He is a living legend. His name is synonymous with hit songs from the late 1960s. In 1968-69, Tommy James and the Shondells sold more singles records (45's) than any artist in the world including the Beatles. His life has been one great roller coaster ride as he details in his new best selling book "Me, the Mob and the Music" . Today, Tommy James's star continues to blaze a celestral trail across the musical sky and will shine even brighter in the very near future! I had a real nice conversation with Tommy this week when he called me from his New Jersey home...
MICK: Your new book came out in February of this year. How is it doing so far?
TOMMY: It's doing great! It's in its sixth printing and I am frankly amazed at the response to this from the media and the fans. I've never been an author before so, this is really amazing to me. It's being turned into a movie and a Broadway show! I am flabbergasted by the whole thing!
MICK: How's that going with the play and the movie?
TOMMY: We are right on schedule. It's going to be brought to Broadway through the Nederlander family who owns 9 Broadway theaters and about 1000 theaters throughout the country. They are one of the oldest theatrical families. I just flipped out when I heard they were producing the show themselves. The Broadway show and the movie are being developed simultaneous. My guess is that the play will be out just ahead of the movie because of the time involved in each project. The movie is being produced by Barry Rosen and Mary Gleason. We will be making an announcement very shortly about the directors as we are talking to three directors right now.
MICK: Do you have anybody in mind that you would like to play you in the film?
TOMMY: Yes, I get asked this a lot. There's probably going to be two actors needed because of the amount of time involved. One of the actors being seriously looked at as the older Tommy James is Val Kilmer. He is a great actor and a good friend. He did a great job a few years ago as Jim Morrison. I'd be very honored for him to do it.
MICK: This is all very thrilling to say the least!
TOMMY: This is a project that's been a long time in the works. It was very therapeutic to get this out of my system. I've been wanting to tell this story for many years now. The book is called 'Me, The Mob and the Music" and it's really an autobiography with about two thirds of it devoted to my crazy, tumultuous and very dangerous at times relationship with Roulette Records. The reason why it was so dangerous was because Roulette Records, in addition to being a functioning record company (and a good one), was also a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. Of course none of us knew that at the time. We found out incrementally. It's quite a story. We started this project eight years ago, Martin Fitzpatrick and I. We were going to call it "Crimson and Clover" and we were going to write a nice music book abouts hits and writing songs. After we got about a third of the way into it, we realized that if didn't tell the whole Roulette story which really was the story, that we were cheating ourselves and everybody else. I was very uncomfortable writing it back then because some of these guys walking around. So we put it on the shelf for a couple years and got involved with other things. Finally, when the last of the Roulette regulars passed away, I felt is was safe to finish the book. It took us three more years to finish entirely and we got the deal from Simon and Schuster, which was very flattering as they are usually doing Presidential memoirs and things like that. Almost immediately after that came offers for the movie. The third thing was the Broadway show. I am very thankful for the response from the public and the media.
MICK: Are you still involved with the Democratic Party?
TOMMY: No, that was 1968 you are talking about. We were out on the road for almost the entire Presidential campaign with Hubert Humphrey. That was quite an experience. He [Humphrey} ended up doing the liner notes for the Crimson and Clover album! A lot happened out on that campaign that had to do with the music business. When we went out on the Humphrey campaign in August of 1968, it was all singles acts on the radio. There was us, the Rascals, The Association, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, etc... When we got back 90 days later, it was all albums! There was Blood Sweat and Tears, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills and Nash, Joe Cocker. The whole industry had turned upside down! This was as a result of the "Sgt Pepper" album a few months before that made so much money for Capital Records. All of the record companies suddenly went for albums. We knew that if we were to continue, it would have to be albums and that was something Roulette had never done. They weren't an album label and we weren't either! We were basically a creation of top 40 radio. So we knew we were going to have to produce or own product, write our own songs completely, do album design and all the rest. Thankfully, we were working on a tune called "Crimson and Clover". That record allowed us to make the jump from AM top 40 singles to FM progressive album rock. I don't think there was another single that we worked on that would have done that in one shot. So that happened on the Humphrey campaign and he got involved in the album and doing the liner notes!
MICK: Are there any more plans to record again with the original Shondells? I know you did reunite once in 2007.
TOMMY: Yes, we did the last track on our Christmas album! The touring group I've been playing with now have been together for 25 years. I feel like Captain Kirk with two generations of Shondells! The original Shondells are from Pittsburgh so we are back in the studio doing music for the movie! We will probably do an album. The first track we did is going to be used in the closing credits for the movie. It's a very new, kind of different version of "I Think We're Alone Now". It's done acoustically with no drums, very surreal and slow. Totally different from the original record. The last scene in the movie is when Morris Levy dies, the head of the record company. "I Think We're Alone Now" completely changes the meaning of the lyrics in the film.
