Singer, Tommy James and his group, The Shondells, had a run of rock hits beginning with “Hanky Panky” in 1966 on the Roulette record label. “Hanky Panky” was a No. 1 hit and was followed up with such Top 10 classics as “Crimson and Clover,” “Sweet Cherry Wine” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” which was successfully covered in the 80s by Joan Jett. Two other Tommy James and the Shondells Top 10 hits,”I Think We’re Alone Now,” and” “Mony Mony,” were also later hits for Tiffany and Billy Idol.
Tommy James, now 63 years old, released a memoir in February 2010 entitled “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells.” The book tells the story of James’ involvement with Roulette Records president Morris Levy, who had ties to the Mafia. According to Tommy James, he ended up at Roulette Records because Morris Levy made it known that he wanted to sign James. Other labels duly backed off.
The character of Herman Hesh on “The Sopranos” was based upon Morris Levy, a real life record producer who got wealthy ripping off artists like Frankie Lymon (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love”) and Millie Small (“My Boy Lollipop”) for both royalties and writing credits.
By the time Tommy James entered the Roulette picture, artists like Lou Christie (“Two Faces Have I”), The Essex (“Easier Said than Done”) and Joey Dee (“The Peppermint Twist”) were all long gone. From 1966 on, Tommy James and the Shondells pretty much were Roulette. It was a bittersweet relationship.
Tommy James says: “If we had gone with one of the corporate labels, like Columbia or RCA, we would have been, probably, a one-hit wonder. At Roulette … we were treated like royalty up there — broke royalty, because we weren’t paid! And we were left alone in the studio, to morph into whatever we could become. And I was given free reign to bring in other writers and arrangers, and to go to whatever studio I wanted.”
James also says that by the time he left Roulette in 1974, he was aware that he and the Shondells had been cheated in excess of $30 million. Attempts to collect were futile. Morris Levy threatened James’ accountant with bodily harm and Tommy James says he was lucky to make it out of there in one piece himself.
Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment is one of the companies involved in developing Tommy James’ memoir into a musical and movie. Their president and CEO, Robert Nederland, said: “Think of it as ‘Jersey Boys’ meets ‘The Sopranos.’ Pretty funny when you think about it — one of the real ‘Jersey Boys,’ Frankie Valli, already met “The Sopranos” when he played a mafioso named Rusty Millio on the HBO hit series.
Tommy James began writing his memoir 8 years ago, originally calling it “Crimson and Clover.” He and co-author, Martin Fitzpatrick, were focusing on Tommy’s music and experiences as a top rocker, when they realized glossing over the Roulette story and Morris Levy’s impact on Tommy James’ career wasn’t working. “We were only giving half the information,” James says. They decided to tell the tale in all its shady glory and also changed the title to the lengthier “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells,” an indication, I presume, that nothing was left out.
It has not yet been decided whether the musical or the movie will come first, but hopefully, they will change the title again to something a little more succinct, like “Hanky Panky in the Roulette Days.”
The Star Ledger: Tommy James Tells All … by Jay Lustig (9/5/2010)
All Music.com: The Roulette Story
HBO.com: The Sopranos