tommy-jamesTommy James was America’s number one artist, the music prodigy, the multiple-hit wonder. But, above all, Tommy James is a memorable interlocutor, sharing his inspiring stories with passion and delight:

OldiesMusicBlog: Your biography was included in Rolling Stone’s “25 Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time”…

Tommy James: Basically, my book is an autobiography, devoted to our very crazy relationship with Roulette Records, the label that we’ve had most of our hits on. The title of the book is “Me, The Mob and The Music”. The reason for that kind of title is that when we signed with Roulette back in the sixties, what we didn’t know about Roulette Records was that it was run by the Genovese crime family in New York. We had no idea. So this made life kind of interesting for us.

Actually we started writing the book about 8 years ago and we wanted to call it “Crimson and Clover”. We were gonna write about the hits, but we realized that if we don’t tell the Roulette story, we were really missing the point, kidding ourselves and everybody else. But, to tell you the truth, I was a little bit worried about writing about all these people, because some of these guys were still walking around. So, we put the book aside for a couple of years. And then, in the beginning of 2006, the last of the Roulette people died and we didn’t have to worry about them anymore. So I went ahead and write the whole book. We went into great details about having to basically live with these folks, in the middle of having our record career.

As soon as we were done with the book, we got a deal with Simon and Schuster, which is a company that usually does presidential memoirs and things like that. They don’t get into rock’n’roll. But we immediately got a deal for the book and, then, as soon as the book was released, we started getting calls for the movie rights and to go on Broadway with the story. The story will be a movie produced by Barbara De Fina, who has produced a whole string of big hit movies – two thirds of them about the mob. She produced “GoodFellas”, “Casino” or “Hugo”. I was very flattered and honored to have her produce our story. It’s gonna be another couple of years before it happens. But after the movie comes out, she wants to take it on Broadway. So the next few years will be very interesting.

Tommy-james-nowOMB: Do you have any actor in mind for playing you role?

You know, I’m the worst one to ask. Because I have no idea who they’ll gonna get. All I know is that they have to get someone who plays guitar as badly as I do. 🙂

OMB: If you could add something more in your biography, what would be that?

During editing, we had to basically take out many details. For every story that got in the book, there are about 8 or 10 that we didn’t have time to talk about. So, in the movie, we’re gonna tell many more stories that we were not able to tell in the book.

OMB: Referring to the mob, did you have any problems after describing everything in the book?

Well, no. We have to wait to write the book until they all passed away. Probably nothing would have happened, but you never know. We were very careful to wait. So we wanted to get everything correct. We wanted to make sure that the time was right, we had everybody’s names spelt right and that we didn’t leave anybody out. It was a real education writing this book. So I’ve been amazed at the response from the fans and media. It’s the first time I have ever been an author and this is a very big deal for me.

OMB: The leitmotif of the book are Morris’ words – “one hell of a ride”. Looking back to all these years, what was the moment when you felt you got to the highest point of that ride?

Well, that’s hard to say. In the first few years of your career, you’re convinced if you don’t have another hit record, they can take it all away from you. We were very lucky because it’s almost 50 years later and we’re still performing, we’re still on the road every year. We have our own record label now and we are doing an YouTube channel starting in January. So we’ll be on any other week on YouTube. Of course, we have the movie and the book. Strangely enough, I think in many ways getting the story out there is really the high point.

We sold over 100 million records the time we were with Roulette. And we had 23 Gold singles in America and 9 Platinum albums. So this was a wonderful experience with Roulette Record, but in many ways I feel that getting to tell the story is the high point, that is happening right now. Honestly, I am very very thankful to God and to the fans for the longevity that we had. The thing about Roulette was that they left us alone and allowed us to control our own career. If we had gone with one of the other record companies, we would have been “one hit wonder”.

At Roulette, they actually needed us. They hadn’t had a hit several years and they left us alone and allowed us to become whatever we could become. I was very thankful for that because it meant that we’ve had the complete creative control. And I am sure that is the reason we had as many hits as we did.

OMB: Who were your role models at the beginning of your career? What artists did inspire you?

My musical heroes were all the first generation of rock’n’rollers as far back as Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran. While listening to these guys, I started my first band when I was 12 years old, back in 1959. And we started playing in the early sixties, in my hometown, Niles, Michigan. We began playing everything there was on the radio. I’ve been amazed how many guitar players, how many groups started out at the same time playing the same songs. We were a garage band and there was a band on every other corner. Everybody was starting a band then. Rock’n’roll was actually a job opportunity.

tommy-james-morris-levyOMB: You hit success at 19. Did you ever feel that you hadn’t had enough time to enjoy your 20s?

