Tommy James has had what can only be described as a circuitous career. His first hit, “Hanky Panky,” was initially released and quickly forgotten until a local dance promoter found a copy in a used record bin and began playing it in Pittsburgh’s dance clubs. Based on its subsequent success, James was encouraged to go to New York to negotiate a record contract for himself and his band, the Shondells. He received a number of potential offers before ending up at the offices of Morris Levy and Roulette Records, a company that also happened to be a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. Indeed, the very next day James found that the offers he had gotten the day before had suddenly been retracted under threat from Roulette.
“Morris had called all the record companies that had said yes the previous day and scared them,” James explains. “Finally Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records told me the truth, that Morris had called and said (affects a mobster type voice) ‘This is my fucking record. Back off.’ It was right out of the movies. So we apparently were going to be on Roulette regardless. It’s literally how we ended up there.”
James' tempestuous relationship with Roulette lasted eight years, from 1966 to 1974. His dealings with the company later became the subject of an autobiography, “Me, the Mob, and Music,” a book which detailed the dark underbelly of the record industry. A film based on the book is forthcoming, and, if all goes well, there will also be a stage show to follow.
Nevertheless, the time the group spent with the company yielded a number of international chartbusters for the band — “Hanky Panky,” “Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson & Clover,” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” among them.
“I probably should have been more scared than I was,” James admits. “I had these mixed feelings about the whole thing because they took my first record and made it number one internationally. It was the biggest record of the summer of ’66, and that started us on our way, We ended up selling 110 million records at Roulette. We had 32 chart records — 23 of them went gold — and nine platinum albums. That probably wouldn’t have happened anywhere else because we wouldn’t have had the attention that we got at Roulette. We were the biggest act they had. If we had signed with one of the corporate labels, we would have been handed over to an A&R guy and that probably would have been the last time anyone heard from us. At Roulette, they actually needed us. They gave us the budget and the time and the space to evolve and morph into whatever we could become. That wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. Of course, getting paid was impossible. (chuckles) That was the other side of the coin.”
Perhaps the biggest miscalculation he made was declining an invitation to perform at Woodstock. James acknowledges that he misjudged just how big an event it was going to be.
“Yeah, I turned it down,” he laughs. “I think I’ve gotten more mileage out of telling people I turned down Woodstock than anything else. That actually happened. I was in Hawaii at the time. My secretary called me and said Artie Kornfield had come by — I knew Artie was one of the principals and promoters of the show and he was a producer friend of mine. She said, ‘Artie would like you to play this gig at this pig farm in Upstate New York.’ And I said, ‘What? Did you say a pig farm?’ And she said, ‘Yeah. They say it’s going to be a big show. There’s going to be a lot of people there!’ I said to her, ‘You’re asking me to leave paradise and fly 6,000 miles to play a pig farm? I’ll tell you what. If I’m not there, start without me.’ And by Friday of that week I knew we had screwed up really bad.”
Despite these unlikely and oftentimes unpredictable circumstances, James’ career continued to flourish. Both “Crimson & Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” became major turning points in his trajectory, allowing him to take the production reigns for the first time while successfully navigating the transition from AM Top 40 to the realms of FM underground radio. James eventually opted to go solo, releasing a number of hits in the process — “Draggin’ the Line” and “Three Times in Love” specifically — while also writing and producing the song “Tighter, Tighter” for the band Alive N’ Kickin’. Over the course of his career, James has reaped 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums, representing sales of millions of albums to multiple generations of music lovers. Indeed, James’ songs have been covered by any number of artists, from Joan Jett to Billy Idol.
Looking back on his life in the music biz, James insists he’s seen it all. “If you’re going to be a lifer in this business, there’s going to be changes — changes in the business or whatever — but the basic tenet of it remains the same: The audience isn’t going anywhere. They will follow you through your life. That’s a wonderful thing. When I look out now at a concert crowd, I see three generations of people. And they don’t know each other, but they know the music. You’re really most alive when you’re in front of an audience. I’m very thankful to be able to do it.”
Tommy James and the Shondells perform at 8 pm on Saturday, June 11 at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, 1806 NE Sixth St. Pompano Beach, Tickets cost $33-$73. Visit www.ticketmaster.com.