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Tommy James - Me, The Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells

  by Lisa Torem

published: 23 / 12 / 2021

Tommy James - Me, The Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells


In her 'Raging Pages' book column, Lisa Torem reflects upon 'Me, The Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells' which, co-written with Martin Fitzpatrick, tells of how the 60s's rock star's career was taken control over by gangsters.

Tommy James acquired the knack needed to make a hit record at an early age. Born Tommy Jackson, the only child was raised in a “close-knit,” “blue-collar” neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana. At four, he received a ukulele from his grandfather and learned the art of constructing his own chords. When his father was hired to manage a hotel in Monroe, Wisconsin, the family relocated. It was there, that Tommy got acquainted with a Wurlitzer jukebox, where the young boy became fascinated with pop tunes recorded by Elvis and Gene Vincent. Then, after a taste of Elvis on TV, Tommy begged his parents for his first guitar. His musical fate was sealed. In 1959, the family relocated again; this time to Niles, Michigan, where Tommy joined his first band. Although he was under the age of thirteen, the three-man group talked their way into their first gig at an American Legion Hall. Soon, Tommy doubled as a member of The Tornadoes and an eager employee at a local record shop. Eventually, the band, with a new line-up, cut their first record with the Snap Label, and, according to Tommy James: “we were officially the Shondells.” At this point in the memoir, things are moving along at a somewhat even keel. As readers, we can easily see the steps Tommy took to achieve his dream of being a successful musician. But the pace changes considerably when the ambitious musician is courted by the Roulette Label in New York City. Stunningly, the authors bring to light how mesmerized Tommy James became by the rapt attention and the aggressive actions of his newly-acquired mentors. Morris Levy, who is at the centre of the tsunami, is a quick-talking, father-like figure. His agenda is to develop a long-term, singular, business relationship with the still-innocent, small-town teen. As times goes on, James discovers that he has little control of his livelihood and that he’s dealing with less-than honorable partners. At the same time, James is put on a pedestal; the label is dedicated to promoting his songwriting, whereas, with a larger label, a new act might be shelved. True, Tommy had developed a knack for discovering and covering hits, like ‘Hanky Panky,’ prior to working with Roulette, but under their auspices, he recorded and stunned fans with originals, such as, the driving ‘Mony Mony’ and the dreamy, hippie anthem, ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion.’ The authors describe well Tommy’s feelings of conflict as he navigates his way through this unsettling career maze. At the same time, we learn a great deal about analogue studio work and the ever-changing practices of the American recording industry. At the core of this book, too, lies Tommy James: a vivid truth teller and man-of-action. Although his path has been frequently riddled with drama, he comes off, ultimately, as a savvy survivor who reinvents himself, when need be, and is, arguably, honoured by fans worldwide for his razor-sharp, musical contributions.

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