MICK: Do you still enjoy touring?
TOMMY: Oh yeah! We are out on the road probably eight months out of the year. If anybody would like to come to our website tommyjames.com, you can see where we are. We are winding things down now this year. Right now, we are doing the book tour which is basically going out to selected cities and talking bout the book in bookstores and so forth. At the same time we are doing the music dates so it's been a very hectic year. The next couple of years are going to be even more hectic.
MICK: Out of all your songs, do you have a favorite?
TOMMY: A lot of the hits probably. I think I'd have to say "Crystal Blue Persuasion". That is probably my favorite out of all the hits we've had. There's lots of other songs that were on albums that I really love but of the singles, I'd have to say "Crystal
Blue Persuasion". It was one of the hardest records we ever made. It doesn't sound like it but it was. When we went into the studio, it was that magic summer of 1969. It went number one right around the weekend of Woodstock. It's deeply ingrained in my mind. What happened was we went into the studio and completely over produced it. We had a full set of drums, three guitars, etc... The production smothered the song. When we got done with it, we said "this isn't the song that we wrote". So we started taking things out. Over the next four to five weeks, we unproduced the record by pulling things out. When we were done, we had a bongo drum, a conga, a flamenco guitar and an organ. That was it! That became "Crystal Blue Persuasion". I know that if we left it the original way, it wouldn't have fit. Plus, the song was all about us becoming Christians at that time.
There was no talk of being politically correct at that time because the phrase did not exist! Each song we did was sort of snap shots of where we were at that time.
MICK: Do you have any new music coming out soon?
TOMMY: Yes we do as a matter of fact! We have just released, first in Europe and imported here, the latest studio album called "Hold The Fire" and that includes our DVD in one package. Two discs in one package. We have our own label
We just put together a beautiful international deal together. we are also releasing here on our label in the United States which is independently distributed. We also have our 40 year package out which is all of the singles from 1966 through 2006. It's 40 years of consecutive singles. Our last album "Hold The Fire" had three top five adult contemporary hits. One of them actually went to number one called "Love Words", forty years to the week that "Hanky Panky" went to number one. I really feel like a complete circle has been made!
I didn't mean to get heavily into the music, I wanted to tell you the Roulette story which is a totally true story. We weren't able to tell it until now. Virtually none of the fans knew what Roulette was. Our first hit record was "Hanky Panky" and it sort of exploded out of Pittsburgh as a bootleg two years after we made the original record. When we first came to New York, we were thrilled because we got a yes from everybody. Got a yes from Columbia, got a yes from Epic, RCA, Atlantic, Kama Sutra Records. The last place we took the record to was Roulette. We weren't expecting much from them and didn't know much about them. The next morning, the phone started ringing at the hotel we were staying at in midtown Manhattan. One by one, all of the record labels that had said yes the day before suddenly said they would have to pass. I said "What do you mean? I thought we had a deal!" Jerry Wexler at Atlantic leveled with us. He told us that Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, had called all of the record companies and scared them off. He said "This is my record! Back off!!" They did! So we apparently were going to be with Roulette Records. Gradually we learned who we were dealing with. The head of the Genovese family was Tommy Eboli, who was Morris Levy's partner. He was up in Morris's office all the time. Roulette was used for everything from a social club to illegal bank accounts, money laundering and God knows what else was going on. There were some very scary moments up there. But I'll tell you one thing, they actually needed us. If we had gone to one of the corporate labels, like Columbia or RCA, especially with a record like "Hanky Panky", we would have been handed to an in house producer and got lost in the numbers. We would have been a one hit wonder. Roulette hadn't had a hit in about three years so they gave us everything we wanted except royalty money. Getting paid was impossible. We were making money from other directions like BMI, the road, commercials. We were going to be making mechanical royalties. That's the way is was at Roulette. It was like making a deal with the devil...do we interrupt all of the success and take them to court and place our lives in their hands or do we just go along. We decided to go along. But I will say this...the fact that we didn't go to a corporate label and went to Roulette, from a creative standpoint was the best thing we could have done. They left us alone and allowed us to morph into whatever we could become. There's no way we would have got an education like that with any other record company. It was a real trade off there and I feel we made the right decision.
MICK: When you were with Roulette, Morris Levy kept all of your gold records in his office. Do you have them all now?
