By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Even as it was unfolding, Tommy James knew he had a heck of a story to tell. The intimidating visitors, angry phone calls, mysterious disappearances. Little of it was directed at him, but James knew that could change in an instant if his hits dried up.
James knew the stories were too good to keep, but he realized he needed to stay quiet and let time pass before he shared them. Nearly 40 years later, when James could finally paint the picture, he grasped he wasn’t even the star of his own tale.
“As I was writing, I realized this story is more about Morris Levy than it is about me,” James said. “I could have called it ‘Crimson and Clover’ and talked about the music, but realized if I wasn’t telling the Roulette story I would be shortchanging everybody.”That’s OK, it’s as it should be. People called Morris the godfather of the record business and he was appropriately named.”
In his new memoir “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells,” James recalls his tumultuous, dangerous relationship with Levy, a mafia associate who ran Roulette Records as a mob front.
“I recorded ‘Hanky Panky’ in 1962, but it didn’t become a hit until 1966, when out of nowhere it went to No. 1 in Pittsburgh,” James said. “After that I grabbed the first bar band I could find and took them to New York to sign with a label. We visited everyone, Atlantic, Columbia, and got a yes from them all. The only one we didn’t visit was Roulette. One by one, the labels started to call us back. They all turned us down. They had been told we were Roulette property and to back off.”
Morris had the business sense to know a sure thing, and the goons to make sure he got what he wanted. And at that moment he wanted James. Although he was intimidated by Morris, the two men eventually became good friends.
“Morris was more fun than any 10 guys, but doing business with him was a disaster,” James said. “On the other hand, people called Morris the godfather of the record business for good reason. I frequently found myself walking on eggshells around him.”
Levy withheld all royalties, and kept James in the dark about his finances. In fact, since the label was under Federal surveillance, Levy kept three sets of books. When songwriter Bo Gentry realized he wasn’t getting paid for the songs he co-wrote for James, including “Mony Mony,” he started giving his a-list songs to other performers. A call from Levy corrected the situation. When James’ account gave Levy an invoice for the estimated $30 million to $40 million James was owed in back royalties, Levy threatened to send him to the bottom of the river.”
“I was very afraid several times,” James said. “The Morris’ associates were flat-out psychopaths who devoted their lives to the dark side of everything.”
Afraid for his live, James started carrying a gun and staying away from the Roulette offices, fearing retribution from Levy’s partners or, worse yet, becoming a casualty in the mob wars. Yet at the same time, he never refused a weekend invitation to get away with Levy on his upstate New York farm.
“Every time I go to say something nasty about Morris or Roulette, I know there probably wouldn’t have been a Tommy James without them. I always keep that in the back of my mind.
“Morris was an important chapter in my life, no doubt about it,” James continued. “I learned a great deal from him and Roulette about nuts and bolts of the business. If I had been on a corporate label, I would have been handed to a producer and lost in the numbers. I ended up on Roulette with 23 gold singles and 9 gold and platinum albums.”
James left Roulette in 1974 and used what Levy taught him to set up his own label in the late ‘80s, about the same time the government finally caught up with Levy.
“They finally nabbed him on something that seemed pretty minor at the time,” James said. “He got involved in a scheme to rip off a Philadelphia record promoter named John LaMonte. When LaMonte realized what was going on, he refused to pay. When Levy threatened to beat him to a pulp, he went to the feds.”
Sentenced to 10 years for racketeering and extortion, Levy died from colon cancer before serving a day. In 2005, the last of the Roulette Regulars, as Levy’s partners were known, died, clearing the way for the book.
“I’ve been amazed by the response to the book,” James said. “There’s going to be a movie and a Broadway show. There will probably be a couple actors playing me because of all the time involved, but one of the actors we’ve looked at is Val Kilmer, who is a friend of mine.”
Once again, Levy has already beaten James to the punch. The “Sopranos” character Hersh Rabkin, played by Jerry Adler, was based on Levy. Although he has been dead for 20 years, Levy is still an inseparable part of James’ life.
“I miss Morris, strangely enough,” James said. “I have all these mixed feelings about him, and I guess part of me always will.”
A conversation with Elijah Wald