tommy-james-book-me-the-mob-the-music1966. New York, ordinary night, ordinary pub. Everybody does the Hanky Panky.

2013. Bucharest, ordinary night, ordinary pub. Suddenly, “Hanky Panky” fills up the room. Less than two hours later, in another ordinary hipster club, “Mony Mony” vividly starts and takes me by surprise.

I smiled to the DJ and said to my friends: “This is definitely the Tommy James night!”

Needless to say, at home, I had Tommy James’ memoirs next to my bed. The next day, with only few pages left to read, I was about to find out the end of the book. It sounded like this: “Still on that ride, huh? You’re doing good, kid”. It seems that Tommy James had indeed one helluva ride… and he still has it: on this side of the ocean, his songs never fade away, not even in today’s overwhelming music scenery.

Who is Tommy James?

Ed Sullivan got it all wrong, as Tommy remembers:

“Sure enough, just before the end of the show, Ed stepped in front of the camera and said: «And next week on our show, for all youngsters… Tony Jones and the Spondells»”

But this was not the end of Tommy’s torment, as the error continues during the show:

“«Now, Tommy, I understand that you were born and raised in New York City». I froze. Where the hell did he get that info? I could not let that stand because I had relatives and friends watching and the whole town of Niles was glued to their sets. «Well, actually, Ed, I’ve lived in New York City for a couple of years but I was born in Dayton, Ohio, and raised in Niles, Michigan, but I’ve lived here since I was 18». I gave him every opportunity to exit gracefully. He wanted none of it «Once again born and raised in New York… Tommy James». At least he got my name right.” :)

 

Who is Tommy James, in fact?

Thomas Gregory Jackson, born on April 29, 1947, was to become the huge American pop-rock musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer. Tommy James and The Shondells were the first group to outsell The Beatles in single record sales.

From infancy he was drawn to music: “Mom used to tell me the only way she could quiet me down as an infant was to turn the radio up. As soon as I heard music, I would stop crying and listen”. Later on, he recalls: “The radio, my ukulele, record player, and record collection were my cohorts and confidants. Music was already the center of my life”.

As Lennon said – “Before Elvis there was nothing” – so does Tommy: “Elvis’s performance that Sunday night was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. A light went on in my head. I knew that this was what I wanted to be and this was what I wanted to do. I and a million other kids suddenly found a new career possibility: rock star. And why not?”

As challenging as it seemed, Tommy James did it! Starting with his $17-dollar guitar at the age of 9 and continuing with his school band, Tommy embarked on the music ride.

Tommy-James“Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells” by Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick is the bildungsroman of an artist, presenting three parallel paths: music, adulthood and love.

Tommy James grew up with music and for music, educated by the records of Perry Como, Little Richard, Patti Page, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly or The Everly Brothers. Tommy had various bands, band members and managers, but he was the same all the way: ambitious, fearless and, above all, talented.

Fearless indeed… as he even had to deal with the major crime families in NYC. One time, the heartless Tommy Eboli, Morris Levy’s friend and the leader of the Genovese family, even said to him: ”I love all your records. You make nice records. (…) We’re all proud of you”. However, the mob was part of his journey to become an adult, from the greasy-haired Elvis-like kid, to the young artist dealing with both no 1 hits and pills addiction and then to the man who finds his inner balance many years after, besides his wife, Lynda.

His third path was his way towards finding his better half. Diane offered a son to the 17-year old Tommy, Ronnie mesmerized him with her chic charming looks and married him in 1967, but Lynda offered him serenity.

Returning to music, the Spin-It record shop in Niles was Tommy’s gateway to his career. The Echoes, The Tornadoes and The Shondells were his consecutive trials towards success. At only 19, he tasted the sweet victory: “The first time I heard the screaming, I thought the Beatles had come in the back door. I could not get used to the fact that they were screaming for us.”

When Morris Levy interfered into Tommy James’s path, he stated: “I hope you’re ready, kid, because you’re about to go on one hell of a ride”. Morris has been already behind other successful artists on the rock and roll market: Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Little Anthony and The Imperials, The Flamingos, The Chantels, Jimmy Bowen, Buddy Knox, Jimmy Rodgers. “Morris was one of the first entrepreneurs on market to sell rock and roll to teenagers”.

Among the long series of hits, I particularly like the story of “Mirage”. In fact, this song is “I Think We’re Alone Now” played backwards, created by accident. Other good stories await you in this complex biography: the stunning story of “Hanky Panky”, the first large scale concert with The Animals and Herman’s Hermits, The Beatles’ arrival in the US and their huge teasing campaign, how Morris tricked Lennon or stole Gene Pitney’s song or Tommy’s perspectives on J. F. Kennedy’s and Bobby Kennedy’s deaths. On the other hand, I would have preferred more stories about Diane and Tommy’s son, Brian, in order to have the big picture.

Talking about stories, here’s a funny one:

“The night The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan for the first time, the whole country was watching. It was the most hyped event in the history of television. I was at a friend’s house that night and watched the show with him and his family. As they showed the individual members of the group and flashed their names and ages on the screen, under John Lennon’s name ran the disclaimer “Sorry girls, he’s married”. My friend’s dad turned to the rest of us and bellowed, “I wander which one of those queers he’s married to”. That was when “the sixties” began.”

My recommendation: Tommy James’ autobiography is vivid and authentic, revealing an artist’s long journey with both good and bad sides. In the end, I was glad to find behind these stories a man at peace with himself, giving me a glimpse of how happy endings look like.


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