**UPDATE: Tommy James has reportedly cancelled his Friday performance at Casino New Brunswick. No further details are available at this time**
Despite an enviable track record of hits, some might consider Tommy James to be one of the most unassuming figures in the history of pop music.
What is most impressive about his catalogue of songs, however, is the staying power that many of his tracks boast.
In 1987, teen-pop sensation Tiffany took James’ song “I Think We’re Alone Now” to the top of the pop charts while that same year, Billy Idol saw similar success with his rendition of James’ hit “Mony Mony.”
It wasn’t just pop stars that have found themselves enamoured of James’ work: R.E.M. covered “Draggin’ The Line” on the 1999 soundtrack to the hit movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Even emo-rock band Jimmy Eat World paid homage to James in their 2001 song “A Praise Chorus,” referencing his 1968 hit “Crimson & Clover” in the song’s lyrics.
Fortunately for James, he has many miles left in his voyage yet, including a concert on Friday night in Moncton at Casino New Brunswick with backing band The Shondells and opening act Chuck Negron, formerly of Three Dog Night.
James’ musical journey began at age four.
“I started playing the ukulele at the age of four before moving onto the piano,” James says. “I got my first guitar in 1956 at age nine, and then the following year, I got my first electric guitar. That was the game changer.”
James says that hearing the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Eddie Cochran on the radio inspired him to want to be like his musical heroes.
“You have to remember that this was a time that rock and roll was being viewed as something dangerous,” he said. “For a 10-year-old to have long hair and playing guitar at that point in time, I was basically looked down upon and viewed as a delinquent.”
He formed his first band at the age of 12, a group that would eventually evolve into his backing band, The Shondells. Having graduated high school in 1964, James and his band hit the road the following year, touring throughout the American Midwest before things came crashing down in 1966.
“In the middle of a two-week tour, the promoter went bankrupt, effectively cancelling the tour. We gathered our equipment and limped back home to Michigan, feeling like losers. Soon after I got home, however, I got a call that would change my life,” he says.
That call came from Pittsburgh where James’ song “Hanky Panky” was topping the pop charts. James journeyed to Pittsburgh in April, 1966, and assembled a revamped Shondells to help him cut a professional version of the song that had become an unexpected hit, two years after it was originally recorded and released.
Feeling confident about the song’s prospects, James found himself in New York City, pitching the song to a handful of major labels as well as the Roulette label. He says that the initial label feedback on the song was encouraging.
“My hotel phone started ringing the next morning. All of the companies who expressed serious interest in releasing the song were telling me that they had to pass. I didn’t understand it,” James says.
“It turns out that Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, called up all of the other record companies and had essentially scared them off, saying it was his song.”
The competing record labels were wise to have conceded the song to Roulette. James says that the Roulette label was actually just a front for organized crime and was owned by the influential Genovese mob family.
“It was an odd dynamic to have a career in rock and roll but know of this dark and sinister story that we simply couldn’t tell anybody about.”
James and the Shondells parted company in the early ’70s, leaving the singer to chart a dozen singles as a solo artist. James eventually came to the realization that he wasn’t happy with Roulette and had to have a chat with label head Morris Levy to express his dissatisfaction.
“I ended up having a big blowout with Morris. I told him I wanted off the label but he told me I wasn’t going anywhere,” James says. “It was like I took my life in my hands. I remember telling Morris, ‘You can shoot me but I’m leaving one way or another.’”
Looking back upon his experience with Roulette, however, James is quick to acknowledge that it wasn’t all bad. He notes proudly that he and the Shondells were given total creative freedom, something that he is confident they wouldn’t have received had they ended up getting on board with one of the industry’s other record labels.
Although he may have once feared for his life, a sort of uneasy truce endured between Morris Levy and James until the former’s passing in 1990.
“Morris and I stayed friends, if you could call it that, right up until the time he died in 1990. I had very mixed feelings about his passing.”
Knowing full well that his experience would make for a compelling book, James, with the help of author Martin Fitzpatrick, set about writing his autobiography: Me, The Mob and The Music. Although the book was initially only due to focus on James’ music career success, he said that sharing the whole story of Roulette and his band’s experience became essential.
“We had gotten a third of the way through the book and realized that if we didn’t tell the whole story, we would only be doing ourselves and the readers a great disservice,” James says.
The book was released in 2011, after many of the key players in the Roulette label had passed away. It became a best-seller almost immediately.
With the film rights and a Broadway production of his story also due in the near future, James is more than grateful to have the opportunity to play his music for fans all over the world.
“I never thought that I’d still be making music 50 years after I started,” he said. “To have my songs still being played today, one of the greatest compliments that you can receive from your fans is to be a permanent part of the pop landscape. It’s humbling, that’s for sure.”