Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I'm Gonna Make You An Offer You Can't Refuse

Whoever thought that rock and roll could be so deadly? For Tommy James, it wasn't just sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it was also about beatings, murders, and the mafia. In his autobiography, Me, the Mob, and the Music, James recounts his dealings with Morris Levy, the mercurial owner of Roulette Records and associate of the Genovese crime family. Now how did a nice boy from the Midwest end up hobnobbing with the New York mob?

After his version of the song "Hanky Panky" became a surprise megahit in Pittsburgh, several major record companies were chomping at the bit to sign James to a recording contract. Mysteriously, all but one of the companies dropped out of the race to sign him. That one company was Roulette Records and James was basically offered a contract he couldn't refuse. It turned out that Morris Levy strong-armed the other record companies to back down from signing James. Levy was considered the "Godfather of the music industry" as his partners included members of the Genovese clan, and his way of doing business was through intimidation. As James didn't have much of a choice, he signed with Levy and "Hanky Panky" ended up becoming one of the biggest hits of 1966. After that, James had a string of top ten hits, including such classics as "I Think We're Alone Now," "Crimson and Clover," "Mony Mony," "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and "Draggin' the Line." So it looked liked signing with Roulette was a good thing after all, right? Wrong.

For Tommy James, being at Roulette Records was the best of times and the worst of times. He appears to have had a love hate relationship with Morris Levy. On the one hand, James felt like he was part of a family at Roulette, albeit a dysfunctional one. James also had a decent amount of creative control over his records which was fairly uncommon at that point in the music industry.

On the other hand, James never saw any of the money he was supposed to have gotten from the songs he had written as Levy had total control over the publishing rights and never dispensed his percentage of the earnings. In fact, it sounds like none of the songwriters for Roulette ever got the money that was due them. If anyone questioned Levy about royalties due them, they would get a vitriolic laced speech in return. Legal recourse was virtually impossible because of the threat of bodily harm from Levy's thugs. When James renewed his contract with Roulette (he admits that he should have known better), it included specific wording regarding songwriting royalties that would be owed to him. After a few months, Levy told him that he would not abide by the terms of the contract and dared James to do anything about it.

Eventually, the money battles and the climate of fear at Roulette (during the New York mafia wars in the early 1970s, Levy's associates were being murdered and even James feared for his own life) took its toll and James began to abuse drugs and alcohol for escape. Levy made millions of dollars but didn't like to share much of it. James eventually discovered that Levy owned him over 40 million dollars! James ended up leaving Roulette after a final showdown with Levy (he's fortunate that he wasn't harmed as Levy has been connected with the severe beating that singer Jimmie Rodgers received after leaving Roulette Records) but he never had the same kind of success that he had in those glory years.

This memoir will entertain Tommy James fans or anyone interested in that period of rock/popular music. There were some interesting stories I wasn't familiar with, like how involved James was with Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign. At times, James glosses over certain matters such as his infidelities and broken marriages (his first wife and son just seem to disappear). The crux of the book is the relationship between James and Levy. Even with the problems James had with Levy, one gets the sense that he still cared very much for him.