No, because I wanted it so bad. It’s all I ever wanted to be. All I wanted to do was to play rock’n’roll. And when that chance hit me, it was a miracle. It fell out of the sky. Everything happened so fast and I really didn’t have time to think about it.

OMB: Of all the fellow artists and bands that you’ve met, who were the most fascinating?

Well, we got to work with just about everybody. One of the greatest honors that we had was The Beatles. “Mony Mony” was number 1 in Britain and was one of the biggest records of the decade. It was actually bigger there than it was here. So The Beatles were just starting “Apple Publishing”. It was supposed to be a publishing company before it was a record company. So they planned to write songs for other artists. George Harrison wrote us about 12 songs and they all sounded like “Mony Mony”. We were just really flattered that he did that, but, by that time, we were already on with “Crimson and Clover” and we were not able to do any of George’s songs.

OMB: Did you ever meet John Lennon in person? I’ve read in the book that he had an issue with Morris Levy.

Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, was a very notorious character. He was a mob associate, he was a real character right out of the movies. Not only that he gave us trouble, but he also gave everybody trouble, including John Lennon. A couple of years after we left Roulette, he made a deal with Morris to put down an album. Actually, what happened was that one of the songs that John had written sounded very much like a Chuck Berry song that Morris owned. Then he sued John Lennon and he won. Part of the settlement was that John had to provide an album for Morris and Roulette. John got about half way through it and he was sending little tapes with what he was working on. In the end, he decided that he wasn’t gonna give it to Morris. And Morris went ahead and made an album out of these cassette tapes, a John Lennon album, and released it on Roulette. Morris threatened John, but in the end John sued him and he didn’t win.

OMB: How was John Lennon as a person?

I actually talked to him one time, we were together at a gala in New York. He was getting an award for “Imagine” and I was getting an award for “Draggin’ the line”. They both came out in the same year and we sat back to back, right next to each other. We had a good talk, I really enjoyed talking to him. We were both fans of each other and it was a very very nice discussion. But it was the only time I ever talked to John.

OMB: What was the most beautiful thing said about you?

The most beautiful thing said about me? God, I have no idea! That’s a tough one.

I guess when my wife tells me she loves me. That’s the best!

OMB: What was the greatest recognition that you ever received?

I suppose it was when Hubert Humphrey was running for president. He asked if we would do the campaign with him: come out and perform during the campaign. This was really an intense moment. Vietnam was exploding, there was rioting in the streets – 1968 was really a tough year in America.

Hubert Humphrey called Roulette and asked if we would come out on the road with him. This is the first time a politician ever united with a rock band in history. It never happened before.

We ended up doing the entire presidential campaign with Hubert Humphrey. The night he lost to Richard Nixon, we were with him. And it was so so close, amazingly close. He had asked me to be presidential adviser on youth affairs if he won. When he lost, all of us had this tremendous letdown.

But he ended up writing the liner notes to the “Crimson and Clover” album. And, on the back of the album, you can read the liner notes that he wrote. And he did commercials for us and everything. That was a real amazing moment in time for us!tommy-james-crimson-clover

OMB: What are the top three songs you cherish the most?

Well, I probably have to say “Crimson and Clover”, “Mony Mony” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion”. It’s so hard to say. The craziest is probably “Mony Mony”.

OMB: Did you have any regrets? You confessed in some interviews that you regret not singing at Woodstock or not meeting Elvis.

Yes, sure, I got lots of regrets. We were asked to play Woodstock and we didn’t go. We were told it’s gonna be just a crazy gig in a pig farm. So we didn’t go. It’s funny because last year we played at Woodstock and I told the audience: “We’ve been only 43 years late. The traffic was really bad!”. We finally played Woodstock after 43 years.

I never met Elvis. I talked with him on the phone and I never got a chance to meet him. I was doing an album in Nashville in 1971 and two of Elvis’s early musicians were playing on the album. Elvis wanted to come over from Memphis, but he couldn’t make it. I was really disappointed. He talked to me on the phone and invited me over to Graceland. Each time I couldn’t make it and I was always so so sorry. It was one of my biggest regrets I didn’t go over to Graceland and meet him.

OMB: Do you prepare an album launch next year?

Yes, we have our own label now, called Aura Records. This year we released the DVD called “Tommy James And The Shondells Live At The Bitter End”. Next year we’re gonna actually be recording a new album and we will be able to release it all over the world.

OMB: Will you perform in Europe in the nearest future?

I’d love to come to Europe! We haven’t been there since the early ‘80s!

I’d love to come over and perform in Europe again. I think it will be a tremendous experience. Maybe we can do it when we will release the new album. It’s about time to get over there again!


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