Music & Mayhem

A fluke, coincidence, or straight up miracle from above, is how the career of Tommy James took off. The pop rock singer, known for his hits like “Mony Mony” and “Crimson and Clover,” went for an amazing ride, dodging mobsters and even working on a presidential campaign as he was churning out hits in the 1960s.

Let’s start from the beginning. James learned to play guitar at age 9 and put together his first band, The Echoes, at age 12, in his hometown of Niles, Michigan.

“I was in seventh grade and the reason we put the band together is we were going to play for the school variety show,” James recalled. “So we put a little group together. I think we had a guitar, piano, sax and drums and we played ‘Lonesome Town’ by Ricky Nelson and we got a standing ovation.”

After the performance, they added a few more members to the band and changed the name to The Tornadoes, playing at dances and the YMCA.

“We developed quite a little following locally,” James said. “Then I got a job in a record shop when I was 14, where I could promote the band and sell records and make some money. One of the fellows who came in and sold records to the owners of the shop had a little label in Michigan and asked me if I would come up with my band and make a couple of records, so we did. My first record when I was 14 was called ‘Long Ponytail.’ It soon died a miserable death, as it deserved, because it was pretty bad.”

A couple of years later, James’ band was offered another shot to record locally again. At this time, they had changed the band name to The Shondells.

”It was a little label called Snap Records and one of the records we recorded was ‘Hanky Panky,’” James said. “It made noise in southern Michigan, but we had no distribution, so it also died.”

After graduating high school, James took his band on the road, playing clubs throughout the Midwest.

“Right in the middle of my two weeks in the club we’re working at in early ‘66, a little dump in Wisconsin, it suddenly goes belly up and the IRS shut it down,” James said. “But that’s how the good Lord works, because we got sent home, feeling like real losers, but it was actually an amazing little miracle that happened. As soon as I got home, I got a call from Pittsburgh, that ‘Hanky Panky,’ this record that I had recorded two years earlier, was suddenly sitting at No. 1 in the city of Pittsburgh.”

A DJ in Pittsburgh had found the old record and played it one night, with an overwhelming response. This led to bootleggers selling thousands of copies around the area and radio stations picking up the song.

“What happened was the distributor bootlegged 80,000 copies of the record and sold them in 10 days,” James said. “Suddenly everybody’s playing the record and it lit up the radio station. So they tracked me down and I just happened to be home at that moment because of the club shutting down. So that was a miracle, and that began my career. Two weeks later, I went to Pittsburgh. I couldn’t put the original band back together so I found a new group in Pittsburgh and a week later we’re in New York selling the master of ‘Hanky Panky.’”

James’ sudden career quickly took another turn when he ended up signing with Roulette Records, a successful, yet scandalous label.

“Well we went to New York to sell the record and we got a ‘yes’ from all the record companies — Columbia, Epic, RCA, Atlantic — and I just flipped out,” James said. “The last place they took the record to was Roulette, which was a pretty good little independent label, but it wasn’t like RCA or the big corporate labels. So I figured we were going to be on one of the big, major labels that night when I went to sleep. The next morning, all the record companies that said ‘yes’ the day before, suddenly called up and said they had to pass. So I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ Then Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us the truth that Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, had called up all the other labels and scared them and basically threatened them and said it was his record. So we ended up with Roulette, sort of by default, because everybody else backed off.”

The other companies had good reason to be cautious of Levy, but James wasn’t privy to the whole story yet.

“Morris Levy was a gangster, but of course we didn’t know any of this,” James said. “The reason Roulette was notorious like that, was because in addition to being a record company, Roulette was also a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. Roulette took the record to No. 1 everywhere in the world, but we didn’t realize who we were rubbing shoulders with. There was this very sinister story going on behind us as we were making hits.”

It didn’t take long for James to figure out the truth about his boss, yet his band was achieving great success under the label.

“We would literally start recognizing gangsters that we’d see on the news on TV and we’d see them coming up to Roulette,” James said. We’d meet somebody up in Morris’ office and a week later we’d see them being taken out of a warehouse in handcuffs in New Jersey. So that was a pretty wild time at Roulette. I’m thankful that we got out of there in one piece.”

Levy didn’t make it easy for them to leave, but by 1974 the band had had enough, and managed to walk away as turmoil was boiling over in the Genovese family.

”We had to walk on eggshells, pretending we didn’t see things we saw, so we needed to get out of there,” James said. “The strange thing is, any time I go to say something negative about Roulette or Morris, I sort of have to watch myself because the truth is, if it hadn’t been for Roulette and Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James and the Shondells. If we had been with one of the major labels, we would have been lucky to be a one-hit wonder because they have so many other acts, the competition would have been terrible. We ended up doing nine platinum albums at Roulette, we sold about 100 million singles and had 23 gold records. We would have never done that at any other place.”

James wrote a book with Martin Fitzpatrick about his career and time at Roulette, called ‘Me, the Mob, and the Music.’ The book was released in 2010 and a movie of the story is currently in the making.

While recording hits at Roulette, James and The Shondells were asked to join Vice President Hubert Humphrey on his presidential campaign.

“That was pretty wild because it was the first time that rock and rollers teamed up with a politician,” James said. “We were asked by Hubert Humphrey’s office if we would join him on the campaign in 1968. We’d play for about 20 minutes and then we’d sit down on the platform with Mrs. Humphrey and he would make a speech. So we were like his opening act. It was an amazing moment in our history that we were a part of. I’ve always been grateful for that, because it was really a bird’s eye view from the inside of what was going on. Humphrey and I remained friends until he died and he wrote the liner notes to the ‘Crimson and Clover’ album.”

“Crimson and Clover” marked a new era in James’ career, switching from singles to full albums, and from pop to psychedelic rock.

“When we left to go on the road with Humphrey, everything in the music business was all about singles and the big acts were The Association, Gary Puckett, Mitch Ryder — there were so many big singles acts,” James said. “When we got back from the presidential campaign in November, the whole industry had turned upside down. It was all about albums. All of a sudden, Crosby Stills and Nash, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young were the big acts — suddenly everything was about albums. There was this mass extinction of singles acts that never had anymore hits after 1968. We just made a decision that we were going to write and produce all of our own stuff and we had to make interesting records.

“We really hustled to put ‘Crimson and Clover’ together — the whole album. Lo and behold, it became our biggest-selling single and we started selling albums at Roulette, which they had never done before. The album went platinum for us and we kept having hits and selling albums. So ‘69 ended up being one of our biggest years. I don’t think there’s any record we ever put out that would have allowed us to make that jump besides “Crimson and Clover.”

That song, along with many of The Shondells’ songs, have been covered by superstars in every genre of music, from Dolly Parton to Bruce Springsteen.

“Yeah we’ve had over 300 cover versions of our songs done, from Prince to the Boston Pops,” James said. “I think one of my favorites has to be Prince’s version of ‘Crimson and Clover’ and REM’s version of ‘Draggin’ the Line.’ Those just were two of my favorite acts and I’m very proud to have both of them do our music.”

Laughlin guests can hear the originals when Tommy James and The Shondells come to the Edgewater Pavilion Saturday, Jan. 21.

“I’ve never done Laughlin before so it’s going to be fun,” James said. “I’m looking forward to seeing all of the fans. I’m so grateful to the good Lord and the fans for the kind of longevity we’ve had. We’ve been doing this for almost 60 years — I can’t believe it!”