Tommy James came of age just as pop was giving way to rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley’s performance on Ed Sullivan provided the initial epiphany, and five-days-a-week of American Bandstand, a job in a record store, junior high school talent shows and a prototypical garage band steeped him in both music and the music business. The early pages of this autobiography provide a great sense of what it was like to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band in the summer of 1963, from the joy of making music to the grind of trying to make a living. But once “Hanky Panky” caught fire in 1966, James was introduced to most of his fans as a fully-formed star; here you get to read about the dues he paid.
James’ rise to fame has been told before, but the details of his first single’s belated success – its initial failure, fluke resurrection in Pittsburgh, and canny national reissue on Roulette – is a great story. It’s also the lead-in to the book’s main thread: the difficult, father-son-like relationship between James and Roulette founder Morris Levy. In contrast to his co-dependency with Levy, his relationships with wives, children and band members weren’t nearly so sticky. James’ first wife and their son are ghosts in the narrative, nearly abandoned in his move to New York and divorced as he takes up with the Roulette Record secretary who eventually became his second wife. His second wife eventually meets a similar fate as he cheats on her and eventually moves on.
He forms and dispatches several iterations of the Shondells, with little expressed emotion. He fires half the band after they fight for monies owed in the wake of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and is complicit in helping Levy cheat songwriters Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry by demanding songs they were pitching to artists whose labels would actually pay royalties. As with the affairs presaging his divorces, these episodes seem to be evidence of a self-centeredness learned from Levy rather than explicitly cruel behavior. But there’s surprisingly little remorse offered here, and what there is – five sentences when his first wife reappears for a divorce – doesn’t measure up to the affronts. Perhaps James wasn’t ready to share his innermost thoughts and personal feelings in an autobiography.
His telling of stories from the music side of his life is a great deal more compelling. Threaded throughout – and really, most successful musicians’ careers – is a surprising amount of luck; for James this includes the revival of “Hanky Panky” in Pittsburgh, the discovery of songs for two follow-up singles, a chance meeting with songwriter Ritchie Cordell, the creation of “Mirage,” and the incidental knowledge of arranger Jimmy Wisner. What you realize is that James put in the work from a very young age, studied and rehearsed, and put himself in a position to make these opportunities pay off. The crossing of paths may have been serendipitous, but the knowledge and ability to execute was hard-earned. The writing is more anecdotal than nuts and bolts accountings of music making, but you get a good feel for how James navigated changes in the industry to maintain a hit-making career across two decades.
As one might expect from a book entitled “Me, the Mob and the Music,” James spends a great deal of time writing about his relationship with Levy and his underworld associates. It’s not clear if he fully understands why his relationship with the godfather of the music industry became the center of his adult life, but it’s evident how it tainted his relationships with friends, wives, family and associates. Now twenty-four years sober and drug free, James seems at peace with who he was (characterizing his second divorce with “she was a good person, I was a flaming asshole”), and he’s still exciting fans with regular gigs. This isn’t the most personally revealing rock ‘n’ roll biography, but it adds some welcome detail to the career of Tommy James. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]