking the exploitation and criminal activity, and delighting in the few compliments doled out by the mobbed-up music exec.
Given its place in the title, it shouldn’t be surprising that “the music” is treated so superficially. The most memorable image James offers of the extent of his success is a Phoenix concert in the summer of 1968 — 11 years before the Who tragedy in Cincinnati — when the audience rushed the stage, leaving two fans crushed to death. Like Jagger watching footage of Meredith Hunter’s death at Altamont, James’ reaction to this tragedy feels inadequate. To be fair, he doesn’t dwell on any of his regrets here, and does own up to plenty of shortcomings (serial adultery, drug abuse, etc.).
The process of making Tommy James and the Shondells’ greatest hits is also seen only in passing. One of those anecdotes is among the most disturbing disclosures in the book: “Mony Mony” was a cut and paste job, anything but the live-in-the-studio garage band blowout it sounds like. The few glimpses of James’ touring life and recording sessions are enough to raise the hope that he’ll someday publish an autobiography where “the music” isn’t billed after the mob.
But Me, the Mob, and the Music does shed light on a unique facet of a storybook career and is recommended both to Tommy James fans and those with an interest in the workings of the rock music industry during its heyday. In recent interviews, James has said the book is being developed into a stage show, by the producers of Jersey Boys, and a film, possibly by Martin Scorcese.
Maybe they’ll cast Jerry Adler as Mo Levy.