The Michigan hitmaker reflects on the Mob, “Mony Mony” and a magical career
Tommy James, who hits the 75-year-old mark April 29, has many stories to tell and four years ago he told me a few. These are stories of gain, stories of loss, stories of conflict, and, yes, stories of survival.
There’s the string of hits he and his band the Shondells had in the mid-late ‘60s. Two number ones – “Hanky Panky” and “Crimson and Clover” – and three others in the top five – “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Mony Mony” and “I Think We’re Alone Now.” In 1971, “Draggin’ the Line,” released under his own name and not & the Shondells, hit No. 4.
There’s the one about how a kid from Michigan got an indie hit in 1966 with a garage rock cover song in Pittsburgh, was courted by the major labels in New York and ended signing a contract with one of the most nefarious men in the music business, Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records, who was an associate of the Genovese New York crime family.
(Levy is the one of the notorious stars of Jay Bergen’s upcoming Lennon & the Mobster & the Lawyer book, about the late Beatle’s battle with the scum-sucking, swindling sumbitch.)
“When ‘Hanky Panky’ exploded out of Pittsburgh,” James told me, on the phone from home in Cedar Grove, NJ, “I came to New York and we got a yes from everybody and the last place we took the record to was Roulette. So, I’m feeling really good thinking we’re probably going to be with CBS or Atlantic. The next morning, we started getting calls suddenly saying “Tom, we gotta pass” and I said ‘Whadya mean?’ and finally Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told me the truth, that Morris Levy from Roulette had called up all the other labels and scared ‘em. Basically, threatened them [by saying] ‘This is my fucking record.’
Sounds bad, right?
And it was. Sort of. James claims he was swindled out of $40 million over his years with Roulette. But, James said, “Every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy, I sorta gotta stop myself because if it wasn’t for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James, or at least not the one we all know and love.”
He laughed and continued. “If we had gone with anybody else I can tell you right now, we probably would have been lucky to be a one-hit wonder, especially with a record like ‘Hanky Panky.’ Because at Roulette they actually needed us. So, I got everything they had. I got to put my own production crew together, I got to find my center of my artistry, I got to learn my craft, everything from writing and producing to designing album covers and learning retail and distributors and all that other stuff. I really learned my craft at Roulette and that never would have happened at any of the other labels.”
The tally: “We’ve had 23 gold singles, nine platinum albums and we’ve done about 110 million records internationally. And we were making money from touring and BMI and commercials and other streams.”
As with more than a few bands with the [lead singer] and the [band] monikers, there have been many members of the Shondells over the years, with the best count being 29.
“Peter and the Hermits are really good,” says James. “They really play well and I have always thought ‘I’m Into Something Good’ was one of the greatest first singles for any group I ever heard because of the kind of song it was. I established his image as this British cute boy. I have done other concerts with them and I love working with them. The audience really responds well.”
It’s possible a film is finally going to be made based on the 2010 memoir he co-wrote: Me, The Mob and The Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells. The script is written and is, as they say, “in development,” still.
VIDEO: Tommy James and the Shondells perform “I Think We’re Alone Now” on Village Square 1967
“I’m going to be a co-producer and also technical advisor,” said James, of the movie, “when it comes to the music and so forth and the equipment and all the stuff in the studio scenes.” He’s certain that as the credits roll a new, slow and sad rendition of James’ upbeat bubblegum hit from 1967, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” will play.
“The whole point is that the closing credits for the movie and the last scene in the movie is where Morris Levy dies,” James said. “And of course, we’re alone now. The amazing thing is how the lyrics hold up in this very somber moment. … You know. Morris got arrested and before he died he was convicted. Never served a day because he died. Tricked ‘em again.”
One takeaway from the memoir – and presumably the movie – is that however difficult and problematic a relationship as James had with Levy, he still saw him as something of a father figure, too.
“That’s really the premise of the story,” says James. “I guess you could call it an abusive father-son relationship where he smacked the kid around but he sends him to college. And that’s kind of how it was.”
Tommy James’ star seemed to have waned during most of the ‘70s, but his name came back in the early ‘80s new wave era when Lene Lovich did “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Joan Jett did “Crimson and Clover” and Billy Idol did “Mony Mony.” The message, perhaps, was that these current stars were looking back to this music – sometimes thought of “just bubblegum” – but they played it for real, giving James a shot of credibility to a new generation.
“Definitely,” said James. “To me, the greatest compliment a fan can give you as an artist is to make you and your music part of the landscape. I don’t think they can give you a better thumbs-up.
VIDEO: Tommy James and the Shondells perform “Mony Mony” on The Ed Sullivan Show
Bubblegum is not a term or genre with which many artists want to lay claim. James will. “We started as a garage band,” he said, “and then moved on to sort of accidentally invent bubblegum with ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’ And that was my fault. ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ was brought to me as a mid-tempo ballad and we went in the studio and did a demo of it and I started [going] dum-dum-dum-dum on the guitar and that caught on and became the signature sound for the next several records and the whole album. Then, we moved on to party-rock with ‘Mony Mony,’ ‘Do Something to Me’ and then came ‘Crimson and Clover.’
Ah, yes, “Crimson and Clover,” a slow-dance staple of 1969 junior high school dances. The pleasure principle kicked in from that very first blast – “Ah!” – followed by “Now I don’t hardly know her/But I think I could love her.” It was one of those shimmering songs you never wanted to end. If you were, say, 13, that year – I was! – you might just be pressed up against a lovely young teen you had your dreams set upon. And you might have had an ache in your trousers.
But did you ever wonder what he was singing about (over and over) as the tremolo guitar notes quivered behind his voice. It was vague, but mesmerizing. Was it spiritual? Sexual?
VIDEO: Tommy James celebrates 50 years of ‘Crimson and Clover”
What, pray tell, did that song and those words “crimson and clover” mean?
“Just two of my favorite words,” he said, with a laugh. “Sounded like they oughta be profound. It sounded poetic. I have no idea what they meant. Listen, that’s how it was back then. You’re always on the make for interesting words and lines as a songwriter. It must have meant something.”