Thursday, April 23, 2009
By Brian McElhiney
In 1966, a young Michigan singer and guitarist named Tommy James
signed a record deal with Roulette Records in New York City.
For the next four years, James and his band The Shondells racked up
two No. 1 hits, "Hanky Panky" and "Crimson and Clover," and numerous
other top 10 tracks on the label. The group's shiny pop sound and
hooky melodies ran counter to the more serious-minded psychedelic
trends of the time, earning them little respect from critics but
massive sales from audiences. After The Shondells called it quits in
1970, James continued with Roulette until 1974, scoring yet another
top 10 hit with 1971's "Dragging the Line."
But underneath the sunny exterior of the band's catchy pop songs and
fairy tale fame-and-fortune story lies a dark secret that James has
kept silent about over the years. It wasn't until 2005 that James was
able to safely reveal what he says the label truly was: a front for
the Genovese crime family.
"[Roulette] was basically used as everything from an illegal bank
account, running illegal stuff through there, to a social club where
all these guys would hang out," James said during a recent phone
interview from his home in New Jersey, just outside New York City.
"So I really didn't feel safe talking about all this until they
passed away, and the last one to pass away was Vinnie 'The Chin'
Gigante, who was the head of the family."
His time on Roulette makes up the majority of James' autobiography,
"Me, the Mob and Music," due out on Simon & Schuster toward the end
of the year. Plans are already under way to have famed director
Martin Scorcese direct a film version of the book next year.
In the meantime, James continues to play dates with his current
touring band under the Shondells monicker the group will headline
Proctors' " '60s Spectacular" show on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The
lineup also includes The Association, The New Rascals (one of two
present day incarnations of 1960s group The Rascals) and The
Happenings, all groups that James has had some sort of connection
with in the past.
"Some of these acts on the show I haven't worked with in ages, so
it's really great to see some of these guys," James said. "I've known
The Happenings since back in the '60s, but I haven't had the chance,
really, to work with them in 20, 30 years. Everybody on the show has
been a friend of mine for a long time."
James, who used to own a farm in Rensselaer County, is looking
forward to returning to the upstate region as well. "I love it up
there," he said.
He's also been busy on the recording front last year he released
the holiday album "I Love Christmas" as well as the retrospective "40
Years," featuring all of his A-sides from The Shondells and his solo
career up through 2006. "I Love Christmas" holds some significance to
longtime followers of James, with the single "It's Christmas Again"
featuring the surviving members of the original Shondells: Mike Vale,
Eddie Gray and Ron Rosman (original drummer Peter Lucia died more
than 20 years ago).
That song, co-written by James and Vale, has sparked plans for a
full-blown reunion album, which the band will record later in the year.
"We had such fun being back in the studio together that we decided to
do an album," James said. "It's a great time for us all to be
together, with the release of the book and movie. We'll do a lot of
TV and publicity for the movie, so it's a really wonderful time for
the original band and I to be back together again."
Landing on Roulette
James, born in 1947 in Dayton, Ohio, relocated to Niles, Mich., with
his family in 1958. One year later, at the age of 12, James was in
his first band, Tom and the Tornadoes, which eventually became The Shondells.
In 1964, local label Snap Records originally released "Hanky Panky"
to regional success, but the single was quickly forgotten. Two years
later a Pittsburgh nightclub began playing the track, and the success
of the bootlegged single led James to put together a new version of
The Shondells, from Pittsburgh group The Raconteurs (this lineup is
the one that will be reuniting later this year).
James went shopping for a record deal in New York City, drawing
interest from major labels such as CBS and Atlantic, and from
Roulette Records, run by Morris Levy. Roulette eventually won out,
though by shady means, according to James.
"The way it happened was that all the companies said yes Atlantic,
CBS, Kama Sutra," James said. "The last place it was taken to was
Roulette. The following day, we start getting calls back that they
have all got to pass. We said, we were really amazed, 'What's going
on? Why are they saying no after they said yes yesterday?' Later on,
I found out from Jerry Wexler at Atlantic that Morris Levy had called
all the companies and said, 'This is my [freaking] record.' They all
backed down; that's how we ended up on Roulette."
According to James, at the time the band signed with the label, they
didn't know of its purported mob connections, although they soon found out.
"Four of the regulars up at Roulette that we knew and were rubbing
shoulders with ended up being bosses of the family from 1966 through
the late '70s," James said. "It was quite an interesting place to be.
In the midst of having sold 110 million albums, 23 gold singles, nine
platinum, 80 [percent] to 90 percent of my success [was on the label]
all this was going on at the very same moment all this other very
dark stuff was going on at the same time. It was quite an education."
Get out of town
During his time with Roulette, James found himself in some "really
scary" situations, including a period in 1971 when he was forced to
leave New York City for Nashville, where he cut the
country-influenced "My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar."
"When the Gambinos were taking over New York, Morris Levy and
Roulette were on the wrong side of that," James said. "I was told by
my lawyer . . . that it would be a good idea if I left town for a few
weeks. [He told me], 'If they can't get Morris, they'll get whatever
is making Morris money,' and that was me."
Although James said that "getting your money was practically
impossible and leaving was practically impossible," he did manage to
leave the label in 1974. However, he maintains that despite all this,
Roulette had its good points.
"They were a good record company as far as selling records; nobody
could sell singles better than Roulette, and gradually I got them
into the album market as well," James said.
"If we had been on any of the corporate labels, we would have been
handed an in-house producer, had one or two hits, and that would have
been the end of us. Basically, we were allowed to spend as much as we
needed to spend, and allowed to morph from a garage band to a pop
band into the psychedelic era. We were able to have the public's
attention to spend money and make the records we needed to make. I
don't think, if we had been on the majors, we would have been able to do that."
' '60s Spectacular'
WITH: Tommy James and the Shondells, The Association, The New
Rascals, The Happenings
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
How Much: $49.75, $42.75, $34.75
More Info: 346-6204 or www.proctors.org