Tommy James got his first guitar at age 13, and his life has been a musical whirlwind since. He even got caught up in a mob scene, so to speak.
Tommy James had a good reason for taking so long to tell his story: The company that released his records was actually a front for a notorious crime family.
The iconic singer-songwriter was one of the biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s with and without his backing group The Shondells, selling more than 100 million records. But he wasn’t able to tell the full story of his tumultuous relationship with Morris Levy and Roulette Records, which turned out to be closely connected with the Genovese crime family, until 2010 with the publication of his best-selling autobiography “Me, The Mob and The Music.”
James, who will bring his big hits to the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre tomorrow night, recently called The Times Leader to talk about the book and his plans to tell the tale on Broadway and the silver screen.
“I couldn’t talk about it for decades because these guys were still walking around,” he said. “The last of the Roulette regulars passed on in 2006, and it took us (James and his co-writer Martin Fitzpatrick) about three years to get it right and get it the way we wanted it.”
In 1956, the man born Thomas Jackson got his first guitar at age 9 after seeing Elvis Presley on TV. He formed his first group, The Tornadoes, at 13. A few years later (1964), he and his group recorded four songs including “Hanky Panky” for a local label in Niles, Mich., and changed their name to The Shondells.
Two years later, the song was discovered in a used-record bin and became a huge hit in Pittsburgh. As he wasn’t able to get the original band back together, he found a group in Pittsburgh who became The Shondells, and they went to New York to sell the master recording.
“We went to all the big companies like Columbia, RCA, Epic, Atlantic and an independent called Kama Sutra, and the last place we went was Roulette. We got thumbs up from everybody. I went to bed that night feeling pretty good, then the phone started ringing the next morning, and everybody passed.
“Finally Jerry Wexler from Atlantic leveled with us and said that Morris Levy told everybody ‘That’s my record, so back off,’ ” James recalled, doing his best gangster voice.
Suddenly without other options, the group signed with Levy and Roulette, and the song went to No. 1, but James said it didn’t take long to realize something wasn’t right.
“Morris Levy was right out of central casting; he looked like Al Capone,” James said. “We would see people at his office and a week later see those same people on TV being walked out of warehouses in New Jersey in handcuffs.”
After the runaway success of “Hanky Panky,” James and his band unleashed an incredible string of 19 hits from 1966 through 1970, gracing the Top 10 seven times. He is now writing new songs and working with actor Chazz Palminteri on a Broadway adaptation of his story. He’s also collaborating on a movie with producer Barbara De Fina, best known for her work with ex-husband Martin Scorsese on films such as “GoodFellas,” “Casino” and “Cape Fear.”
James, who now admits he should have been a little more afraid back in the Roulette days, said he always had mixed feelings about the experience.
“We didn’t get any money from our mechanicals (records) or royalties on our publishing, but we had incredible success up there, and that amazing success has lasted my whole life,” he said.
“If it hadn’t been for Morris Levy and Roulette, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James, or at least not the one we know.”
Tomorrow’s show at the Kirby Center also will include Mitch Ryder, the blue-eyed soul singer who rose to fame in the mid-1960s as leader of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
Who: Tommy James and Mitch Ryder
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow
Where: F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
Tickets: $39.50 to $49.50
Call: 826-1100, or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
Trying to place Tommy James and Mitch Ryder?
James, with the Shondells, rose to fame with:
• “Hanky Panky”
• “I Think We’re Alone Now,”
• “Mony Mony”
• “Crystal Blue Persuasion”
• “Sweet Cherry Wine”
• “Crimson and Clover.”
He went solo in 1970 and charted another 13 hits, the biggest being 1971’s “Draggin’ the Line” (a No. 4.)
Ryder is best known for:
• The medley of “Devil with the Blue Dress On” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” (No. 4 in 1966)
• “Jenny Take a Ride!”
• “Sock It To Me-Baby!”