TOMMY: Yes I do!! I had to steal them off his wall, that's how cheap he was. That is a true story.
MICK: Is organized crime still involved in the music industry that you know of?
TOMMY: Roulette was kind of the ground zero for all that stuff. It's not like it used to be. It's like Las Vegas, mobsters aren't really running it anymore. They were involved heavily in all aspects of the entertainment business. Roulette was financed and put together by Morris and his buddies. There were several other labels that were heavily involved with mob stuff. There's not nearly as much today as there once was.
MICK: Who do you listen to now?
TOMMY: I listen to a lot of smooth jazz to be perfectly honest! I don't listen to a lot of rock and roll anymore although I love to play rock and roll. For example, I will listen to Lady Gaga. She's made some great records! The problem today is radio. Chart active radio doesn't exist anymore. There's never been more hunger for music but there's almost no way, other tan the internet, to get new music in front of the fans. The problem is there's so many more fans than there are ways on the internet to do it. It's almost by chance that you hear something new that you like. Although that's growing, it certainly has not taken the place of what used to be normal radio and retail. That's changing but not as fast as it would have needed to save the industry. It's a brave new world we are into! I feel that once high definition TV is really a part of our life, which is the combination of computer technology and television technology, the whole industry will turn to television or what's left of it. Not like MTV; there will probably be a Sony channel, a Warner channel. Your TV will be like your Ipod. We will probably have video radio, networks of them. Trade papers will come back online and on TV. There will probably be charts based on the music you download on television.
MICK: This is a question I usually ask songwriters. For you, what comes first..the words or the music?
TOMMY: I've actually done it both ways. A lot of times I will see a title, something that just catches my eye. I've taken titles off of matchbook covers! "Mony Mony" was a sign Mutual Of New York! That's true! Sometime I'll come up with a riff on guitar that I like, three, four chords that I really like to repeat over and over. It gets into my mind and I will write the lyrics around the music, winding the song around the music. All of my methods have changed. You have to do it when you are really awake. There's a window for me from about 10am until around 2pm when I'm really alive and awake. When I start writing, the song tells me where it wants to go. You sort of get like that when you write a lot by yourself. If you have to think too hard, chances are when you play it for somebody, it's going to come out like a grind. Sometimes a beautiful thought will evoke a song. I have to be perceptive all the time because you never know when that next song is going to hit you!
MICK: Do you still live in New York?
TOMMY: I live in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. I lived in New York for almost ten years. I needed a squirrel and trees real bad. Here, you are close enough to New York where you can kind of treat it like a theme park and far enough away to have a squirrel in your yard! I' m close to the airports.
MICK: Are there any musicians you would like to work with or collaborate with?
TOMMY: There's lots of people I'd love to work with. I spend a lot of time with my players. We are very tight musically and personally. I love writing with my guys. One of the fellows, Jimmy Wizner, has been with me since 'I Think We're Alone Now" as an arranger. He's also a great producer and orchestrator. I'm still making music with the original Shondells! I dig meeting new people and making music with them because it takes you to another place. I'm a big experimenter. I love putting jazz in pop! Over the last few years. I've become very bored with the normal rock and roll chords on guitar. It's hard to explain. So many songs have been written on the same chord. I start sticking in a jazz chord or an inverted chord, chords and grooves I've never used before. I love playing around with drum machines. You constantly have to update yourself.
MICK: Do you still get lots of fan mail?
TOMMY: Yes I do! A lot of it is email now. The website is so great for communicating with people worldwide. It's just as easy now to have fans in Germany as it is to have fans in California! The book is being released overseas. The sales over there are astounding just off of Amazon alone!
MICK: Do you have any regrets?
TOMMY: Lots of them! I wrote about a lot of them in the book. One of the things about writing an autobiography is that you have to tell on yourself or it boring real quick. I would have loved to have had a bigger family. But you can only be in one place at a time. I would have liked to have spent more time with my son. I would have been a much better business man if I could do it over again. We were kind of floundering from one record to the next. But with all the craziness that went on, we ended up with 23 gold singles and around 110 million records sold. The good Lord has been very good to me in spite of a lot of failings and things I'm not proud of. I am very thankful!
You can see Tommy James and the Shondells on Saturday, Oct. 16th at the Capital One Theater at Westbury, Long Island, NY. Showtime is 8pm.
Learn more about Tommy at https://www.tommyjames.com/
'Me, The Mob and The Music" can be bought on Amazon, Tommy's website or most book stores. It is truly a great book that will keep you spellbound!